Genies and Other Refugees

Following the case of refugees from Kosovo getting stuck at Keleti Railway Station in Budapest and at the railway station in Győr, professionals working with refugees and those more deeply familiar with the Hungarian refugee situation got upset by the government’s communication criminalizing refugees. We talked with multi-awarded head of RCH Refugee Ministry Dóra Kanizsai-Nagy and the Mission’s project coordinator Balázs Acsai about the dangers of the new communication, the misconceptions about refugees and the Christian attitude towards the refugee question.

The government formulated the following statements in connection with the Kosovo refugee wave at the beginning of the year: “Illegal immigrants shall be taken into aliens police custody irrespective of their asylum application”, “and if they are not entitled to refugee status they shall immediately be expelled from Hungary”. In February the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and five other civil societies drew the attention of the members of the Parliament to the dangers of intentionally modifying the facts in connection with immigration.

Are there indeed problems with the above-mentioned statements?

- Balázs Acsai: The problem is that the government is talking about the establishment of an institutional setting that already exists in Hungary. And statistics prove that this institutional setting is working: the volume of people applying for refugee status has increased, but the number of people recognized as refugees has not changed. That is, the number of people recognized as refugees is the same as before, which means that it is possible to filter out people arriving with legitimate causes, and there is a well-established practice for doing so.

Another frequently mentioned view nowadays is that “culturally alien” people shall not come to this country. Is Hungary threatened by culturally different migrants? 

- B. A.: This is a false problem. There is a greater difference between an average Hungarian employee and a German manager than between an average Hungarian employee and the refugees I know. 

- Dóra Kanizsai-Nagy: This centrally controlled common talk has been present in Hungary since the Charlie Hebdo attack. The recognition rate is independent from culture and is controlled by the 1951 Refugee Convention. The convention makes a decision based not on the social or cultural status but on how life-threatening the place is where the refugee is fleeing from. At present there are no large diasporas in Hungary except for a few national minorities, nevertheless, we joined the aforementioned United Nations convention in 1989, therefore we are obliged to comply with it.

The term “make-a-living immigrant”, which was borrowed by the Hungarian News Agency following statements made by Fidesz-politicians, is also becoming more and more frequently used. What does it mean to be a “make-a-living immigrant”? 

- B. A.: This is a genie to refer to Eastern, foreign cultures. Another problem with the term is that it is a pejorative word. It suggests that it is bad to move somewhere else to make a living. While, if we come to think of it, those hundreds of thousands of people who died of hunger in Somalia would have also been make-a-living immigrants. In Hungary they would have not been legally recognized as refugees because on the basis of the Refugee Convention they would not have been considered as having any problems - the children who were surrounded by vultures were not exposed to any persecution. An important part of our work is that we know we are dealing with the integration of people who can legally stay here and who meet strict requirements that the majority of Hungarians would not meet, actually. I am of the opinion that we should not regard it an aspect whether someone dies of not being able to make a living or because they are persecuted. All people in need have to be helped, it is just that at the refugee mission we deal with those who actually meet the political requirements.

- D. K.-N.: Not to mention that the economic situation can actually lead to stigmatization. For example, according to unwritten law a person from Central Africa, Pakistan or Afghanistan does not have a bank account but instead buys gold. I have experienced several times that I accompanied a woman with beautiful golden rings and earrings to a job interview, internship or volunteer job to join a congregation, and she might have got employed, but I heard the remarks that the woman is not in need after all as she has so much golden jewellery. But that woman has no family as all of her relatives have been killed, she is living in Hungary and receives a 20 000-forint financial support. Everyone has status symbols, for her these are pieces of golden jewellery, this is what makes her feel like others. Many times we do not only stigmatize on the basis of poverty but also on the basis of apparent valuables.

Nowhere in the European Union has the number of asylum-seekers increased as significantly as in Hungary, says the Hungarian daily newspaper Magyar Nemzet. According to the newspaper, while previously 2000-3000 asylum applicants were registered per year on average, since last year this number has multiplied nine times, that is, it has risen to 20 000. Have the statistics indeed changed like this? The growing number of asylum-seekers means a growing financial burden as well, the newspaper argues that in 2012-2013 the management of refugees cost 5 billion forints. Do we have enough capacity for this?

