Most Hungarians living in Canada today arrived in the country as refugees after the anti-Soviet revolution in Hungary in1956. Never before or since had they come in such large numbers. However, there are also Hungarian-Canadians whose ancestors came to this country over hundred years ago, and many who arrived here since the late 1950s. In recent Canadian population censuses, over 120,000 of Canada's residents claimed Hungarian as their ancestry. The greatest concentrations are in metropolitan centres, in particular in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
The immigrants who came before the 1930s were mainly economic migrants. They tried to escape poverty in some parts of the Hungarian countryside as well as an antiquated social system in which poor peasants enjoyed little or no respect. Those who came later were predominantly political refugees who wanted to escape political persecution and/or foreign domination in their homeland. Many of the 1956 refugees feared retaliation by the Soviet authorities and their Hungarian allies for their participation in, or even just sympathy for a revolt against communist rule. Many of the Hungarians who had come to Canada in recent decades came because they felt discriminated against in the neighbouring states that have Hungarian minorities.
The majority of Hungarian immigrants to Canada have been Roman Catholics, modern Hungary's population belonging mainly to the Roman Catholic Church. There were also many Eastern-rite Catholics especially among the pre-1930s immigrants. After the Second World War, Protestants were no longer under-represented among the Hungarians that came to this country. Jews usually made up a very small portion of Hungarian immigration. The most significant exception to this trend happened during 1956-57 when several thousand people of Jewish background came to Canada with the influx of the refugees.
Early Hungarian immigrants found it arduous to adjust to the life of pioneer homesteaders on the Canadian prairies. Lacking a good education and knowledge of English, the agricultural workers who came in pre-1914 or during interwar years were usually doomed to manual labour. Still, through hard work and entrepreneurial spirit, some of them managed to prosper. Many members of the "old immigration" for example, became tobacco farmers in southern Ontario. Most of the newcomers of the Second World War era had a somewhat easier time in "getting ahead" in Canada. Many of them had a better education than the early arrivals, some of them had marketable skills, and most of them found it easier to learn English (or French) since they had been exposed to learning new languages either in the Hungarian school system or in their travels as displaced persons or refugees in Europe and elsewhere.
Helping Hungarian newcomers in the process of adjustment to Canadian life were the immigrant institutions Hungarians created in Canada. One of the most important of these were ethnic churches, as well as self-help associations. But, for those who immigrated in the mid- and late twentieth century, help in integration was done through non-ethnic mainstream associations, belonging to professional organizations or through the help of ordinary Canadians and immigrant serving agencies.
Today, Hungarian immigrants and their descendants contribute to many spheres of Canadian life. Remarkable contributions have been made to such diverse fields as statistical analysis, forestry science, cinematography, business, finance, computer technology, music and sports. Some sports, such as water polo and fencing were introduced to Canada in a competitive way by Hungarians.
Hungarians, active in many aspects of intellectual and cultural life, value the culture they brought with them. This includes the cultural artefacts they created once in their new homeland or those they brought here from their ancestral lands. Some of these can now be discovered in the collection of Canada's Museum of Civilization.
Hungarian Folk Art
In this section of our web module you will find some examples of Hungarian folk embroidery. Some characteristics of this art include proportioned patterns with delicately stylized flower motifs, variations of large and small designs, vivid and sometimes contrasting, but always harmonious colors.
Hungarians used embroidery to embellish the clothing of women and men, to decorate the articles of the home, such as pillow and sheet ends, towels, table cloths, wall-hangings and they never forgot the church, which was also decorated with embroideries.
This art is constantly changing and growing depending on the availability of fabrics and threads and the taste of the people as well as the inventiveness of the creator. However, certain ancient designs are still present after hundreds of years and are used in different forms today, still adorning the clothes, homes and surroundings of Hungarians wherever in the world they may live.
For a detailed overview of the Hungarian experience in Canada see N.F. Dreisziger et al., Struggle and Hope: The Hungarian Canadian Experience (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1982). For brief summaries see Carmela Patrias, The Hungarians in Canada (Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association, 1999); N.F. Dreisziger, "The Hungarians," the Encyclopedia of Canadian Ethnic Groups (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 660-74; and the same author's "Rose-gardens on Ice-floes: A Century of the Hungarian Diaspora in Canada," Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies, 6, 2 (Fall, 2000): 239-58.
