Russia’s horrific invasion of Ukraine has so far forced some two million people, including a million children, to flee the country, along with many others displaced inside Ukraine. The figures could be much larger than those of 2015 refugee crisis, in which families fleeing the civil war in Syria left for Hungary and other European countries. But in the current rush to help refugees, countries should learn from past responses. Above all, it is a chance for the Catholic Church of Hungary, whose government has vociferously opposed accepting refugees in the past, to correct its mixed record in the fight against xenophobia.
This is a chance for the Catholic Church in Hungary, whose government has vocally opposed accepting refugees in the past, to redress its mixed record in combating xenophobia.
In 2015, images of exhausted refugees locked in Budapest’s city center train station went viral. Budapest City Government claims he was following European Union law in preventing refugees from going to Germany, where they hoped ask for asylum. However, repeated scare campaigns by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who claimed that Germany’s liberal position on the acceptance of refugees caused the crisis, made it clear that the harsh treatment in Budapest was meant to be a signal that refugees were not welcome in Europe. Therefore, many have heard the words of Pope Francis on embrace diversity during his visit to Budapest last year as veiled criticism of The Hungarian government for not doing more to accommodate the poor and marginalized. Yet almost every hungarian bishop remained silent of the government’s decision to erect a anti-migrant barbed wire fence on its border with Serbia.
There are reports of ordinary Hungarian citizens going to the Ukrainian border with food, but Aiski Ryökäs of Hungary’s Migrant Solidarity Group urges people not to travel to crisis areas: “Professionals on the ground know what people need and they can quickly meet the needs of people in the need from local sources. Aid professionals who were on the ground in 2015 also warn of a repeat of the chaos that ensued when well-meaning activists from neighboring countries ended up hampering an effective response in Hungary. (For one thing, they can take up space in hotels, dormitories, and private homes that can accommodate refugees.) Donations to Caritas-Hungary from the Catholic Church, which coordinates with Caritas-Ukraine, will provide help for families at the border, many of whom wait a day or more to cross.
Many heard Pope Francis’ words about embracing diversity during his visit to Budapest last year as a veiled criticism of the Hungarian government for not doing more to accommodate the poor and marginalized.
The Hungarian government is now declaring a commitment to European and Catholic values on welcoming refugees, which has led Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to express hope that there will be a broader and lasting change in the treatment of displaced persons. But we shouldn’t be too quick to believe that things have changed: even reports on the refugee crisis can reflect a political agenda. Hungary’s right-wing government spent a decade buying media and forcing them to repeat its messages, and in the current crisis, he launched a new strategy to restore his image in the Western media.
Alex Faludy, a freelance Hungarian journalist, told me that the Hungarian government has invited freelance and permanent journalists with regular signatures in UK media outlets like The Spectator and the online magazine A herd individual interviews with high-level Hungarian officials. Efforts to woo opinion makers in Western Europe are already bearing fruit inflattering coverage of Hungary’s refugee aid and NATO commitment. But Zalán Zubor, a journalist who writes for the independent news site Átlátszó, revealed that Hungary’s state media continued to run stories falsely callingUkraine “aggressor” and even calling “Hungary to support the division of Ukraine”.
The international community should ensure that the Hungarian government continues to provide assistance to all refugees, regardless of their ethnic or religious background.
Alexis Okeowo, writing in The New Yorker, also pointed to the hypocrisy in Hungary’s rapidity in taking in refugees from a country perceived to be white and Christian and asked, “Will the war in Ukraine mean anything for the other refugee crisis in Europe – for refugees who don’t are not white, maybe not Christian, but who are also in need?” But those fleeing the fighting are not a monolith. The Roma minority in Ukraine, for example, is also to be moved in countries where Roma have often suffered racial discrimination.
So even if the Hungarian government provides much-needed help, the real test will come in the weeks and months to come. If the conflict continues and the refugees seek asylum in the countries where they have lived (as required by EU law), the international community should ensure that the Hungarian government continues to provide assistance, including administrative support for asylum applications, to all refugees, regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliation.
It also means that Hungary should ensure the material well-being of Roma refugees, as well as their fundamental right to religious and cultural recognition while they live in the country. Catholics can hold the Hungarian Church responsible for the promises it made to translate the mass into the Roma language and responding to the needs of the Roma community, especially after Pope Francis’ call for revolutionary action in 2019 to address racism against this community.
The world discovers that Ukraine reflects the whole region of Eastern Europe in its ethnic and religious diversity, including a large international population. Catholics should follow Pope Francis’ example in urging the Catholic Church in the region to do everything in its power to celebrate diversity and foster acceptance.