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15th Aug 2022

Hungary: Volunteers who help migrants turn anti-Orban

  • Many Hungarians have taken it upon themselves to offer help to migrants, as the government appears to sit on its hands (Photo: Eszter Zalan)

Helping migrants in Hungary has inadvertently become a political protest against prime minister Viktor Orban’s government for those outraged by the country's apparent inertia on dealing with the growing crisis.

A planned demonstration on Wednesday evening (2 September) in Budapest will protest against changes to immigration laws that critics say curb basic human rights.

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Hungary is experiencing a record number of refugees fleeing war and persecution from places like Syria and Afghanistan, with 150,400 migrants arriving so far this year.

The right-wing government has done little to provide basic services, but reacted to the influx of people with a series of anti-migrant billboards and has, just recently, completed a 175-kilometre razor-wire fence which runs along its southern border with Serbia to keep migrants out.

While big NGOs have steered clear of migrants, as the issue has become a political hot potato, outraged Hungarians have come together in grass-root movements, largely organised by social media to feed and clothe migrants, and help them to manoeuvre the asylum system in Hungary.

Migration Aid, a volunteer group founded in June, now has over 18,000 followers on Facebook and has a 100 to 150-strong core volunteer team, Zsuzsanna Zsohar, their spokesperson, told this website.

Other, smaller organisations are also active. Some even house jaded, desperate refugee families in their apartment, usually used to rent to tourists.

While most of the volunteers help for humanitarian reasons, it also gives a chance for them to vent their frustration with Orban’s government.

“Seventy percent of the people came here out of political outrage, basically as an anti-Orban protest,” said Marton Bisztrai, a volunteer at Refugees Welcome, an ad hoc group of a few dozen people, which has been giving out, among other basic supplies, clothes, toilet paper and babies' nappies to those in need.

They have also distributed meals three times a day to refugees since the beginning of summer.

Refugees Welcome started out distributing 180-200 portions of food a day, which subsequently soared to 500-600, and reached 1,000 last weekend. Ingredients come from donations which are then cooked for the homeless at a small community centre.

“Those who stayed on to help refugees are doing it from the heart, and they concentrate on helping, not on politics,” Bisztrai said, adding: “This movement unites people from different ideological backgrounds, this will not become a political power in its own right.”

Orban’s government has been in power since 2010, and up until this year ruled with a two-thirds majority that, along with a weak and divided opposition, critics say gave it carte blanche to remake Hungary in an authoritarian manner.

“I can’t really separate my political and humanitarian motives, but I am sure outraged by our government’s policy”, said Eszter Bruder, a garden designer, who has been volunteering for two months, as she stirs a giant pot of ayran, a cold yogurt beverage mixed with salt.

“How much money was spent on inciting hatred from the billboards to the fence?,” Bruder added, arguing that that it is not a lack of resources, but rather goodwill on the side of the Hungarian government that there is no basic help for migrants.

“Luckily the people are generous,” she adds, with a sigh.

Volunteers say the gratitude of migrants makes up for the contempt they are often faced with from fellow Hungarians.

“The fact that I’m coming here caused a conflict in my workplace and my family. They don’t understand,” said Iren Novak Nagy, who said she came to help out of her Christian conviction.

Volunteers going political

Though volunteer groups insist they want to steer clear of party politics, planned amendments to several laws caused Migration Aid to call for a protest on Wednesday evening.

“Now it is time to speak up,” they announced in their call for the demonstration adding, “today’s crisis is the result of the government’s manipulative measures and their obvious lack of a strategic approach toward the problem.”

Organisers expect 6,000 people to protest against what Zsohar called, the “criminalisation of refugees”.

The planned amendments that could be voted on already this week make it possible for police to enter any private home in case of “crisis due to mass migration”, without a court order if migrants suspected to be housed there.

The changes envisage prison sentence and expulsion from Hungary for anybody who climbs through, or damage the border fence, people most likely to be asylum-seekers.

It would also make it possible for the army to use firearms in case of handling incidents with regards to mass migration.

An EU source said European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker will raise the issue of these amendments with Orban on his visit to Brussels on Thursday.

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