1. A Train Stopped at Subotica
On June 26, Lisa Rose Steele and Andrew Ryder took a train from Belgrade, Serbia, to Budapest, Hungary. The following is a personal reflection on this experience by Steele.
Running late, we hurried through the streets of Belgrade to the train station and boarded a train headed for Budapest. We couldn’t find a seat because, like most trains on this line, ours was crammed full of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere; more than a hundred, I think. These were mainly young men, but also included women, families, and a grandmother with small children. They had few belongings and were quiet, subdued, and polite. Because the train was filled beyond capacity and many were without seats, there was some concern that we would not be able to depart due to the overload.
There was also a family of Serbo-Australians on the train, speaking a mixture of the broad Australian accent and Serbo-Croatian. We did not communicate, except at one point when I naively asked, “Why didn’t they put more carriages on the train?” in a volume reflecting my shock; the whole carriage could hear me. “Because of all the refugees” was the bitter response. It was a tone of disdain that I recognized, because I am also from Australia, a country where the tightening of the screws against refugees has been perfected; this has become a model for other nations, including, now, the European Union. The public opinions against them have suitably followed. But I only had time to reflect on this for a moment before the train departed with us all on board.
During the hours we spent face to face with the group as they made this perilous journey, we started to notice things about them from their expressions; more precisely, from the lack of them. An emotionless calm filled their eyes. It was like something I had never seen; clearly they were organized and aware of their position, and looking closely enough you could see the terror, fear, and sadness in their eyes, which they systematically averted from me. There was something even more disturbing about the lack of facial expressions.
To me, it seemed as if they were trained—trained in how to emotionally compose themselves as they cross borders. My observations here may seem speculative, but they are congruent with ethnographies of refugee experience, such as Shahram Khosravi’s. There were clearly many who knew each other, who were friends, but it was as if they had learned a series of lessons: if they acted like a group, the white observers would feel “threatened”, as if they were a gang. For this reason, they acted as if it was best not to associate with each other. They knew that if they accepted food you would also look like a beggar to those who are hateful towards them; that is, most people. This would increase the chances of being beaten or getting thrown off the train earlier. Last, their pronounced stoicism seemed both a practical and psychological necessity; to have the courage to keep going, to keep walking into the Serbian countryside, and to have the inner resources to stay awake at night lest a policeman shoot you.
Realizing this, my heart broke a little more. None of these are skills that people should have had to develop when they are fleeing the so-called “Islamic State” of Iraq and the Levant, or other factions in Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Iraq. It is my guess that there are a few briefings on the way, from family on the other side, from the smugglers who get them this far, but mostly this knowledge about how to cross borders is something that they learn along the way, after crossing many, many borders.
As we approached the border, I asked the Afghan man who sat next to us if he was worried about what was going to happen next. He said “no” but then added, “This border, this is a very hard border. Very hard.” He then stared out the window.
I wondered if he knew that it would be necessary to fear some popular Hungarian movements now, and not only the police. Not those rallying in his defense or organizing drives for supplies: sympathetic Hungarians in Budapest, Pécs, and Szeged. Rather, the many other Hungarians who fear and hate the prospect of an influx of foreigners. I wonder if he knows that until August last year many people didn’t care about refugees; they were much more interested in their patrols against the Roma communities. I wanted to ask him, I wanted to warn him.
I wanted to ask him if he knew that there was about to be a meeting between Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary, and Aleksandar Vučić, the prime minister of Serbia, about the border fence, 110 miles long, that Orbán had just announced would be built. I wondered if it was precisely this news that led him to hurry from Turkey, in the hopes of crossing before the fence could hinder him. I wanted to ask him, I wanted to warn him. I did not. Instead I gave him my moments of friendliness and peace. After all, there still was no fence. He should make it to Budapest; he was almost there.
But this was in the four hours of train journey before we arrived in Subotica, the last Serbian town before the hard EU border, where he and the hundred others were promptly, orderly, and brusquely ejected from the train. Just like many before have been, and like hundreds of thousands more who will soon make this journey. No doubt the refugees hoped to cross on foot later. If they can enter Hungary, then perhaps they can keep moving, and achieve refugee status elsewhere in the Schengen area.
After they were thrown off, the train still didn’t move. The Serbo-Australian family caused the delay; their passports were locked up in their bag. The father, who had the key, was buying sandwiches at the station. We watched, as they held up the train; the border guards remained annoyed but mostly bored. I listened to their conversations while we prayed, or something like it, for those outside.
