It feels like Hungary has become the black sheep of the European family over the last few weeks.
Newspaper headlines, news alerts and ugly images from TV stations, the homepages of websites and posts on social networks – many of them accompanied by press releases from the Hungarian government – document the plight of refugees stuck at railways stations in the Hungarian capital.
Others carry soundbites from refugees arriving in Austria or Germany saying how badly they were treated in Budapest. Only a few of these soundbites selected by news editors express gratitude for any solidarity shown by Hungary. Or, to be more precise, solidarity shown by the people of Hungary. By doing this they give a second meaning to what it feels like to be ‘Hungarian’ at the moment.
Aid agencies and volunteers have been present at the southern border of the country and in the capital from the very beginning of this human crisis. Migration Aid, The Red Cross, the Baptists, the Maltese – they have been assisting and coordinating support for the refugees. The Benedictine Ordet at Pannonhalma opened its abbey’s doors long before Pope Francis called on every religious community across Europe to offer sanctuary to migrant families.
To understand the situation one should know that these refugees are aiming to finish their journeys in different countries. For them Hungary is just a place they hope to transit through without stopping and without spending days there in a camp. But camp they must in state-run facilities with conditions so poor they set up their own camps that got support only from the volunteers, since the state authorities didn’t welcome their initiative.
But many of Hungary’s civilians did.
There are hundreds of stories in the Hungarian press about individuals making daily visits to these makeshift camps to deliver anything they believed a person in need would make use of. Others transferred money to help organisations or individuals cover their costs of supporting the migrants.
When the march of refugees that triggered some terrifying historical references started last Friday, these supporters followed and supplied the people on foot with food and water. Some left the packages on the pathway, others preferred to hand them out in person.
Others simply accompanied the march in the hope that their presence might dilute the absurdity of the situation.
There were Hungarian drivers too, offering the refugee families free lifts to Austria in spite of the fact that may count as human trafficking under Hungarian law. And it is true, there were some who jumped out their cars to shout abuse at those trying to help. For example, there was the driver of a luxury car who terrified a Syrian family so much that they thanked their helper and got out of her car.
But for that anecdote there is another one involving a luxury car, this one driven by rich young folks who handed out all the aid they could stuff into their 4-wheel-drive.
In such extraordinary circumstances defining policy will always be complicated for authorities but we all have the right to an opinion.
What’s much simpler is understanding what a hungry, tired, homeless human needs. For many of us it means we have to help no matter what, even if providing that help goes against government policy or even against the law.
These are the different sides to Hungary, the different sides to the Hungarian people. Just as in the “refugee-friendly” Germany, among those sympathetic Germans you find racists who set migration camps on fire, and just as in Austria, among those willing to help there are those who remain indifferent to the refugees’ situation.