In the middle of one of the more affluent areas in the Hungarian Buda hills, a spacious, yellow villa houses some 50 Roma refugees from Ukraine, primarily women and children. They are from the once-Hungarian Transcarpathia in western Ukraine, where many ethnic Hungarians still live. The building used to be a nursing home until it transformed into a refugee shelter in just 30 hours. A new building for the elderly had been selected; the influx of refugees forced them to move to their new home faster. Now, with toys lying around and the almost constant noise of children, its old purpose is barely recognisable.
In the cellar of a neighbouring church, 32 children in four different groups, ranging from nursery to high school, learn to write, read, count, as well as speak English, or play. The volunteer teachers and social workers are a part of Zugligeti Béke Tanoda (Zugliget Peace School), an education facility for refugees. The place is dark but clean. Some classrooms are small, with one table in the middle and a board by the door. The room assigned for the smallest children, however, is airy and has a makeshift stage. The teacher’s room, the tiniest, is stocked with books for various levels and colourful pencils.
“Roma people have faced hardship in their whole lives,” founder Szilvia Moldován Vass highlights. On average, they live in much poorer households, often residing in segregated, impoverished areas. They suffer discrimination in education, healthcare and the job market. One difficulty the Roma community faces now is that most housing only accepts families of a few people, while Roma people often travel in extended families with multiple generations. “The Hungarian community isn’t prepared for intercultural communication. A society where solidarity has been pushed back for years won’t tolerate another group,” Moldován Vass says, referring to Hungary’s years-long anti-migration policy.
The school will be open until June, which was always their intention. They formed quickly in response to the emergency but do not have the resources to carry over past summer. Szilvia hopes the government will then take over the work. She acknowledges that it will not be an easy job: “Where will we integrate a 14-year-old who can’t read? Who can they turn to, on what level, with what kind of books? These are brutal questions, for which Hungary is not prepared.”
While we speak, a group of women enter the villa. They are dressed in comfortable clothes and carry big shopping bags. They have come from grocery shopping—it is the first time they have dared go out in weeks. They are quiet, suspicious when answering questions from a journalist, and smile shyly. They speak Hungarian, but many cannot read Latin letters, do not know how to use public transportation or do paperwork.
The children are in the playground next door. It is the bliss of an upmarket area: many Japanese and American children live in the area, with whom the Roma, Hungarian, and Ukrainian kids play peacefully. Once back inside the villa, the children ask volunteer Ágnes Pletscner to sing along with a song about a clock—she taught them the lyrics. “The government doesn’t help Roma people even if they aren’t refugees,” she says. Pletscner is an expert, previously taking part in projects improving the education of Roma children.
“It’s hard for me to talk about this. Not because I’m not used to talking about it, but because I realise how much we don’t have a plan whenever I talk about this. Not for the short term, not for the medium or long term,” she says.
Between passion and frustration
On the streets of Budapest a billboard shows Péter Márki-Zay, the candidate for prime minister of the joint opposition, with a slogan next to his head: “Péter Márki-Zay would let the migrants in.” The message acquired a new meaning in February 2022, when millions of Ukrainian refugees crossed their country’s borders with Poland, Moldova and Hungary.
Leading up to the 2022 parliamentary elections on 3 April, the Hungarian government played a tricky game: they accused Márki-Zay of allowing “illegal migrants” into the country while priding themselves on helping refugees fleeing Ukraine. Prime minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party won the majority vote with over two-thirds of the seats in the Parliament.
However, according to NGOs and civil organisations, the government is not doing enough to actually help Ukrainian refugees, leaving a hefty chunk of the work to volunteers, private donations, and already underpaid social workers and teachers.
University student Emma Lőrincz started by bringing food to the train station at the beginning of the crisis. Now, she is among those who spend their days in the BOK sports hall, a stadium lined with black-and-white pictures of the most famous Hungarian sportspeople.
The government opened a centre for refugees in the sports hall three weeks after the start of the war in Ukraine. It now features an information desk, a food corner, ticket offices for the railway, waiting rooms in cordoned-off areas, a kid’s corner, and even camp beds hidden behind a curtain.
Multiple organisations and institutions work here. Some are tied to the government—like the police and the military—others are civil society organisations that were previously welcoming refugees at the stations when government support was still lacking.
Volunteers agree that since the government took the initiative to open BOK, there have been improvements in how refugees are welcomed. The government operates with more resources and can hire professionals instead of volunteers. But the system also lost some of its flexibility, which previously allowed a wide variety of people to receive specific aid. “There is a huge variety of people arriving, and you have to handle it on a micro-level. Most of our time is spent resolving chaos,” volunteer Emma Lőrincz says. While some families want to stay in Hungary, some want to leave as soon as they arrive. Some need specific support because of the elderly family members or infants they have with them. The system set up by the government is not able to meet all of these needs.
