PALPABLE TENSION IN HUNGARY
There has been palpable tension ever since I moved to Budapest – in the way people interact with me, the media campaigns that aim to instill fear in the hearts of citizens in regards to refugees and migrants, and the desire of the prime minister to make Hungary an “illiberal state.” Every day something new happens and honestly the situation changes so rapidly that I forget to write most of it down. Here, though, I’ll try to recap some of the main events that have occurred since I relocated to Budapest, Hungary in October 2015 in a two-part post (because there’s too much for just one!).
The political situation in Hungary, currently under the control of the Fidesz party, is tense – especially for refugees. Refugees have been coming through Hungary for many years, but this migration movement was not visible to the wider public until after the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, France. After this time, the government took a hard line on refugees and capitalized on the nation’s fear to enact harsh laws to keep refugees out. In a matter of just two years, so much has happened.
Building the fence along the border
The Hungarian government built a large fence along the Hungarian-Serbian border to keep people out of the country. It was pretty much finished in the fall of 2015, so when I arrived the affects of it were tangible. Upon completion of the fence, the Hungarian government declared that there were no more refugees in the country.
National Consultation about immigration (and terrorism)
Following the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January 2015, the government began to loudly connect migrants and refugees with terrorists; in all their communications, the two were linked. During my first year in Hungary, the government spent boatloads of money on a national consultation that included a communications campaign with advertisements all over the country, as well as a questionnaire sent out to every household in the nation. The mailer was sent from the Prime Minister and contained leading questions about how terrible immigrants/refugees/migrant/asylum seekers are (because in the government’s communications, they are all the same). The name of this expensive communication strategy? The National Consultation on Immigration and Terrorism. You can read more about it on the government’s official website, and even read their official English translation of the mailing that was sent out. It’s chilling.
Summer 2016 legal changes
In the April 1st laws, the Hungarian government implemented legal changes under a populist claim that those with official refugee status were equal to Hungarian citizens – and so they should receive the same treatment and use the same social services (of which there are basically none – social support in Hungary is dismal). The biggest blow to refugees and organizations involved in supporting refugees revolves around the newfound lack of integration support. Under this new legislation a multitude of things have changed, the most critical of which is that the current governmental integration support network (including a monthly stipend) was cancelled.
This monthly stipend of an average of 40,000 forints (approximately €130) that recognized refugees received covered vital things such as food and clothing for their family, as well as the utility bills for their housing in the city. These are critical daily needs are now no longer being met for those who have arrived in Hungary after April 1st, 2016. To make matters worse, the last year has seen a huge rise in the cost of home rentals in Budapest.
This has made for an emergency situation for Kalunba and the vulnerable population that it serves for two reasons. Firstly, the lives of Kalunba’s clientele are endangered due to a lack of funds – they no longer have access to healthy foods, basic toiletries, or even money for rent and utilities. Secondly, the vital services that the non-profit provides are now endangered because people cannot take advantage of the services owing to all the extra time and hours they must work at meager jobs in order to make ends meet. People must focus more on these immediate needs and less on the long-term picture of integration. This means that vital things like language skills are put on the back burner while people try to get their feet under them after arriving in Hungary.
For people still stuck in detention centers, the law also changed the minimum size dimensions of holding cells, making the legal size for men, women, and children smaller than in the past.
Closing of the camps
Permanent refugee camps in Hungary were closed down, and temporary shelters were set up for people near the borders of neighboring countries to encourage those in the area to leave Hungary. Two camps in Hungary had been around for many years, receiving annual funding from the EU for upgrades and repairs. Instead of using these camps to house the remaining people stuck in Hungary, the Hungarian government set up military tents in makeshift camps instead. The camps were also strategically placed near the Austrian border (among other places) to encourage the continued movement of people in the camps. This began pretty soon after I arrived and has continued. In the winter of 2017, the few people who made it into Hungary were still housed in these tents. In the beginning they were not even given heaters, but many NGO’s protested this and they were eventually brought in. Families were warmer, but the heaters then turned the dirt floors in the tents to mud from all the condensation and slush and also posed a fire risk. This was all done in an effort to encourage people to leave Hungary – the government makes it very clear that they do not want outsiders here.
European states stop returning asylum seekers to Hungary
Following these legal changes, and all the other things happening in Hungary over the last years, many nations in the EU have stopped deporting people back to Hungary. According to the Dublin Convention, nations can send asylum seekers back to the first European nation where they applied for protection. In this vein, all the people who filled out paperwork in Hungary in the summer of 2015 and then continued their journey on to Western Europe could technically be sent back to Hungary. Hungary of course doesn’t want this, and given the humanitarian and legal concerns here, many nations have also agreed that they don’t want to send people back. Even the UNHCR is urging the EU to suspend the return of asylum seekers to Hungary.
This has been part one – part two will come tomorrow! If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments or get in touch with me and I’ll do my best to answer them or give you more details!
WHEW. It’s a lot to keep track of and respond to, but that’s part of my work here in Budapest. The face of Kalunba and the services that it provides to beneficiaries have to constantly evolve to deal with these legal and social changes happening around them. In many cases this is extremely difficult because the funding that they apply for to do their work is done months in advance, so by the time the money from the EU (or another source) comes through, the situation can be completely different than what was anticipated.
It’s a constant challenge doing this work in Hungary. Prayers, good vibes, encouraging words, and anything else you want to send my way are always appreciated!