Hungary and the refugees

According to the UNHCR, Hungary has received 140,000 refugees this year. Hungary’s population is just under 10 million.

That’s 1.4% of the country’s population.

Virginia has about 8.3 million people. 1.4% of that figure is about 116,000.

Imagine if 116,000 refugees began landing in Norfolk and made their way toward Washington walking along U.S. Routes 460 and U.S. 1 (sort of equivalent to going from Szeged to Budapest).


Now imaging they walked across one of the many bridges into D.C. and about 3,000 were in and around Union Station demanding they be allowed to travel to New York. One could switch the example to Portsmouth and London in England.

What would the government do? How would Americans react to such?

Now realize please that Hungary has a per capita income of something like $1,000.00 a month. You should check my figures. The U.S. somewhere around $4,000.00.

You gettin’ this?

Now, add to this that Greece, Macedonia and Serbia basically facilitate the refugee stream to Hungary. And that the richer EU nations are all mixed up about how (and who) to receive the refugees.

So Hungary has to deal with the refugees who cross the border at a rate of about 2000 a day. 24/7.

What would you do? Imagine these tragic souls in your city. How would you react to them? What would you expect your government to do? How would you want your government to pay for taking care of these refugees? How would you weed out the radicals from the real refugees?

This is a tragic crisis foisted upon a country that can ill afford it. A country that was already struggling with their own brand of nationalism that is divisive among Hungarians as well as to those outside. A government made up largely of populists who have more than a little distrust of the EU. A government ill equipped for such a crisis, but then, what government is? Clearly the USA is not, nor the UK, nor Germany.

Germany has said they will take in 800,000 refugees this year. But they and Austria are telling Hungary to follow existing travel laws. It takes Germany 5+ months to process a refugee (NPR).

So Hungary is stuck. Refugees pour in 24/7 through my beloved Szeged. Kind folks are taking food, clothes and water to these helpless refugees all over the country. These kind Hungarians are paying for this out of their own pockets. Meanwhile the existing refugee camps all over the country are beyond capacity (I recall there are about a dozen permanent camps from a briefing I received about 15 years ago when taking supplies to Kosovar refugees in the now famous camp in Bicske, Hungary).

When you read the self-righteous American and Western press criticize the Hungarians, remember the earlier statistics.

Tomorrow morning when you see the latest headlines from Budapest, cut Hungary some slack. No one else is doing any better.

Just my very biased opinion.

Update: Sept. 10…

Click HERE to see a fair description of part of this problem, which is not a two sided coin but a Rubik’s cube, six sides and many colors.


Filed under crisis of refugees

14 responses to “Hungary and the refugees

  1. This is a very thoughtful post, Tom. I appreciate how you help Americans understand what this is situation is like for Hungary. And you do so without minimising the pain and difficulty the refugees are enduring.

    But I disagree that there aren’t any other countries doing better. In several personal conversations and in the media I’ve noticed that Serbia has had a more inviting response to the situation – some people even anxious to have the refugees stay rather than just travel through. This article reports that Germany has commended Serbia for its positive response.

    This article interviews a refugee who expresses his appreciation to the Serbian citizens “who are really trying to help us”.

    My point isn’t to criticise Hungary at all. It’s more just a question or a series of questions. Is there really a difference between how Serbia and Hungary are reacting to this crisis? If so, what’s the difference? Why?

    • Jeremy, many thanks for the additional insights and the links. I hear no criticism, just broadening the discussion. These broaden the conversation and bringing Serbia into the dialogue is helpful.
      However from what I’m reading and watching from both sides of the Atlantic there is more talk than action from Berlin. And today the UK said that they will send $150m to Syria for camps and then take refugees from Syria not from among their fellow EU nations who are already overburdened.
      You are correct about Serbians, to a degree. Earlier in the crisis I posted a WP article that described the journey and how the trek through Serbia was a dangerous segment because different groups, including police, were robbing migrants. BUT the folks in Subotica have been helpful all along as has been seen in various articles this year. Yet, from all that I read, Serbia remains a conduit not a destination, as Hungary was thought to be by these 140,000 people. But sadly, it isn’t, the Hungarian refugee population in the growing camps, new and old, just continues to grow because it is, unlike Serbia bound by EU rules and can’t just send them north.
      Thus, in my very biased opinion, Serbia’s context is very different than Hungary’s.
      Additionally, it is not my intention to defend Hungary, I’m more interested in putting a view out there that questions the editorializing, self-righteous Western press.
      There are, without a doubt, people in Serbia, Macedonia, Austria, and Greece who are taking their own money out of their pockets to buy water and food for refugees just like in Hungary.
      To your final point: “what’s the difference?” To some degree, Hungary is bound to EU rules of processing and holding before allowing people to move on. Serbia is not as it is not a member of the EU.
      In Serbia’s favor based on their giving people, they deserve great applause because their GDP per capita per annum is far less than Hungary at $12k vs. Hungary’s $23k and Germany’s $46k. By the way, these numbers are based on IMF estimates from 2014 and are better than in my original post (US is $54k).
      My bottom line is that no refuge wants to be in Hungary or Serbia. But unlike Serbia, Hungary, as an EU state and is stuck.
      Meanwhile hundreds of refugees walk from Subotica to Szeged (sort of) and enter a lake from a river that they thought went on to Germany and Sweden.
      And kind people in every country along the route help where their governments can’t or won’t.
      So, so complicated.

