AN UPDATE FROM HUNGARY
I recently went back to Budapest, Hungary (where I lived for two years as a Global Mission Intern with the Reformed Church in Hungary) for a 10-day holiday and was amazed and horrified at all the challenges facing my former coworkers in the field of refugee integration. In this post, I’ll attempt to break it down. The situation in Hungary regarding human migration was already deteriorating quickly during my time there, but in the six months since I left things have become even more critical.
1) Kalunba’s EU-funded housing program comes to an end on June 30th, 2018 (just over a month away) and the Hungarian government is not letting any organizations reapply for more EU funds. They do not know what will happen to the families they currently house.
Kalunba currently has 18 staff members (social workers, translators, language teachers, administrators) and 20 volunteers (both international and Hungarian, providing a variety of services). There are approximately 140 beneficiaries in 36 apartments in Kalunba’s EU-funded housing program. The funding for this program will finish at the end of June, at which point families will need to pay for their own housing – a challenge for many. (Funding for Hungarian language courses has also run out and cannot be reapplied for at this time, so beneficiaries will have to pay for language lessons as well if they wish to continue learning.)
So far, 10 to 15 of the apartments will allow individuals to stay in the location and continue the lease without the support of Kalunba, but most landlords are nervous about having foreign families living in their building without the assurance of the church-affiliated nonprofit on the lease with them.
With the program coming to an end, for those properties where the landlords will not let people stay in their apartments, new apartments are sought for the self-sustaining clients. For those who are not able to stand on their own feet just yet, homeless and refugee shelters have been contacted. The only problem is that they are all operating at full capacity already, so all of the places where these people could go on a temporary basis are full.
Some people have told Kalunba staff that when the program ends this summer they will travel to other nations in Europe where they have friends or family and stay with them for as long as they can. Many of these people have been helped by Kalunba for years, investing time and energy in their life in Budapest. If they pack up and leave now, they will loose everything that has been invested in them and will need to start fresh from the beginning in their new country. This will obviously increase the time it takes them to integrate into life in Europe, feeding into the conservative (and incorrect) narrative that foreigners from the Middle East or Africa cannot adjust to life in Europe, and so they should not be allowed in.
2) This is happening because the Hungarian government was embarrassed politically after a meeting in Malta.
Earlier in the year, at a meeting in Malta, the Hungarian Deputy State Secretary mentioned that the government took in 1,294 refugees in 2017 (the exact number that the EU resettlement quota said they should take in, even though the government paid and rolled out a whole communication campaign against the EU and it’s quota system, going so far as to have a referendum as well..).
The opposition parties jumped on this – that the governing party outwardly takes a hard line, wastes all this money on billboards and communication strategies, but then still takes in refugees and helps their integration through these organizations funded by the EU and the government.
The government was embarrassed and, due to political pressure from the opposition groups, they decided to withdraw new calls for EU grants across the board.
The EU projects are funded 75% by the EU and then 25% by the local country, and the Hungarian government has cut these programs across the board and will not even let organizations apply.
3) Money from the EU has even been rerouted in recent years and is now harder to get ahold of.
Most of the EU funding to Hungary has been rerouted and is now distributed through the Prime Minister’s Office, where he has a direct hand in who gets what and how much. For now, migration funds are distributed from a different office in the Ministry of Interior, but people on the ground in Budapest wonder how long that will hold true. It seems to be a matter of time before the migration funds are also controlled by the PM.
4) Kalunba, and others in the field, hope that this financial holdup is temporary – but they worry about the constant insecurity that this way of funding impacts the work they are able to do.
Kalunba, and other organizations, think that the government wants to mess with NGO’s and organizations in the country by withholding funding – they think that the government is trying to make them squirm. The hope is that groups will be able to find emergency gap funding to get them through the summer and then funds will eventually be released in fall or early winter.
