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Hungary, a country that once shut out refugees, has opened its doors to those fleeing Ukraine

Though Hungary has been criticized for its anti-immigration policy toward would-be asylum seekers from Syria and Afghanistan, there is now wide support among the public and politicians to open its doors to the Ukrainian refugees streaming in.

More than 350,000 Ukrainian refugees have registered in Hungary, UN says

Hungary welcomes Ukrainian refugees in stark contrast to past

2 months ago
Duration 2:30
For weeks, Hungary has been welcoming Ukrainian refugees — a marked difference from its response in 2015 when officials closed the border with Serbia to keep migrants out.

Inside a sports hall in Budapest, Hungary, dozens of volunteers and aid workers stand ready to help the hundreds of Ukrainian refugees who pass through every day. 

After they unload from the shuttle buses and register, they can get a meal, a free SIM Card and, if they want, a train or bus ticket to take them to their next destination. 

If they stay, they can be put up in accommodation, like a school, a rented hotel room or a private home offered up by a Hungarian host. 

"I saw these children flooding from Ukraine with their mothers … and I really felt I [had] to do something," said Eszter Zombory-Balogh, 38, who is currently hosting eight Ukrainian refugees in a vacant apartment owned by her father.

"Hungary is not internationally seen as a refugee welcoming country because of our government. But this case is, I think, is different because …they are like us."

The Ukrainian refugees arriving in Budapest have been brought to the BOK sports hall. Once there, bus and train tickets to further European destinations or accommodation in Hungary can be arranged. (Lily Martin/CBC)

There is wide support among the public and politicians to open the doors to the Ukrainian refugees streaming in since Russia's invasion, even as there are reports that Hungary continues to push other migrants back over its heavily fortified southern border with Serbia.

The country's hardline prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has been criticized by the EU and the United Nations Refugee agency for the government's anti-immigration policy toward would-be asylum seekers from countries like Syria and Afghanistan, but with a war just beyond its eastern border, Hungary's government, aid groups and private citizens have mobilized to help. 

So when Zombory-Balogh's father, Imre Balogh, agreed to offer up his vacant apartment, his daughter started collecting donations to furnish it and provide refugees with the essentials like clothes and food. 

She then went down to the train station looking for those who needed a place to stay. 

WATCH | A Ukrainian mother fled with her son to Hungary: 

Hungarian mother takes in eight Ukrainian refugees

2 months ago
Duration 1:47
As Eszter Zombory-Balogh saw Ukrainian children flooding into Budapest, Hungary, with their mothers, she felt compelled to help. She is now hosting eight refugees inside her father's vacant apartment.

She connected with Iuliia Sergeieva, 38, who works as a human rights advocate and lawyer. Sergeieva fled Kyiv, Ukraine, with her six-year-old son and was later joined by her mother and 93-year-old grandmother. 

"It was my hardest decision in my life to cross the border … my heart was tearing," Sergeieva said.

"It's a great luck meeting good people like Eszter and her family, which we are super grateful for."

A question of who will stay

More than 350,000 Ukrainian refugees have registered in Hungary, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.

The majority have moved through the country, with fewer than 10,000 applying for temporary protection — a designation that would ensure children are eligible for school and families could access the health-care system. 

But András Léderer doesn't think temporary protection applications are a good indicator of how many refugees have stayed in Hungary. 

He is an advocacy officer for the human rights organization Hungarian Helsinki Committee, and he says when he and his colleagues visited shelters where refugees were staying, most weren't aware they could apply for the program. 

"I think there is this calculation that if you don't allow people to be channelled into the temporary protection scheme, they will move on to other EU member states and ask for protection there," he said.

András Léderer is with a human rights organization in Hungary. He says the country's response to the humanitarian is vastly different than when it shut its border to asylum seekers in 2015. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

Still, he says the government's response to this crisis is much different than in 2015, when Hungary shut down its border and stranded hundreds of migrants on the Serbian side of the fence. 

In the years that followed, the government ran anti-immigration advertisements, but now officials are asking Hungarian citizens to do their part to help the Ukrainian refugees. 

The difference in messaging is stark. 

But András Kováts, director of the Menedék Hungarian Association for Migrants, says it's understandable, given that Ukraine is a neighbouring country and Hungary is one of its first safe havens.

While Syrians are also fleeing war, Kováts said there is a debate In Hungary about whether they were legitimate asylum seekers, because they could have applied for protection in other countries they had to travel through, like Serbia. 

He admits, however, that race and religion were obvious factors too. 

"The closer you are in terms of how you look, how you behave, how you dress, the easier it is to feel sympathy, to feel empathy," he said. 

"This is how people work everywhere."

Election on the horizon

The language used by Hungary's prime minister, meanwhile, was much more controversial than nuanced identity politics. 

In 2018, he told a German newspaper that the migrants gathered near the border fence were "Muslim invaders."

Orbán, who faces an election on April 3 and is trying to seek his fourth consecutive term, has insisted that Hungary will remain neutral when it comes to the war next door but will help the refugees. 

Roma children play outside the former seniors home in Budapest after fleeing from Ukraine. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Challenges face Roma refugees

That offer of help has also been extended to the Roma refugees fleeing Ukraine. Though the cultural group has faced longstanding discrimination, Hungarian social worker Tamás Szűts says no one is asking about the ethnicity of the refugees when they drop off donations at the home where he is working.

In this sprawling yard in a neighbourhood in Budapest, dozens of children run on the grass while others ride scooters and tricycles. 

Until a few weeks ago, this was the site of a seniors home, but in February the 16 residents were moved out and seven families from Western Ukraine were moved in.

All of the people staying in the home are Roma and, while they speak Hungarian, they face a series of other challenges as many are illiterate, come from poverty and are discriminated against. 

Of the 53 people living there, 32 of them are children and have just started attending a school next door that is being run by a Lutheran church. ​​

Thirty-two of the refugees living in what used to be a seniors home are children. They attend school next door. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Szűts has been hired to help mothers and children adjust to life in Hungary and is working on everything from filling out government paperwork to getting them dental care. 

All of the shelves are lined with donations including medicine and food. All the toys in the yard were dropped off as well. 

He says the public's response has been heartwarming, especially considering that refugees haven't received a lot of support in the past. 

"They don't care," he said of the donors. "They just come here and help and that's it. So it's a very, very nice moment."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Briar Stewart is the Moscow correspondent for CBC News. She has been covering Canada and beyond for more than 15 years and can be reached at briar.stewart@cbc.ca or on Twitter @briarstewart

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