Instead of using official channels, refugees have to find information about issues such as border crossings through informal Facebook groups. “It’s great that there are civil actions like this, but the fact that there’s no centralised information is a serious problem,” Lőrincz adds. Hungary does not have a website for those travelling through the country or settling there for the time being—information that needs to be accessible in multiple languages.
Refugees often have to inquire multiple times, receiving contradictory answers. Some families with train tickets to Austria or Switzerland have witnessed the confusion in real-time. At the Hungarian border, they were told to stay on the train until they arrived at their destination, but near Budapest, police ordered them to disembark and go to BOK. Only to return to the station for a later train, adding time and stress to their already long journey. According to Lőrincz, many people get lost or make unnecessary rounds in the system.
The risk of shut-downs
Many organisations and volunteers fear the sustainability of today’s aid for refugees. Migration Aid is one of the most well-known NGOs in the country, founded in 2015. Their shelter, just 15 minutes away from BOK, offers 64 rooms and can host up to 240 people who want to stay a few nights.
Working with other organisations, they serve warm food at least once a day, and plenty of snacks are received as donations—Kinder Eggs and non-spicy instant chicken soup being the most popular. They also provide Covid testing, medicine, and washing facilities. Migration Aid have initially rented the building for one month but will most likely have to extend the initial contract.
“The situation will evolve at some point,” says Márton Elődi, a volunteer with Migration Aid and the acting manager of the shelter. “We will have to host more people who want to stay long-term.” According to Elődi, the Hungarian government does not show any initiative to solve the problem. Even worse, its track record has made them entirely unfit to respond to the crisis.
When thousands of refugees fled from conflicts and wars in the Middle East and Africa in 2015, the Fidesz government formed “transit zones”. Migrants and refugees sometimes spent years in the essentially closed camps—the nature of their placement and the conditions in the camps were found to be in breach of EU law by the European Court of Human Rights. Families, often with multiple children, slept in containers and spent their days in fenced-off areas, covered in white rocks. They often spent more than a year in this state—the only contact with the outside world through their smartphones.
Civil society organisations and even human rights groups were systematically shut out from the transit zones. Many are now worried about being slowly expelled from the sports hall, especially after the election.
The most vulnerable
After the decision of the European Court, Hungary closed down the transit zones and let the open camps break down. Until the war in Ukraine, they did not let refugees into the country, performing at least 5,000 illegal, and sometimes lethal, pushbacks into Serbia. “The now-closed and abandoned camps cannot house more than a couple of hundred people,” the Hungarian Helsinki Committee warned in the first week of the war.
The lack of government-regulated housing facilities puts a strain on Hungarian society. Volunteer-led organisations at the BOK sports hall look for free housing and give lifts to hotel and property owners who volunteer to house families. While most do it with the best intentions, the unregulated help puts people on the move in a vulnerable position. In one case, a man who volunteered to house a young woman in Budapest reportedly got naked and started masturbating next to her. The assault was reported to the police, and the woman was offered a new place to stay.
Experts underscore the vulnerable state of refugees. They might fall prey to human traffickers or get mugged by people offering a ride or accommodation. Unfortunately, some Ukrainians simply disappear on their journey, especially children, according to activists at the border. Those who make it to safety will also face hardship.
Non-white and LGBTQ+ people are especially vulnerable. Among the refugees fleeing Ukraine were people of African origin. When they arrived in Hungary, an anti-racism shelter opened in a church near the railway stations. It functions as a meeting space for non-Ukrainian nationals fleeing the war, but can also house and feed people. Most of them do not want to stay in Hungary, which has shown its racist tendencies in the treatment of Middle-Eastern refugees since 2015, and in the infamous racist abuse Hungarian football fans aimed at England players in the World Cup qualifier games in summer 2021.
Budapest Pride also set up aid, housing and meet-ups for queer people coming from Ukraine. In recent years, the Fidesz government has implemented multiple homophobic and transphobic laws, outlawing “content in schools deemed to promote homosexuality and gender-nonconformity” and the legal recognition of trans people. When campaigning for his 2022 re-election, Orban cast himself as the defender of traditional Hungarian values against “LGBT ideology”—fearmongering and inciting hatred. Budapest Pride now offers short and mid-term accommodation, food, psychological counselling, and legal aid while also helping people move west.
Just the fact that these two initiatives exist is telling. While, for some organisations and refugees, more government-led help could save resources and time, others deliberately set up their own programmes to do the one thing only civil society can do here: help those left behind by the government. Thanks to them, refugees from all backgrounds can stay in or travel through Hungary in relative safety—who knows what would happen without them?