The current scope of activities at Kalunba is too large for international church partners to cover in a meaningful way, so they organization is currently looking to switch to alternative methods of funding that are not so dependent on EU and government funds – such as for-profit Hungarian language lessons, a guesthouse apartment downstairs for foreigner visitors to stay in, and the idea of a community farm. All of these ideas seek to make the nonprofit financially more self-sufficient, but will take time to actually get up and running. EU and special project funding will always be needed, but the hope is that eventually the organization will be less dependent on outside financial sources for their work.
5) Refugees are still arriving in Hungary..
According to Kalunba staff, people are regularly returning to Hungary from Western Europe either voluntarily or forcibly by authorities. Approximately five new people per week pop up in the center who just returned to Hungary and need to start their lives over again. These people tend to come to Budapest and get assistance from Kalunba.
In addition to those sent back, a slow trickle of people is also coming through Hungary’s southern boarder with Serbia via the Balkan route. 100% of new arrivals recognized at the Hungarian-Serbian boarder transit zone (in the south) are moved to a new facility located directly next to the Hungarian-Slovakian boarder (in the north). These people usually stay one week at the facility and then they disappear into the rest of Europe – they don’t even come to Budapest anymore. These people are merely entering Hungary and then being sent to the north where they run off to Western Europe, which makes this is a larger issue for the continent that people legally recognized in Hungary do not want to stay and would rather take their chances living illegally in other European nations. It is worrying not only that this is happening, but that Hungary is actively encouraging it.
6) The new session of Parliament began May 8, and first on the agenda was something the government calls the “Stop Soros” law – targeting organizations who receive funding from abroad and especially those who help foreigners.
This legislation will target foundations and associations who support migration assistance of any kind (this would not directly target Kalunba, as it is not a foundation or association, but staff there worries that the law will expand and eventually affect them too – it’s just a matter of time).
Under this new law, foundations and associations would apply for a license to do their work and the government would have 30 days to respond, though they can also give a 30 day extension if needed and then take another 30 days to debate the organization if they desire – a deliberately vague and long process meant to intimidate groups and make them feel unstable. Following this, the foundations and associations would report to the Ministry of Interior and would need to explain their mission to the government.
If an organization does not apply for this license, or applies but does not pass, the government will take their tax number, rendering them unable to legally function in Hungary. In addition, if an organization passes but receives funding (over a certain amount) from abroad, they will have to pay a 25% tax on all international money received – and this money will be used to fund the Hungarian boarder security. There are currently over 50,000 NGO’s in Hungary, and this legislation will affect many of them.
7) The organizations most affected by this new law will be ones with the means to fight the government on it – which may cause blowback for those smaller organizations who cannot afford it.
Kalunba has been quietly operating since 2014, supporting refugees and migrants with little fanfare but fantastic results. They worry that as political tensions rise and the government aims to shut down larger aid organizations, those that are fiery and have money and support will fight back. When this happens, there are worries as to how the government will respond; nobody knows how intense the retaliation will be or how it will affect Kalunba.
8) The air is thick with tension in Hungary – for refugees, staff, and volunteers. Nobody knows what the future will bring.. everything is uncertain.
In the midst of all these changes, beneficiaries and staff at many organizations are worried. The atmosphere is stressful.
At Kalunba, beneficiaries stress over the lack of free language classes and worries about where they will live – they do not know how they will pay for lessons, but they also cannot afford to stop learning the language of their new nation or else they will never get a job to afford their rent.
Contracts for most staff members end at the end of June and they do not know what they will do for work when this job ends, yet they still come in everyday and support the families and individuals that they work with to the best of their ability. Nobody knows how things will work out, but all are dedicated to the job.
My former coworkers and beneficiaries in Budapest welcomed me back with open arms and huge smiles. They were eager to share life updates with me and tell me all that has happened since I left. Having a full 10 days to spend with them and get caught up on the current situation there was critical – reading the news from abroad is very different than being on the ground and speaking to people about how these rapid developments are affecting their lives.
Join me in sending love, light, prayers, good vibes, and whatever else you can to those spectacular souls struggling to do this work in Hungary. My two years there were surely tense, but this is on a whole other level.