“Mummy, why aren’t they allowed to go to Budapest?”
“Because they don’t have passports. You need a passport.”
“But Mummy, how are they going to get to Budapest?”
“They’re not going to get to Budapest. Now just eat your sandwich.”
I could hear a certain callousness in their voice, one that had become familiar to me in Australia when people talk about refugees. Here was a lesson from parent to child in how to carry on and ignore the brown people in your way, overcrowding your commuter train, and to just carry on and eat your sandwich.
These “typical” anti-refugee Australians reminded me of a form of prejudice I had almost forgotten. After living in Hungary for eleven years, I have become accustomed to bigotry and indifference directed not at refugees, but at the Roma. The Roma “underclass” functions as the scapegoat in central Europe, fulfilling the same role as refugees in Australasia. In both cases, this identification of an enemy strengthens the right-wing parties in the region. The similarities between these two groups struck me at that moment, so much so that I wondered if Arab refugees in Hungary could appear indistinguishable from Roma. Could it be that Hungary was going to switch their enemy to a new one? Or worse, consider these two groups in the same breath?
My reflections on this concrete situation gave way to more general thoughts on political narratives. The indifference of a family, or the professional rigor of border guards are inextricable from the interests, policies, and propaganda developed at the state level. This state of affairs is not, however, in compliance with international law. The UN Convention on Refugees of 1951 was ratified in order to avoid the atrocities of the mid-twentieth century. Despite the nominal adherence to its principles by so many states, it appears increasingly formal, abstract, and irrelevant. The family and the border guards were not morally defective or psychologically aberrant at all; rather, their thoughts and practices have discernible causes, in ideologies propagated by states.
2. Skirting the Refugee Convention
What responsibilities do European states have towards people from so far away? Hundreds of thousands of new residents could be a drain on social services that are already strained and many European nations already resent the presence of immigrants who seem slow to assimilate to the dominant culture. Whatever these reservations, international law provides stipulations for the protection of those who cannot remain in their own countries, as a result of conflict.
Hungary has distinguished itself as among the most vocal in rejecting any need to accept refugees. Just prior to the clear message presented by the wall, the ruling party, Fidesz, built billboards all around the country, warning immigrants not to expect assistance, and that they will need to respect Hungarian culture. These billboards were written in Hungarian, a notoriously impenetrable language for outsiders, so their function seemed much more to reassure certain sectors of the electorate than to present a serious message to migrants. In response, a joke organization, called the Two-Tailed Dog Party, posted parodies (“Come to Hungary By All Means, We’re Already Working in London!”).
Fidesz also distributed a survey, described as a “national consultation”, purporting to register public opinion on immigrants. However, it asked a series of leading questions, clearly intending to propagandize and inculcate fear and disdain toward refugees and migrants (e.g. “Did you know that economic migrants are crossing the Hungarian border illegally, and that the number of immigrants in Hungary has increased twenty-fold?”). In many respects, the Hungarian state appears eager to distinguish itself as the vanguard of anti-immigrant sentiment in the EU.
Whatever Fidesz’s rhetoric, Hungary’s obligation should remain. After the transition from state socialism, Hungary joined the United Nations refugee convention. However, because Hungary is a border state of the Schengen area, it is unusually burdened by refugees entering the EU and less equipped to provide social services than other, wealthier nations. So far in 2015, twice the number of people have applied for asylum in Hungary as in the previous year. These weaknesses are exacerbated by the Dublin Regulation adopted in the early 1990s, which stipulates that refugees must apply for recognition at the first EU country that that they enter. Failure to do this will result in their return to their initial entry point. As a result, Hungary is legally required to process new refugees entering from outside the EU, as well as those who have managed to cross through Hungary undetected to neighboring prosperous countries, such as Austria. For this reason, Hungary suspended its adherence to this treaty in June for “technical reasons”; the state now refuses to process refugees who have moved on to other EU territories.
Hungarian soldiers build a barbed wire near Morahalom, Hungary. Image via Fox News.
