Whither the Refugees, W(h)ither Europe?

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Refugees at the de facto refugee camp at Budapest’s Keleti train station. Photo credit: Richard Esbenshade

Since I arrived in Hungary in early summer, the media, and everyday conversations, were filled with the refugee crisis. From the dangerous boat crossings from Libya to Europe’s Mediterranean island outposts such as Lampedusa, Italy, the main flow had shifted to somewhat less dangerous crossings from Turkey to Greek islands, followed by a ferry ride to the mainland, and the land journey up through the Balkan peninsula to the Serbian-Hungarian border. A precipitous drop in UN aid to refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey also caused a sharp upsurge in numbers of Syrians seeking to make their way to Europe. Haggard sojourners from all parts of the Middle East and beyond became a common sight in Budapest, and the underground plaza adjoining the main Keleti train station became a makeshift refugee camp for groups of young men and many families.

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“Billboard put up by the opposition ‘Hungarian Two-Tailed Dogs’ Party'”

The Hungarian government’s first reaction was to incorporate the issue into its ongoing propaganda campaign under the rubric of “national consultation.” In rhetoric reminiscent of Donald Trump’s, citizens were warned against criminals and terrorists swamping the borders, taking Hungarians’ jobs and threatening their well-being and identity. Official billboards went up exhorting the refugees, in Hungarian, “If you come to Hungary, you have to follow our laws” and “You have to respect our culture” and “ You can’t take Hungarians’ work.” Given that no refugee could read them, they were obviously put up for political rather than instructional purposes. Many of the billboards were defaced or altered by opponents of the government, and the absurdist “Two-tailed Dogs’ Party” even collected enough funds to mount a counter-campaign, featuring identical-looking billboards stating “If you come to Hungary, you have to wait until someone leaves, so we stay the same number,” “If you come to Hungary, couldn’t you bring a reasonable prime minister?” and, on a less sarcastic note (and in English), “W   e love immigrants!”

These “billboard wars” were telling, both because they revealed an undercurrent of resistance, and, depressingly, because the fearful and self-absorbed official slogans resonated far more widely among the general population (which reelected the ruling party by a wide margin in 2014). It is here that the effects of over forty years of Communist rule—and centuries of independence struggles before that—become manifest. Most Hungarians feel themselves part of a noble nation that has been suppressed and downtrodden throughout history. Soviet domination after 1948 continued that pattern, while also enforcing a taboo on expressing and taking pride in national identity. Refugees from war-torn countries threaten Hungarians’ hard-earned sense of victimhood, and visions of the loss of sovereignty and culture surface immediately at any crisis. And, like other eastern Europeans, they still are much poorer than their western counterparts, despite supposed European integration, and feel unable to make further sacrifices to accommodate others, no matter how desperate their situation.

At the same time, this perhaps understandable attitude covers up a major disconnect: practically every Hungarian has a family or other connection to the 200,000 of their countrypeople who fled after the Soviet invasion that suppressed the popular uprising of 1956. Usually walking and with just what they could carry, and once across the border dependent on the kindness of others, these forbears were not so different from the current wave, except for their religion and skin color. And the recent economic crisis, coupled with poor economic management, has pushed another 500,000, mostly young and educated, Hungarian citizens towards the more prosperous parts of the European Union (EU). London, with 300,000 of them, mostly waiting tables or doing construction, is now the second-biggest Hungarian city after Budapest.

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“Refugees and the temporary fence–to be replaced by a stronger,permanent one–at the Hungarian-Serbian border”

On July 6, the Parliament approved the construction of a fence along the southern border with Serbia (it is currently being extended to the border with Croatia). This was followed in September by the deployment of the army to try to seal the country off from the onslaught. But this hard-line strategy cleverly takes advantage of several complications of EU laws and policies. EU law makes a sharp distinction between refugees, who are fleeing political persecution or war and must be accepted, and “economic migrants,” who are “merely” seeking a better life, and have no inherent right to stay. The case of the Syrians seems clear—and their ability to pay thousands of Euros to smugglers proves they were citizens with means and positions and not penniless beggars—but they make up less than half of the flow. The cases of others—Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis—may be less straightforward. EU rules call for potential refugees to stay in the first EU country they enter to await a decision on their application; in this case that would be Greece, which however is in near economic collapse due to the debt crisis, and has been facilitating their passage northwards without registering them. In addition, Hungary contends that Serbia, though not an EU member, likewise counts as a “safe country,” where Syrians and others could have respite from the violence and persecution that they fled.

The fact of the matter is that hardly a single refugee is willing to stay in Greece, or Serbia, or Hungary. All want to continue north to their promised land, whether Scandinavia, Great Britain or, in the majority of cases, Germany. When I visited the Keleti station in late August, I talked to Hassan, who wanted to go to England, and Taboor, who favored Spain, both Pakistani, but, understandably, neither was very forthcoming about their reasons for fleeing or the route they had taken (nor did they speak more than a few words of English). In what is roundly called Europe’s worst refugee crisis since the aftermath of World War II, when many millions were on the move due to Nazi depredations and the devastation wraught by German-spawned war, the sight of crowds of refugees, prevented from traveling further, chanting “Germany! Germany!” as they took over the main highway leading west from Budapest shows history’s sharp sense of irony.

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“Refugees in front of Budapest’s Keleti station at the beginning of September protest their being closed off from the station and further travel”

I also met two middle-aged Hungarian women at the station, Judit and Ágnes, who had spent every day for the past several weeks there distributing hand-me-down clothes, food and blankets. They seemed to have bonded with the mostly young men in that part of the plaza, despite the lack of any common language, and told me that when they saw all the suffering, they had to help. But when I asked them about the border fence being constructed, they expressed unequivocal support for it, since “they shouldn’t come illegally.” They also wondered why the refugees “didn’t just go to Africa, or Dubai,” where they could be with people “more like them.” Many Budapest residents have rallied to try to help alleviate the suffering, either through organizations like Migration Aid that have sprung up, or on their own. But the inconsistent ideas I discovered on the part of these Hungarian women showed how far the population is from developing a coherent, and fully empathetic, perspective.

The government’s inept and often brutal handling of the crisis has caused Hungary’s international reputation to suffer greatly. The September 22 EU decision to distribute refugees according to a mandatory quota for each member country was taken against the strenuous objection of the Hungarian government, joined by Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Romania. These former communist countries, also motivated by their historical identities as “defenders of Christendom,” along the frontier with the Islamic Ottoman Empire, have said they are willing to take on Christian refugees only. This seemingly callous, almost ludicrous stance paints the eastern Europeans as still lagging in terms of compassion and a “European approach.” But the latest diktat from the EU is also an example of what is often referred to as the “democratic deficit.” Policies based on an idealized, West-centered, ahistorical version of what it means to be European are decreed without any attempt to meet citizens’ fears and frustrations on their own terms. As with the debt crisis, the gaps between North and South, West and East are papered over. “Fringe” Europeans are accused of nationalism and right-wing extremism that has no place in the new Europe. This is the kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that threatens not just the newer EU members’ attachment to the Union, but that of all of its citizens—not to mention the future ones being generated by the thousands every day in the Middle East and beyond.

About Richard Esbenshade

12-year resident of Urbana, taught history for several years at UIUC, specializing in Eastern Europe; contract not renewed due to budget cuts, currently self-employed; longtime activist in peace/green/social justice/solidarity movements; father of two, including Public i alumna Shara.

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