      • Since that conversation, Austria and Germany have relented and opened the gates. Relief has begun for both refugee and Hungary, thankfully. But the is saga is far from over until the EU does something in Greece where the flow begins overground to Europe.

    • Kosmopolice

      I think one should overlay the legal and political elements to the fair picture portraied here. Serbia is not a Schengen state and has no obligations to defend EU borders, while Hungary has. If Schengen takes a decision to open borders to refugees, rest assured Hungary would facilitate transition. But so far they (EU) failed to come to terms and that’s not only Hungarys fault, however it seems to take all the blame.

      On a humanitarian and civilian front I think (hope) Hungarians are as supportive as Serbs.

  2. Tom, you are my hero. I am an American living in Budapest and I am also shocked and disappointed with way Hungary has been portrayed in the western news. Self righteous and overly critical, perfect choice of words. I can say the one positive thing is I am learning first hand how much the media can twist and manipulate a story, and I will not be so quick to believe what I see on the news from now on. I applaud you for writing this post.

  3. The commenter’s criticism is valid. No one can stop this flow of humanity. No one should expect Greece to bear this onslaught alone. The wars and oppression in the Middle East and Africa are creating a situation that people feel the need to flee to a better life. They assume that Western Europe holds such for them. But to get to to the promised land of Western Europe they land on the nearest beach and make their north. No such implication was intended that Greece, Macedonia, or Serbia should hold these unfortunates. Let that be clear. But until yesterday, there was a difference between Hungary and what might be called the conduit countries, that being Budapest’s hands being partially tied by EU and Schengen rules. Now that Austria and Germany have opened the gate, the flow of refugees can, presumably, continue to the places they set out for in the first place. That fact raises more questions, but those questions must be considered elsewhere.

  4. Pingback: Hungary and the refugees | End Time Info

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  6. Gery

    Dear Tom! I am a Hungarian from Budapest. Your post is great, but there are some corrections to be made.
    In Hungary the per capita NET income is only about 500 USD a month. The per capita NET pension is about 300 USD a month. A factory worker’s average NET income – for 12 hour shifts at an American or German factory in Hungary – is about 400 USD a month. The average NET unemployment benefit in Hungary is about 180 USD a month, and you can only have it for 3 months (if you had 360 working days in the past 3 years). This is the sad truth.
    And the rate of the refugees who cross the border is more than 3000 a day now.

    • Gery,
      I’m grateful for your input. I will not quibble about the numbers, the original data in the post was corrected in the comments in another post according to IMF (?) international comparisons which are the point I’m making.
      Your data is not comparison but real, on the ground data which is is incredibly helpful to the discussion.
      I guess I am quibbling after all. 😉
      Thanks for weighing in!

      P.S. Re: COMMENTS
      This post has received more comments than I publish. I moderate the comments based on if I deem them helpful to the conversation. If your comment contains other than helpful information or is snarky for snark’s sake, it is deleted.

  7. Lovetta

    The number actually exceeded 5000 per day as of writing…

  8. Dan

    Thank you for the perspective you bring to the dialogue of the refugee crisis. I was at the border in Roszke Sept 10-12, 2015. It is sad that the media there is telling just a sensationalist side not reporting the whole story. For example saying the Hungarian government is doing nothing at the border to feed or provide for the refugees is true. However they fail to say that many relief organizations, charities, Islamic and Christian groups are on scene. These groups are providing medical care, food, tents, dry clothes, electricity for charging cell phones as well as kindness and love and encouragement during a tragic and difficult time. Here is a video I posted two days ago from Roszke, Hungary.

    Correction: in the video I mistakenly mention UNICEF, I meant UNHCR.

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