In any event, refugees should be innocent of the penalties of "illegal" immigration; Orbán's policies are in contravention of international law. The Convention on Refugees was adopted in order to protect the human rights of those who needed to seek protection in another state. It stipulates that this protection should be justly offered to those persecuted by their own states, or fleeing from territories where the state is unable to offer adequate protection from persecution. Refugee status must be extended to anyone who,
“owing to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinions, is outside the country of his [sic] nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
Nonetheless, states have the right to reject applicants that they deem do not fit the classification. The convention exists precisely in order to counteract their tendency to reject or minimize the refugees who enter. States have many reasons not to accept asylum seekers—these include political pressures, limited resources, and the disruption that refugees can cause. Regardless, the UN convention remains binding. All states, not only Hungary, try to find the right balance between appearing to uphold the UN convention while minimizing the amount of claim processing and acceptance that they actually do.
Unfortunately, more and more, with Australia leading the way, Canada, the UK and now Fortress Europe (leading the way), Western nations are losing their interest in striking a balance. They are opting instead towards a frightening rejection of the UN Convention’s standards. Worse, the flashpoint of refugee destination in the world at the moment, in one of the greatest refugee crises of human history is happening in an “illiberal democracy,” as Orbán notoriously defined Hungary, last year. We saw a symptom of this on the commuter train from Belgrade to Budapest.
The widespread dismissal of the refugee convention has a rationale and an accompanying discourse. This can be summarized under the name “securitization.” That is, a series of political speech acts that construct a social group as an existential problem. Political actors aligned with the state portray refugees not as fellow humans in need of assistance, or even neutral immigrants searching for a better life, but rather as a menace to the social order, and they do this for political reasons.
Millions of refugees have been created by civil wars in the Levant and in Africa, and many of them have looked for solace in Europe. The name “refugee,” legally speaking, can only be bestowed after state recognition. Prior to the acceptance of this claim, those driven from their homes can be classified as asylum-seekers, whose true status as refugees remains contingent. As Patricia Tuitt indicates, this indeterminacy depends on a gap between the relatively clear criteria expressed in the Convention and the leeway allocated to states in recognizing it. Moreover, the Convention depends on a division between true refugees and mere economic migrants, reifying an artificial distinction between persecution and immiseration.
The prerogative of states, then, allows the European Union to shirk its duties, according to international law. While the Hungarian state has taken blame for their especially exclusionary stance, maintaining an ethnocratic ideology, Viktor Orbán’s policies in response—the billboards warning “migrants,” and most shockingly the construction of a wall at the Serbian border—are in keeping with the mainstream of European discourse and practice in response to this crisis. However, Hungary is unusual in making the name “fortress Europe” much more literal. The fence is not only meant to keep out refugees; the public work programs that determine its construction also instrumentalize impoverished surplus labor. By these means, the construction of the border wall occupies the time of the unemployed and obstructs the movement of refugees by means of one project: neutralizing both marginalized groups.
3. The Australian Precedent
Australia takes only the minimum quota of refugees under the 1951 UN Convention, with around fifteen thousand refugees resettled per year. To put this into perspective, according to the Australian Council for Refugees, “the 14,350 refugees recognized or resettled in Australia during 2014 made up 0.43% of the global total, with Australia ranked 22nd overall, 27th on a per capita basis and 46th relative to total national GDP.” Yet, with increasing severity over the last twenty years, both major parties have securitized those seeking asylum in Australia. Depictions of the undesirable qualities of asylum seekers became common in political discourse, with several famous cases and consequences.
The first vilification of refugees was to label those who arrived on boats as “queue jumpers”, or people cutting in line. They were behaving immorally; cheaters. They should remain within the regular system, in a neighboring country, and not cheat the other asylum seekers who did not take these measures.
In what became known as the “Children Overboard Affair” of 2001, five weeks before the federal election, the immigration minister and defense minister claimed that refugees aboard a boat that was intercepted by the coast guard had thrown their children overboard into the sea in order to compel assistance from the Royal Australian Navy. The argument in Parliament, on the evening news, and in newspapers, was that these were not the types of people, the bad parents who would risk their kids’ lives, welcome in Australia. Three years later this was proven to be a lie; there was no such incident. An inquiry later found that this deception was known at the highest levels, even by the Prime Minister. The pictures splashed over the newspapers pertained to an entirely different sinking vessel and all occupants, including adults and children, were following orders of the coast guard to evacuate, to avoid drowning. The election however, had already been won.
