Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Hungarian Refugee Crisis

Refugees fleeing from Hungary
Mass population movements and migrations are certainly nothing new. Those who embark on those often dangerous journeys do so out of necessity rather than choice.

On 2 October, Hungary is due to hold a referendum on the EU relocation plan, which involves Hungary offering sanctuary to 1,294 asylum seekers. Orb├ín’s government has urged citizens to reject the plan because it says “forced settlement endangers our culture and traditions”. Lydia Gall, of Human Rights Watch, dismissed the government’s booklet on the referendum as “government sponsored xenophobic anti-refugee propaganda rubbish”. She explained that the booklet contains distorted facts about Europe’s refugee crisis, portraying asylum seekers and migrants as dangerous to Europe’s future. It links migration to increased terrorism and refers to non-existent ‘no-go’ areas in European cities with large migrant populations, including London, Paris and Berlin, where authorities have allegedly lost control and where law and order is absent.” Gall added: “Sixty years ago, hundreds of thousands of Hungarians obtained sanctuary from persecution in other parts of Europe and North America. If the Hungarian government reminded itself and Hungarians about that history, it might help create a more positive and welcoming attitude towards those from Syria and elsewhere seeking safety in Hungary today.” 

So let us remind ourselves of that event. The exodus started on the 28th of October 1956, and continued until June 1957. Resettlement of refugees from Austria started as early as 7 November 1956.

After the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 approximately 200,000 (about 2% of the Hungarian population at the time) fled Hungary mostly to Austria but some to Yugoslavia as refugees from the Soviet repression. Many of the Hungarians crossed the borders with the help of smugglers, and many arrived without ID papers - but it did not tarnish their image or impede their acceptance as refugees. In one weekend (November 4-6,) some 10,000 Hungarians entered Austria. 180,000 were resettled from Austria (a population of 7 million) and Yugoslavia to 37 countries. 100,000 people resettled in the first 10 weeks. The United States and Canada each took in around 40,000, while the United Kingdom accepted 20,000 and Germany and Australia some 15,000 each. Two African and 12 Latin American countries also took in Hungarians. One Hungarian refugee to the UK was Joe Bugner, who arrived as a boy, became the British heavyweight champion and fought Muhammad Ali for the world title.

A UN spokesperson described the situation, “The Hungarians streaming into Austria at the present time arrive deprived of any means and in a state of exhaustion. They have to be cared for immediately, to be fed and clothed. The Austrian federal government, in cooperation with everyone willing to help, is undertaking all possible efforts to accommodate these unfortunate people as quickly as possible. But, in spite of all the desperate efforts on the part of the Austrian authorities and the Austrian people to cope with this difficult problem, Austria cannot do it alone. She necessarily depends on generous joint immediate help from other countries”.

Not all was perfect. The Austrian authorities were forced to improvise since no infrastructure existed to receive such a massive influx of persons. Red Cross officials tried to collect and group the refugees behind the border. The refugees, many totally exhausted and nearly frozen to death, were first taken to schools or restaurants. They were then transferred in larger groups to a refugee camp. Doctors detected a “camp psychosis” among the refugees, which manifested itself in passivity, depression, and latent aggressiveness. In mid-November 1956 around 100 internees held a hunger strike to protest against the way they were treated, and later that month disturbances there required police intervention to restore order. Austrian officials were of course less than pleased by these protests about conditions. Austria’s interior security officials were concerned about political activities. Among the refugees there were many political activists who hoped to continue promoting the ideals of the revolution. In February 1957 a directive by the Interior Ministry addressed the political and intelligence activities of the Hungarian refugees in Austria: “The Ministry of the Interior is, under no circumstances, willing to tolerate any activity by foreigners in Austria which aims to disturb the peaceful relations of the Republic with other states, or which aims to influence the internal political situation in other countries.” 

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