Ukraine, Hungarian Refugee Politics, and the Future of Migrants in the EU

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The Madridi Street refugee center. Ahmid and Mustafa are at right. Photo by author

The February 24, 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine unleashed, in addition to death, destruction, and hardship on the Ukrainian people as a whole, a wave of refugees not seen in Europe since World War II. Over six million Ukrainians were living outside the country as of July, in addition to over five million internally displaced: refugees within the national borders. Ukrainians fleeing armed conflict, occupation, random bombardments of apartment buildings and other civilian sites, and/or just the constant fear and uncertainty have been by and large warmly received, with both supportive legal and economic measures by the European Union (EU) and member states; and massive civilian efforts to provide aid and comfort. Many observers have noted a stark contrast with uneven attitudes and support toward other refugees—from war, economic collapse, and climate change—from the Global South, charging a “double standard” based on racial and religious prejudice. With no end of the war in Ukraine in sight, will a long-term refugee presence lead to a more accepting attitude in general? Or will a two-tier system take hold, welcoming European refugees while hardening against those from the South? Will “refugee fatigue” set in, leading to widespread resentment against both and a rise in support for xenophobic right-wing parties?

The case of Hungary is complicated by several unique contexts, but at the same time provides a window on what refugee politics could become across the European Union. After years of constant chauvinistic anti-immigrant propaganda by Viktor Orbán’s nationalist government (see my article in the November 2016 Public i), both government and civilian Hungary behaved admirably in welcoming the millions who streamed over the border—the vast majority of whom continued on to points further west—in the weeks after the invasion. Some 50,000 Ukrainian refugees are currently living in Hungary under temporary protection status, which is given more or less automatically, and provides financial support and other benefits. This is per capita among the lowest numbers in the EU; this can in large part be chalked up to Hungary’s relatively low standard of living and language factors—not only is knowledge of English and other major European languages low in Hungary, but Hungarian (unlike Polish, Czech, Slovak, and other regional languages) is not related to Ukrainian and thus fairly impenetrable. Many Hungarians have volunteered for aid organizations, provided housing, or donated money or supplies.

But politics and identity questions have complicated things. First of all, Orbán’s longstanding transactional relationship with—and seeming personal affinity for—Russian leader Vladimir Putin has led to Hungary constituting the “weakest link” in EU support for Ukraine’s resistance to Russian aggression. Hungary has vetoed some EU sanctions against Russia, refused to aid Ukraine militarily, resisted participating in NATO preparations and aid programs, and hindered EU loans to Ukraine. Orbán has positioned himself as the potential leader of a “pro-peace” faction within the EU, a stance mirrored in his government’s messaging to Hungarians: placing ads and billboards advocating peace—without acknowledging Russian responsibility for the destruction and misery, or that a forced peace would validate Putin’s aggression. His reelection campaign last spring, just weeks into the war—which succeeded in winning a new four-year term, his fourth victory in succession—leaned heavily on a promise to keep Hungary out of the conflict, while (falsely) painting the opposition as eager to bring it closer.

The ethnic Hungarian minority in Transcarpathia, once part of Hungary but forming the westernmost tip of Ukraine (thus now furthest from the front lines—and said to be the safest part of the country) since 1945, has long been a flashpoint between the two countries. The Hungarians—around 150,000-strong at the last census in 2001, but now shrunk to as little as half that, not only because of the war—have complained that their language, culture, and historical memory are being suppressed, claims vigorously supported in recent years by the Hungarian government. Orbán, contravening Ukrainian law against dual citizenship, has given ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine (alongside many more in other neighboring countries, especially Romania) the right to Hungarian citizenship and passports—counting on their votes to help keep him in power. Many ethnic Hungarian men of military age have fled the Ukrainian draft for Hungary, although an estimated 300 are fighting at the front.

The western Ukrainian province of Transcarpathia was long part of Hungary

Thousands of the estimated 30–40,000 mostly Hungarian-speaking Transcarpathian Roma have also taken refuge in Hungary, but centuries of discrimination and poverty on both sides of the border (and across the region) mean they arrive in an even more vulnerable position. This is exacerbated by their ineligibility for aid given to non-Hungarian Ukrainian refugees, due to their widespread possession of Hungarian passports, which puts them in worse conditions than either ethnic Ukrainians or non-Roma Hungarians.

Orbán recently announced that he would no longer support Ukraine in any way until its government “restores language rights” to its ethnic Hungarians. He has been able to both use Hungary’s utility as a transit route for many of the millions of Ukrainian refugees to mitigate EU financial punishment for violations of rule-of-law and media-freedom principles—and his foot-dragging on other support of Ukraine gives him further leverage in Brussels—and to take advantage of the Transcarpathia situation to burnish his nationalist credentials at home.

In late September I went to the Madridi Street Ukrainian refugee center in a somewhat run-down, quasi-industrial neighborhood of Budapest. (Opened a year ago, its closure for lack of funding had already been announced when it was saved by a last-minute donation in June.) I met Ahmid, from southern India, who had begun studying medicine in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv in 2017. He fled the city for Hungary with his pregnant Ukrainian wife in the aftermath of the invasion; they had since, upon the bombardment and immediate danger subsiding, returned to her parents there, so she could give birth at home. He was back to renew his residence permit, which he kept as a safety valve in case things got bad again. Mustafa, from Turkey, was working in aviation in Ukraine, but would have had to go to the front to continue; he had managed to gain employment at the Budapest airport. Both were aware of the government’s anti-migrant propaganda, but felt it hadn’t affected their treatment, and praised Hungarians for their support.

As Prime Minister Orbán was greeting the first Ukrainian refugees at photo-ops last year, refugees from Morocco and Afghanistan were being beaten and pushed back into Serbia by Hungarian border guards. Refugees in Hungary, whether ethnic Ukrainian or “other,” whether fleeing that war or from elsewhere, have experienced both comfort—as Ahmid and Mustafa—and hostility, from both the government and the population. It is the fragility of their situation that remains; there are already signs of the waning of popular support for Ukraine and Ukrainians, both in Hungary and across the EU. The support of Orbán, who has long cultivated the habit of weaponizing the migrant issue for his own benefit, is fickle at best. The February, 2022 outbreak of unity of Europeans East and West in solidarity with Ukraine has not been accompanied by any long-term dialogue about the possibility and role of migration in Europe’s future—as an aging crisis and labor shortages loom and thousands continue to drown in the Mediterranean or are brutalized at or over land borders.

A subsequent article will examine refugee politics in the rest of Eastern Europe and in the EU.

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About Richard Esbenshade

22-year resident of Urbana, taught history for several years at UIUC, specializing in Eastern Europe; longtime activist in peace/green/social justice/solidarity movements; father of two, including Public i alumna Shara.
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