This popular credence given to the notion that Australia needed to be secure from refugees ruthless enough to throw their own children overboard made it much simpler to erode popular support for compliance with the Refugee Convention. In the “War on Terror” period, in which most refugee claimants were from Iraq and Afghanistan, all processing at detention centers on the mainland stopped. Instead, this took place on the Christmas Island detention center, an island in the Indian Ocean near Indonesia; two thousand kilometers from the Australian mainland. It functioned more like a prison, including strict controls by the Department of Immigration, and disallowed access for any media or members of the public (in the event that they should be able to get there). In 2014, this was closed, and instead refugee detention centers have been outsourced to two remote island nations in the Pacific: Nauru and Manus Island. Reports and information are even sparser than they were from Christmas Island, although claims of child sexual abuse have filtered through to Australian media. Access is highly restricted.
Conditions inside the Lenggeng Immigration Depot/camp in Malaysia. Image via Amnesty International's Graham Thom (AP) for The Australian
The question of what to do about applications for asylum in Australia now dominates the political landscape, and has been a pertinent political issue for a generation. Calls to “Stop the Boats” or “Turn Back the Boats” have been successful election strategies for fifteen years; indeed, it is difficult to talk about Australian national issues without mentioning the refugees. Recently, it has been alleged that the Australian government has begun paying smugglers to turn boats back. The most recent creation in asylum seeker policy is to ask asylum seekers to pay up to $30,000 for fast-tracking their refugee claims; pre-selection where only the wealthy may apply. With Australia only ranking as 46th in the world in accepting refugees relative to GDP, the extreme measures and discourse against refugees are startling, and lacking in clear economic rationale.
Matthew Gibney, a scholar of refugee issues, argues that being “tough” on asylum seekers is a successful political strategy, with its roots in the political structure of liberal democracy. He argues that states such as Australia, the UK, and the EU rely on the presupposition that the state will provide privileges to those citizens inside the territory over the interests of anyone outside of it. Unless they appear to do this, the vying parties, candidates and members of parliament will lose elections. It is one of the most successful strategies for ensuring support of the voting masses. This motivation is only present in the wealthy Western democratic sphere because this is where the voting populace can perceive their respective wealth and privilege to be threatened and therefore in need of protection from incursions. Australia’s management of electoral priorities, then, is one determinate in its development of increasingly draconian immigration policies. In addition, Australia can exploit a neocolonial relationship with its neighbors, Papua New Guinea and Nauru—outsourcing its responsibilities to them. These factors explain how Australia can enact such severe measures to limit its refugee intake to fifteen thousand, while Turkey, a country with half its gross domestic product, accepts two million.
Didier Bigo, a founding writer in the field of security studies, argues that there have been distinct phases of the securitization of refugees since September 11, 2001. Following the invasion of Iraq, a global backlash against George W. Bush’s “war on terror” took place. This meant that direct associations of refugees with criminality or terrorism became too harsh for the voting populace. While there may have been some fear of this, this created a sense of unease for voters. This is why allusions to the needs to “secure” the public were enough; clear references to the refugees as terrorists, in the wake of Bush’s Iraq war, were too harsh. So we lived, for a while, in a world where it had to be argued that there were undesirable characteristics to these “types”; this necessitated the “Children Overboard” scandal and other such media scandals.
But it seems that Bigo’s “uneasy” voters of the Bush era have gone. In this decade, ISIL runs roughshod over the Levant. Twelve people were killed at the magazine Charlie Hebdo, and thirty-nine killed in Tunisia over Ramadan. In this climate, the public mood registers less “unease” and more concern that indeed, these people, all of them, any of them, at any time, can be a security threat. That these people are the ones fleeing ISIL, or remnants of the Taliban in Afghanistan, falls on deaf ears. The “security threat” becomes inarguable.
All of this might serve to contextualize the experience described at the beginning of this essay. Perhaps it is more understandable how, on a train in Serbia, a half-Australian family seemed entirely unsympathetic to the experience of sharing a cramped carriage with Middle-Eastern refugees. Why for them, there were no moments of lament or concern, or thoughts about why these people would want to seek greener pastures, and most importantly, why it is entirely acceptable that they should be denied that right.
Increasingly, commentators from across the right-wing spectrum appeal to Australia as the correct model for approaching the refugee problem. A prominent North American neoconservative thinker, David Frum, wrote earlier this month that Australia’s policies were the best way to avoid “the high social and economic costs over many years—and multiple generations—of allowing large-scale migration by very low-skilled people.” These policies of marginalization dovetail with other mechanisms of ethnic exclusion. It is then likely that Australia’s innovations on this score might easily complement older European strategies.
