Viktor Orban’s short memory

Hungarian refugees fleeing Soviet occupation, 1956

Hungarian refugees fleeing Soviet occupation, 1956 

Analysis & Opinion

Article by: Robert van Voren, CEO of Human Rights in Mental Health

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.


Edited by: Kirill Mikhailov
Source: Robert van Voren

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  • Brent

    Considering politicians like Orban, Le Pen and Wilders all support Russia, who is the backer of the murderous Bashar Assad regime that bombed its own civilians, it is pathetic they are now unwilling to step up and help the refugees their support of Putin and his puppets created.

    What happens if Putin openly invades Ukraine? Then Europe could be inundated with a couple of million Ukrainian refugees. These three stooges openly admire and support Putin, and will have had a hand in creating another refugee crisis for Europe to deal with, just like Europe turning a blind eye to Putin’s support of Assad created the current Syrian refugee crisis.

    • Dagwood Bumstead

      This is not a one-off crisis like the Hungarians Van Voren mentions. Europe has been and still is the destination of millions of refugees from all over the world- literally. There is a limit to what Europe can do. Le Pen, Orban and Wilders reflect very real concerns about importing Sunni and Shia Muslims who may well continue their religious wars in Europe. There is also the very real threat of Al Nusra, IS and other terrorist clubs sending foot soldiers in disguised as refugees and causing havoc, witness Charlie Hebdo for instance.
      I don’t think there would be much concern about Ukrainian refugees causing problems, should it come to that, but there definitely is a danger in admitting Afghans, Eritreans, Syrians, Iraqis and others in huge numbers. This concern should not be underestimated. And another question Van Voren does not answer is: Why should Europe take on every refugee from outside the continent?

      • Brent

        I’m not saying Europe should be taking every refugee, just that Europe needs to become more engaged in preventing refugee crisis to occur to begin with.

        Look at the position of the ‘useful idiots’ like Orban, Le Pen, Wilders, and now Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. All of them openly are supportive of Putin. The same warmongering wannabee World Superpower leader who is supporting the cause of the refugee crisis in Syria (Assad) and potentially also in Ukraine if he openly invades other oblasts.

        Even leaders like Merkl and Hollande are more interested in ‘doing business as usual’ as opposed to trying to stop Putin with effective economic sanctions, and as a result, they are lending a hand to Putin’s involvement in creating this refugee crisis to begin with.

        The current (and possibly future) refugees have homelands. Europe needs to do more NOW to stop murdering tyrants like Assad and Putin from destroying the homelands of these refugees, or they are going to have to be willing to take in many more refugees.

        There was a ‘useful idiot’ on the Kyiv Post website named Calibra who felt it was not Europe’s problem and Europe should not get involved in Russia’s war on Ukraine, much the same like Europe shouldn’t be involved in stopping Assad. Guess what? It has now become Europe’s problem because the EU has not effectively stopped Putin’s support of Assad and the war in Syria and Syrian refugees are pouting into the EU to save themselves and their families from Putin and Assad’s war on them. It could become the EU’s problem if Putin openly invades Ukraine.

        Do enough now to stop these wars, or face more refugees in the future.

  • Dagwood Bumstead

    Van Voren mentions 200,000 Hungarian refugees, which is a far cry from the number now trying to reach Europe. Furthermore, the Hungarians did not settle in Austria alone, but also in Switzerland, West Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and other Western European countries- Gyula Marsovski, a 1970s motorcycle racer, settled in Switzerland for example. Van Voren knows this perfectly well, but fails to mention this.
    The numbers currently trying to reach the EU are staggering. Germany will probably receive some 800,000 this year alone, and the numbers for next year will probably be similar. If not checked, there will be millions every year- by no means all refugees, but also economic fortune seekers. There is simply no way that Europe can deal with them all. Quite apart from language and culture problems, where are they going to find employment given the high levels of unemployment in most EU states?
    Another question is, why aren’t the wealthy Gulf states- Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Oman- helping? The Syrians and Iraqis are co-religionists and fellow Arabs, yet they aren’t admitting even a fraction of the numbers Europe is. Nor are they pulling their weight financially- they donated a total of $900 million, but the US alone donated four times that amount. To their great credit Lebanon and Jordan are the only Arab countries doing their best, but their resources are limited.

  • Being

    Refugees? Refugees 86% young strong men running from war. Using pregnant women as lifeshield. throwing children over high fence to sovereign country. Throwing stones at police, throwing food, water, rubbish all over the place, everywhere. Making fake passports, visas, driving licence. And surprisingly all are from Syria.
    One is surpised when so many men run away from war Who has left there to fight?

    And Who is responsible for that?

    Who will take responsibility… NOBODY.