Hope for Syrian Refugees in Hungary
At the Röszke migrant detention center in Hungary on the Serbian border, an eight-year-old child pushed against his neighbor to leap into the air and catch a flying sandwich with his outstretched right hand. He then vanished into the quicksand of young men surrounding him. Among a sea of refugees swept with hunger and fear, five Hungarian men stood with broad shoulders wearing dark blue uniforms and pale medical masks. They dipped their gloved hands into a shallow bag and tossed one more sandwich into the crowd.
[pullquote align=right] “They throw water at us and you have to scramble for it like an animal.”
[/pullquote]A Hungarian activist captured this video of Hungarian police officers’ treatment of refugees and shared the video with CNN, who aired the video on Friday, September 11, 2015. Accompanying the video, CNN shared interviews with a variety of Syrian refugees who testified that their treatment was inhumane and insufferable. “It’s a prison and it’s surrounded by guards,” one refugee said. “They throw water at us and you have to scramble for it like an animal.”
Human Rights Watch issued a scathing report of Hungarian treatment of refugees. “The detainees at Röszke are held in filthy, overcrowded conditions, hungry, and lacking medical care,” said Peter Bouckaert, Emergencies Director at Human Rights Watch. “The Hungarian authorities have an obligation to ensure that migrants and asylum seekers are held in humane conditions and that their rights are respected.”
The Hungarian government’s mistreatment of refugees seeking asylum is no secret. For individuals living in Hungary, everybody is talking about it, the topic is tense and people are distraughtly searching for answers.
[pullquote align=left] Countless inspiring young adults are working to change a flawed system.
[/pullquote]Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán recently justified his harsh policies toward migrants and asylum seekers by claiming that he is “defending Europe’s Christian culture” from Muslims. Beginning September 15, Hungary has implemented much tougher immigration laws and raced to construct a 3.5-meter high fence along its border with Serbia by early October.
“I don’t know what to say,” she, a young Hungarian woman who would rather not be named, sighed. “I have been on site at the train station to help and my workplace, Central European University, is also organizing things. I feel hopeless about it and the worst part is that I can’t understand people with no empathy.”
Countless inspiring young adults are working to change a flawed system. These individuals, however, face a long history of exclusion, victimization and pessimism to fight against.
[pullquote align=right] The average bystander watches and approves of the manipulative government’s behavior.
[/pullquote]The gross mistreatment of incoming refugees seeking asylum bears overarching comparisons to the historical maltreatment of other minorities, particularly Jews and Roma during World War II. Until March 1945, Hungary was a German ally and thus an ally in the Holocaust. However, to this day, the Hungarian government denies its role and fails to integrate traumatized communities into its society and culture. During the summer of 2014, the Hungarian government erected a monument in Szabadság Ter, or Liberty Square, that claimed Hungary’s innocence in the Holocaust despite the nearly 500,000 Jews and Roma shipped to concentration camps during the war.
Two similarities between treatment of minorities then and treatment of minorities now strike me. The first is the most worrisome. The average bystander watches and approves of the manipulative government’s behavior. By the time of the Holocaust, anti-Jewish and anti-minority laws had been accumulating in Hungary for close to twenty years. The famous Martin Niemöller poem explains that group by group, members of society were being taken away, but no one spoke up, until finally, no one was left to speak up for the writer when the Nazis came to his door.
[pullquote align=left] During WWII, and increasingly since, stories have surfaced of everyday heroes.
[/pullquote]Today, the average Hungarian and average international onlooker is not speaking up loud enough for refugee rights. Since the beginning of the year, the Hungarian government has engaged in an anti-immigrant campaign, which among billboards with messages in Hungarian like “If you come to Hungary, you shouldn’t take the jobs of Hungarians” included a questionnaire to eight million of its citizens that equated immigration with terrorism.
The inactive bystander is often the single factor that enables misguided institutions to succeed in harmful initiatives. Encouraging the average Hungarian to protest injustice is not an easy or likely task, but is an absolutely necessary one.
The second similarity is what I deem to be one of the only remedies to the rampant indifference: the individuals and groups who choose to make a difference.
During WWII, and increasingly since, stories have surfaced of everyday heroes. One person may have risked his or her life to create a handful of falsified documents that helped save the lives of one family of Jews. Another created a non-profit organization immediately after the war to assist Jews in their reintegration into society. These actions were uncommon, life threatening, and some might argue, negligible in their effect. I argue that these actions can reinstate someone like my anonymous friend’s faith in human nature, resilience, and a community’s capacity to survive.
[pullquote align=left] Kováts and Corbyn are not alone in their empathetic and action-oriented beliefs.
[/pullquote]The Budapest Beacon recently published an interview with András Kováts, Director of Shelter Foundation for Assisting Migrants, in which Kováts highlighted, “Refugees are leaving their homes because they cannot meet their basic needs. Shouldn’t those who see their children die of starvation and have no drinking water within a ten-kilometer range have the right to leave?”
Jeremy Corbyn, recently elected Labour Leader, in an address to activists gathered to support the refugees in Hungary, begged us to reflect on how desperate people have wound up in such desperate situations. Often, it is one of many consequences of war that the involved countries should be responsible to address. We are wasting human resources to deny future doctors, journalists, students, parents, government officials, teachers and engineers the human right to live long enough and with enough basic resources to explore these passions and skills.
[pullquote align=right] A myriad of volunteers and activists have illustrated in-person presence and support.
[/pullquote]Kováts and Corbyn are not alone in their empathetic and action-oriented beliefs. A variety of recently established electronic resources provide refugees in Hungary guidance, assistance and comfort. The SOS Refugee Send-A-Blanket GoFundMe campaign, for example, has so far raised nearly $11,200 online to distribute physical and emotional resources at Hungarian refugee registration sites. For Refugees in Hungary is a site that has also launched recently to provide concise, relevant updates regarding resources and transportation for refugees in Hungary.
A myriad of volunteers and activists have illustrated in-person presence and support, as well. On Saturday, September 12, thousands crowded outside Downing Street chanting and presenting signs that “#Refugees are welcome here!” The accompanying Facebook event declared (in translated English from Hungarian), “On 12 September 2015, whole Europe and the whole world will stand up as one for solidarity for a united action for refugees, for the concept of humanity and global unity. Let us show it together: demonstrate in front of the Keleti railway station, where historical events have taken place in the past weeks. Hungary has become the center of attention and place of dramatic happenings recently. The time has come for politicians and leaders of the world to listen to us, their people—we are fed up with the opposite.”
Though the leadership and institutions are setting ominous precedents, Hungarian progressive communities and activists maintain hope that change is possible and that those who are struggling are not alone.
[pullquote align=left] Hungarian progressive communities and activists maintain hope that those who are struggling are not alone.
[/pullquote]September 15, Orbán’s launch of his more restrictive immigration policies, is a turning point. The date may mark one more horrifying example of the Hungarian government’s dismissal of human rights. Or, the date may stand as an opportunity for progressive, active Budapest to prove through the Internet, social media, and solid in-person presence that smaller-scale campaigns and efforts can accumulate to impact individual lives and broader systems. These are the voices that need our attention. These are the efforts that need our support.
[icon-box icon=location size=32 width=4/5] Learn the latest about Syrian Refugees in Hungary at For Refugees in Hungary. Donate to help Hungarians care and welcome refugees at SOS Refugee Feed-A-Family.