4. Refugees and Roma: Interchangeable Scapegoats
Future historians might look back and say the greatest misfortune for refugees looking for entry to Europe in 2015 was that they knocked on Hungary’s door in search of shelter and protection. Hungary may not have established a reputation for hostility on this score. While it is widely known that there are street patrols in Germany by Pegida against Muslims, and the National Front has always maintained strength in France, but Hungarian people, thus far, have never appeared particularly Islamophobic. Until the spring of this year, this would have been the case; but it is not anymore.
Since the end of state socialism, the enemy of the Hungarian nation has been the Roma. While Hungarian Jews will always be at risk of anti-Semitic threats, violence, and exclusion, the Roma are the primary group to suffer this stigma and experience of oppression and hatred, both numerically and in scale. We can see the extremity of Roma’s situation in the demolitions of Roma settlements near Miskolc, and in the brutal work-for-welfare in Ozd.
This is a regional issue, serious and deepening to such an extent that in this last decade, twelve central European states (including Hungary), along with the World Bank, the Open Society Institute, the United Nations Development Program, and the Council of Europe have made institutional attempts to address this group’s grievances. European organizations and elites have tried to combat the social and economic exclusion faced by Roma, and attempted to reverse economic exclusion and the social scapegoating that comes with it. All of the basic social indicators—education, employment, housing, and health—are across the board worse for the Roma than any other group in Europe, from Austria to Russia, Poland down to the Mediterranean. While Western Europe has been busy scapegoating Muslims, the former Eastern Bloc countries have targeted the Roma, impoverished and downtrodden, as a means of unifying their nationalist ideology.
Central European elites participated in the widespread construction of the Roma minority as an inferior racial and ethnic group. This began prior to the fall of state socialism, when there was inconsistent recognition of the Roma as an ethnic group, depending on what was politically advantageous at the time. Under the old regime, the state tried to diminish the importance of ethnic questions. Nevertheless, even in this period, majority populations in central Europe saw Roma as a separate group, or even an “underclass”.
Herbert Gans developed the concept of “underclass” to help explain how certain cultural characteristics can be attributed to a group with the ideological power of racism, but without the traditional and explicit rhetoric of racial subordination. Part of this designation is the tendency to attribute intergenerational poverty or incapacity to a particular group. While it is not argued that members of the underclass have genetically inherited their inferiority, social discourses tend to emphasize the difficulty or inability of the younger generation to extricate itself from marginalization.
The “intergenerational” aspect of poverty can be better understood in terms of behaviors that poor people tend to share in order to cope with their condition. For the majority of Roma who are poor, this racialized, “hereditary”, label underscores the lifelong process of ethnic discrimination. What this process indicates is that educational and other systemic inequalities are not merely confined to ethnic divisions, but are related to poverty. “Roma” is useful as a term of analysis as long as the “Roma” people are ethnicized by society and those in power activate the term; it is a marker of shared oppression. Further, this oppression has never been answered by a successful movement for national self-determination. The poverty and exclusion in which the Roma of central Europe are trapped must be explained in terms of citizenship in states that are not their own because there has never been a Roma nation-state.
The far right has grown in strength in both Western European nations and in the successor states to the Eastern Bloc. In both east and west, radical right parties need a scapegoat on which to direct their ethnic hatred. With near uniformity, in Western Europe this role has been filled by Muslim minority groups who are increasingly refugees; while further east, the enemy of the nation has been depicted as the Roma. Hungary is no exception. The reasons for this parallel lie of course in the intersection between race and class. Both groups are at the bottom of the wealth line and both appear racially distinct. The impoverishment of both groups has led to a cycle of exclusion and poverty, appearing to strengthen group distinctions, and lead majority population members to conclude that they are the problem. They are the reason why employment is scarce, why life is harder, why benefits are decreasing, why nothing seems to work, why the foundations of the nation are at risk. Here again, Hungary cannot be absolved of this.
