On the outskirts of Budapest, three or four miles away from the mist-enveloped Danube and its surrounding manmade wonders, there is a monochrome, inelegant little sports centre. In ordinary times, the site is so bleak one wagers that Le Corbusier himself, that fanatical modernist, might have come away feeling surprisingly miffed at the lack of “aesthetic speculation.” Still less is anyone sensible likely to bother making the 20-minute journey downtown.
Except that this pocket of deprivation, in a city otherwise blessed with treasures, is now interesting for other reasons: it is home to the Hungarian capital’s largest ‘humanitarian transition centre.’ A pompous-sounding title, to be sure, but the technical jargon is in fact necessary. The centre was set up to deal with the huge influx of Ukrainian refugees into Hungary following the Russian invasion of their homeland on February 24th. But it is no refugee camp. Ukrainians are not housed here, which is just as well given the colourless, concrete, minimalist décor. The centre is instead used as a place to process the incoming refugees. They are registered at the front desk, given food, drink, and medical help (if they need it), and often—if they arrive in the evening with nowhere else to stay—a simple but perfectly clean bed for the night.
There is a children’s playing area, a set of Xboxes, and even—cheerfully enough—a place where the pets of fleeing Ukrainian families can be logged, fed, and otherwise cared for. According to Alexandra Szentkirályi, the government spokesperson showing us around the premises, the volunteers at the centre come across five cats or dogs for every 150 refugees. Some of the more maverick animal companions brought along by Ukrainians have included parrots, guinea pigs, and even on one occasion an albino rat. The average time spent by a refugee at this centre, Szentkirályi further informs us, is about six hours. Very few stay for more than one evening.
967,000 Ukrainians have travelled through Hungary since the outbreak of war in their homeland. Most of them, apparently, do not stay in the country. Budapest is really just a stopping point on their journey to places further afield in western Europe, where many Ukrainians have relatives of one kind or another with whom they hope to live. The refugees who do remain here are housed either in local hotels or with Hungarian families that volunteer to take them in. Children are then given free lessons in Hungarian so they can continue their education and integrate into civil society.
Hungary’s humanitarian transition centres are mercifully quiet at the minute. I did not encounter a single Ukrainian on my tour of the premises. However, they were exceedingly crowded in the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion and they are likely to start overflowing again as the pressures of winter intensify. The Ukrainian government, led by President Volodymyr Zelensky, has told its citizens abroad that while they should be encouraged by the successes on the battlefield, they should not return this winter. Iryna Vereshchuk, Zelensky’s deputy prime minister, has said that due to relentless Russian bombing campaigns against Ukrainian infrastructure, “the networks will not cope” with the enormous pressure that the sudden return of millions of Ukrainians would create. Putin’s airstrikes are reported to have destroyed more than one third of Ukraine’s energy sector in particular. As history has testified many times, there is nothing more nightmarish than war combined with winter in eastern Europe.
Indeed, despite the impressive Ukrainian counter-attack, Europe is more likely to see mass movements of people travelling in the other direction. In the 24 hours prior to my visit, approximately 1,100 people crossed the Ukrainian border into Hungary. The numbers are clearly picking up again; the vast majority of them fleeing due to electricity shortages caused by fighting rather than the war itself. This is just the beginning of a winter surge following a summer lull.
Will this renewed influx of Ukrainians, especially amid the ongoing fallout of Hungary’s energy crisis, test the limits of the Magyars’ generosity? The lady showing us around the humanitarian transition centre insists not. The people of Hungary, she reminds us, have as private individuals donated more than €2.5 million to supporting Ukrainian refugees. The Hungarian government is also in receipt of EU subsidies, which account for roughly €20 million of the total €70 million that Hungary has devoted to the humanitarian crisis in the region.
So far, Hungary’s openness to Ukrainian victims of the war has been puzzling to liberal observers, who since Orbán’s refusal in 2015 to take in huge number of migrants from the Muslim world have regarded the Magyar nation as some kind of callous, close-minded, ethnonationalist pariah state. But this misses the key differences between the situation to Hungary’s south in 2015 and the situation to its east today.
Since February, Hungary’s generosity towards the Ukrainians has been founded on two basic principles. First, the Hungarian government acknowledges that, as one of Ukraine’s neighbours, it has a special responsibility to welcome people who, in many cases, have nowhere else to go to escape chronic suffering, privation, and even death. This did not apply in 2015 when all of the migrants, from far-off lands like Eritrea, Syria, and Afghanistan, had crossed many safe countries before reaching the Serbian border with Hungary—now reinforced by an electric fence in order to stem the flow of illegal migration. Second, Ukraine is the site of an active conflict. As such, the only Ukrainians now fleeing into Hungary are women and children, in addition to men well past fighting age. They are, in other words, authentic refugees, not economic migrants seeking, understandably, to profit from the West’s higher standards of living. This not only demonstrates that they are truly in need of help; it also means they can return to their homeland once the fighting is over. Contrast this with the composition of migrants entering illegally into Britain across the channel: 90% are male, 75% between the ages of 18 and 39, and, since May of this year, 42% Albanian. Last time I checked, Albania was not only not ravaged by war or persecution but has in recent years developed into an increasingly popular holiday destination for Brits and other western Europeans.
By contrast, the Hungarian approach to asylum seems eminently sensible. It marries pragmatism with charity, denying entry to migrants who have no humanitarian claim in order to free up space for those who do. At the moment, of course, this involves privileging Ukrainians over other claimants, but one suspects that the Hungarians would also act generously towards Serbs, Romanians, and other neighbours in need of help if events ever demanded it.
For one thing, this highly selective approach means that Hungary’s financial resources are saved for those who really need them. It also means that the compassion of the Hungarian people—and indeed no nation on Earth, whatever naïve liberals might believe, can be limitlessly compassionate—is not exhausted, as it would be if the asylum system did not discriminate between legitimate and illegitimate claims.
But even if the asylum system is designed well enough to keep Hungarian citizens onside, might not other factors bleed support for the charitable approach? People get war-weary, especially when the conflict in question is taking place in a foreign land while economic difficulties are worsening at home.
Does Hungary have enough fuel to go around? The custom of lighting up the Parliament building by night is no longer being observed. Will those Hungarian families that took Ukrainians into their homes back in March continue to behave so generously as it becomes harder to make ends meet?
There is no doubt that Hungary will have to face a winter surge of Ukrainian refugees. It remains to be seen whether the charitable elements in the country’s pragmatic approach to migration, so admired by conservatives around the world, will survive the spectre of rising costs and a harsh winter.