In an interview with Fox News on July 20, Hungary’s foreign minister boasted that his country had “received 840K refugees” fleeing the war in Ukraine.
That number is misleading. In fact, Hungary has been far from refugee friendly, espousing policies and rhetoric that aims to direct most of them out of the country.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), fewer than 30,000 refugees from Ukraine, out of the more than 1 million reported to have arrived in Hungary, had registered for temporary protection (as of July 26).
Temporary protection registration in the European Union allows for up to three years residency and confers other rights to housing, medical care, employment, and asylum status.
Among EU countries bordering Ukraine, Hungary has the lowest percentage of temporary registrations for incoming refugees – fewer than 3% compared with 25% for Poland (4.9 million refugees overall), 14% for Slovakia (628,000 refugees), and 5% for Romania (890,000 refugees). (U.N. figures as of July 26.)
Temporary registration status also allows refugees to travel within the EU within the first 90 days after they enter a member country.
Unlike other EU members that have condemned Russia for its war on Ukraine and supplied weapons, Hungary has taken a neutral position while highlighting its acceptance of Ukrainian refugees. Now the question is whether Hungary is actually shouldering its fair share of responsibility.
The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatovic, has said there are systematic reasons for the low numbers of Ukrainians requesting government-provided benefits and temporary resettlement in Hungary.
In late June, Mijatovic sent a letter to Hungarian Minister of the Interior Sandor Pinter, saying refugees were “receiving insufficient information about the protection options available.”
She also noted reports that Roma refugees coming from Ukraine were facing “discriminatory attitudes.”
The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a rights group that focuses on rule of law and migration issues, said most support for refugees is coming from private citizens and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), not the state.
That assessment is echoed by Ukrainian refugees, who have received shelter and supplies from Hungarian volunteers.
However, it is complicated for citizen volunteers to support refugees, as Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his right-wing Fidesz party have passed laws that criminalize providing information to migrants and rendering other types of aid.
Hungary’s asylum laws are some of the strictest in the European Union. Until 2020, Hungary implemented “transit zones,” small strips of land that confined those attempting to enter the country. Since then, Hungary has continued to use border security forces to make crossing into the country nearly impossible.
Non-Ukrainian asylum seekers continue to face malnutrition and physical abuse at Hungary’s southern border with Serbia. Hungarian police have used violence and humiliation to discourage adults and children wishing to cross the border, Al Jazeera reported in February, before Russia invaded Ukraine.
Hungary has a record of anti-immigrant policies that include violent border control practices. During the 2015 European migrant crisis, Luxembourg’s foreign minister told Germany’s Die Welt newspaper that Hungary treated asylum seekers “worse than animals.”
That statement came after Hungary erected razor wire along its border and used starvation to “push out asylum seekers,” the Agence France-Presse reported.
Orban has unabashedly led the anti-immigrant charge. Over the last few years, he has referred to migrants as “Muslim invaders” and “terrorists” who’d bring crime and destroy the “sovereignty and cultural identity” of Hungary.
“For us migration is not a solution but a problem,” he said in 2016, “not medicine but a poison. We don’t need it and won’t swallow it.”
In May, the AFP summarized the situation:
“Hungary ‘demolished’ its asylum system in recent years, which makes it harder for Ukrainians to integrate, according to Aniko Bakonyi of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a refugee rights group.
“Since 2015, fences were built on Hungary's southern borders, and refugee camps shuttered.
“Police are also obliged by law to physically ‘push back’ migrants across the borders, while asylum seekers since 2020 can only submit applications at embassies abroad.”
A Ukrainian mother who fled to Hungary told AFP what while she liked the country itself, “I also saw how the Hungarian government thinks of us.” The woman and her daughter hoped to move elsewhere in Europe.
In December 2020, the EU's Court of Justice released a judgment saying Hungary had failed to "fulfill its obligations" as a member state during the 2015 refugee crisis.
Hungary has characterized its programs for Ukrainians as the “largest humanitarian effort in the country’s history” and claimed that “the Hungarian state is doing everything according to what we have agreed with the united European opinion.”
Orban has welcomed Ukrainians at his public appearances. While speaking at a refugee site in April, he was quoted by NBC News as saying, "Hungary is a good friend of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. If they need any help, we are here and they can count on us."