The people who have traversed borders to set foot in the EU, finding themselves in this “illiberal democracy,” have come to find a shocking hostility from the state; but it is not so shocking when we see that this is the modus operandi here. Members of parliament refer to Roma as criminals en masse through the repeated trope “Gypsy crime”. Far-right groups organize pogroms against Roma, with the complicity of the third largest party, Jobbik, who also have close ties to the sitting government. Roma schoolchildren are increasingly segregated, despite court orders to stop it. Widespread ethnicist ideology normalizes the continual maintenance of an underclass by practices of exclusion, labels of criminality, and vulnerability to violent attacks by both fascists and the police. All of these were first developed against Roma and are now influencing the response to asylum seekers, to such a degree that the response is nearly identical. Lamentably, the refugees have easily become a new scapegoat of the state; not supplanting the Roma as the collective enemy but supplementing it.
5. The End of Hospitality
When ISIL took a large chunk of the Levant in August 2014, we could only expect anyone with legs to try to get out – out of Iraq, out of Syria. We should hope that they make it to safe shores and we should expect that there will be hundreds and thousands of them. A surge of refugees have arrived to border countries of the EU—Italy, Greece, and Hungary—nations with already troubled economies and social instability. This semi-periphery, however, is part of the Schengen area, and the freedom of movement that it offers promises the possibility of travel to the healthier economies of Austria and Germany; the promise of a better future and better refugee package seems perfectly logical.
The Refugee Convention commits EU states to a fair and human response to this crisis. Nonetheless, we are seeing a willful ignorance of its principles. More importantly, aside from the question of international treaties, these refugees have experienced great hardship and it is incumbent upon us to provide them with hospitality. The appearance of these refugees might recall Jacques Derrida’s definition of a “genuine test of hospitality”; that is, “to receive the other’s visitation just when there has been no prior invitation.” We will fail this test it seems; this hospitality will not be extended, not by Hungary and not by any of the other EU states who are increasingly eager to emulate Hungary's ethnicist ideology. The refugees will remain marginalized, oppressed, and hounded, and will add to the ranks of racialized and subordinated populations. These conditions pervade the globe and will become increasingly permanent, expected, and normalized. The EU is shattering into a set of enclaves that maintain the free flow of capital while restricting, administering, and penalizing the movement of human beings, codifying them according to ethnicity.
It's all very evocative of the 1930s, in a manner that many believed had been relegated to Europe’s past. This takes us now to Hungary in August 2015, as we now see the possibility of a perfect storm of xenophobia, where the anti-Roma sentiment of Eastern Europe has merged with the Islamophobia of Western Europe. Established for a generation and intensified by the horrors of ISIL and the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Western European Islamophobia has entered the awareness of all Europeans, and even to all citizens of the world, including those further to the east.
The crisis functions as an ideal unifying point for the Hungarian-right. Fidesz controls the state, with its only realistic opposition presented by Jobbik, a neo-fascist party. Simultaneously, two smaller movements that are somehow still more militant and xenophobic, the Sixty-Four Counties Youth Movement, and the Movement for Hungarian Protection, demonstrate and act semi-autonomously. All of these organizations share funding and a basic ideology. They have all shown themselves ready and equipped to switch over their targeted group; they were already mobilized, and the hatred is based on such similar things. They didn’t need a meeting or have any questions. They recognized their new enemy without hesitation, voluntarily patrolling the borders of the state, seeking out refugees in wooded areas, rural bus stops, wherever they may be hiding or attempting to travel undetected. These are the same groups who have been active in the last decade against the Roma. This time, they are against the refugees.
In an article published earlier this month, Annabel Tremlett and Vera Messing noted this phenomenon as characteristic of the Hungarian situation. While they contribute a great deal of helpful research, they overestimate the uniqueness of this case. They give the impression that Orbán is anomalous, whereas, in fact, the ethnicist discourse is fully in keeping with widespread tendencies in Europe (and globally). We think it is vital to recognize that Hungary is not the site of an atavistic nationalism. Rather, it has learned from the policies and techniques of powerful and wealthy states, such as Australia. The border between Serbia and Hungary, and the miserliness that we saw evinced there, is by no means peripheral or backwards in the global order. Innovations and refinements of ethnic exclusion are happening today. A world of fractures that refuse to heal.
Lisa Rose Steele is a teacher and writer living in Budapest, Hungary. She received a master’s degree in Nationalism Studies from Central European University in 2013.
Andrew Ryder is Visiting Lecturer of Gender Studies at the same university. He has written extensively on European and Middle Eastern political issues.