Hungarian refugees fleeing Soviet occupation, 1956
In November 1956, one of the largest exoduses of refugees on European soil since the Second World War started. As a result of the Soviet invasion of Hungary to quell a “counter-revolutionary” uprising and bring Hungary back into the socialist fold, within the time-span of about a year some 200,000 Hungarians fled West. The exodus was massive: some cities like Sopron lost more than 10% of its inhabitants.
Most of the refugees in 1956-1957 were welcomed in Austria, and the overwhelming majority stayed there. The Austrians, who only a year earlier had regained their independence after a decade of Allied occupation, proved to be incredibly hospitable. The American novelist James A. Michener, who interviewed Hungarian refugees in the refugee camps as a basis for his later book The Bridge at Andau, wrote: “It would require another book to describe in detail Austria’s contribution to freedom. I can express it briefly only in this way: If I am ever required to be a refugee, I hope to make it to Austria.”
Now, sixty years later, it is again Austria that is the first transit point for thousands and thousands of refugees who cross the border from Hungary. This time, however, they are not Hungarians. They are mostly Syrian refugees, who managed to escape from the unimaginable horrors of the Syrian civil war as a result of which, almost literally before our eyes, many cities, towns and villages have been turned into a complete concrete wasteland. And they are fleeing from Hungary, a country led by a Prime-Minister Viktor Orban who considers them a threat to Europe’s civilization and thinks they are not refugees but migrants who are just seeking a better life and should be sent back home. How short a memory can be.
Indeed, it is not the Hungarians the refugees are fleeing from, but a regime that can hardly be called a democracy, that has ridiculed European human rights legislation e.g. by curbing the freedom of the press, and has gone all the way to befriend Putin’s dictatorial Russia. Orban’s government has consistently and purposely shown its contempt for the European values that come with EU membership. And in the case of the current stream of refugees pouring into the country, it has tried to block them from boarding trains, used police with tear gas against them and has tried under false pretexts to move them to makeshift camps for registration. At the same time, ordinary Hungarians have tried to do what they can to help the refugees, providing food, water, shelter, and helping them to get to a country that is run by a government that has a better understanding of that what Europe stands for.
It is interesting to see how this new refugee crisis is influencing public opinion in the West. Until recently, the majority of refugees trying to reach Europe were pretty much looked down upon. Most came from Northern Africa, trying to cross the Mediterranean on rickety boats, and while thousands drowned during their attempt, the influx of refugees mostly resulted in a heightened xenophobia and anti-Islam fervor. Right-wing politicians like Geert Wilders in The Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France tumbled over each other in their exclamations, and found our friend Viktor Orban readily moving in the same direction. The main concern was the fact that the overwhelming majority was Muslim and their presence would threaten the “Judeo-Christian values” of European society. Suddenly Le Pen and Wilders are remarkably silent, no doubt because this influx is mostly Christian and thus the old slogans do not fit. Only Orban did not see the light in time, and keeps on beating the same old drum.
Still, it is rather painful to see how selective Western charity can be, and how much our reactions are steered by media attention. For several years Syria was bombed to pieces, turning half of the country’s population into homeless refugees. And while the cluster bombs and other modern inventions turned innocent kids, women and men into shredded corpses, our attention swayed away, towards IS (great food for our xenophobic politicians!) and other short-lived disasters on this planet. Only when the long awaited stream of refugees arrived, our attention was grabbed again. And while the Danish government was still placing advertisements in Lebanese newspapers discouraging people from going to Denmark (“our rules are impossibly strict!”) Germany’s Angela Merkel opened her doors wide, realizing that the majority of these new refugees are well-educated, young and… Christian. Great material to readjust the population balance a bit and give the economy another boost.
This all sounds pretty cynical, and alas it is. Europe – and mankind in general – has a history of selective indignation. When in the 1930s hundreds of thousands of Jews tried to escape from Nazism, they found many borders closed and countries unwilling to provide them with a safe haven. Like the Muslims, their religion was not “the right one”; on top of that as “killers of Christ” they deserved a bit of punishment, some thought. The Swiss excelled, sending Jewish refugees who made it to Switzerland during the Second World War back, to their certain deaths. And now, with war raging in Ukraine, the West has again all but forgotten the fact that right next to the European Union another humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding, with 1,4 million Internally Displaced Persons and 1,1 million Ukrainians who fled abroad. The war in Ukraine has become a “fact of life” and our attention span is too short to continue to pay attention.
Over the past decades, the organization I direct has received many calls from lawyers, defending political refugees with mental health problems and trying to prevent their return to the home country, where they either face renewed repression, possible torture but at least the absence of adequate mental health care. The argumentation of the Dutch immigration services is sometimes shocking, often based on a total lack of correct information and, maybe even worse, compassion with the person concerned. As a result, I have seen time and again how impersonal, disinterested and dehumanizing a bureaucracy can be. Yet it is the people who can make a difference, like the thousands of Europeans opening up their doors, inviting refugees in, or the Austrians driving into Hungary in their private cars to pick up the refugees that Mr. Orban considers “a danger to European values.” They show where the danger really lies, a danger that can be altered – by the ballot box.