- D. K.-N.: Last year we had 40 000 asylum-seekers, 530 of them became recognized refugees. When I began working at the refugee mission in 2008 there were 1300 asylum-seekers and 100 were recognized as refugees. In common talk we easily confuse these statuses, although an asylum-seeker can easily become an expelled person. There is indeed an increase, but we can handle this volume of asylum-seekers. At the same time we are shocked to see the frightening fertilizations taking place, for example right now at the railway station in Győr, where the people in question are well-dressed middle-class people from Kosovo speaking several foreign languages.

- B. A.: I don’t think that providing accommodation and showering facilities should mean a problem for a country like ours. Both in Győr and at the Keleti Railway Station in Budapest the people in question were Muslims for whom washing is a ritual act, therefore we should not fertilize in their presence but provide humane conditions instead. Nowadays common talk also tends to stigmatize those who travel without valid papers, while this can in fact be a proof that the people in question are entitled to apply for asylum. Somalia, for example, does not exist in an administrational sense, there are no passports, therefore a Somali can only travel without a passport. European history also saw periods – for example the time people were fleeing from Germany in the 1930s – when there were fleeing strategies how to cross borders for example, and there were information bases with devices on a technological level disposable at that time of course. Therefore, fleeing without papers can actually be the proof that the problems exist.


The press frequently mentions that people living along the borders are afraid, for example, that refugees would commit crimes. Is this also a false belief?

- B. A.: I was a social worker at the camp in Bicske, I left my ignition key in my car, my office door was always open, the place was very safe, it never occurred to me that anything would happen.

- Why not?

- B. A.: Because the Counter-Terrorism Center and the state security organs filter out well in advance if these people are terrorist or criminals. If this filter did not work then this would be the area to develop, but it works quite well. Furthermore, in my experience recognized refugees avoid clashes with the authorities because they got a chance in this country and they will not ruin it with trespassing.

- D. K.-N.: Recognized refugees look upon themselves as guests: they got a new chance in a safe country where they can let their children go to the school and the child comes back in the afternoon without getting exploded on the street. A basic principle of the refugee mission is that we look upon these people as guests too – not as people in need, not as ill people, not as wounded puppies – but as people for whom we try to provide every means to start a new life. The mayors of Debrecen and Vámosszabadi made statements that girls in their cities are afraid to get on the bus because they are molested by foreign men. However, in the refugee camp in Bicske the experiences are different. Our project inters, usually fresh graduates, beautiful and clever American girls living in the camps, are always moved to see how much respect they receive from refugees. It seems that it depends on the city as well how residents approach the refugee issue. In Ásotthalom, where the mayor is radical right-wing politician László Torockai, refugees are hunted, it’s good that blood money is not set on refugees’ heads. And a few kilometres away, in Röszke, residents are friendly and welcoming with refugees. 

- B. A.: Both towns are inhabited by Hungarians, but in one of them refugees are approached with empathy, while the other town focuses on enemy construction. Actually this is a question of how the leadership and the society are informed. Hungarians are not as much against foreigners as it is portrayed by the media. Immigrants do face disadvantages, but this does not result from bad intent but from lack of knowledge. For example, refugees do not receive an invoice when renting a flat not because they are refugees but because Hungarian landlords do not provide an invoice. Or neighbours do not chat with refugees not because they are refugees but because the neighbours do not speak English. There are very few pensioners who speak good English. And by the way we witnessed many times how neighbours grew to a new family. On the other hand, however, if immigrants commit something illegal, they have to be punished. Their new life depends a lot on how they begin it and how they can handle initial stress.

Another frequently mentioned presupposition is that refugees take jobs away from Hungarians. Is this also a false belief?

- B. A.: This is not an actual danger in the Hungarian social system. We deal with recognized refugees and protected people who cannot get on a level of standard that would enable them to take jobs away from Hungarians. There is no education that could make them competitive even at the simplest workplaces. And those who receive a visa can only have a job that fills a gap in the labour market and does not take jobs away from the Hungarians. Another offensive gesture is when the social support received by refugees is compared to that received by Hungarians. The support received by refugees is not so significant that it should be envied, not to mention that refugees have to rely on this sum to make up for the disadvantage of not having grown up in Hungary. For example, of not having the social capital and social network every Hungarian has. It is a false and demonizing comparison: the fearing of the presumed, the fearing of our own existence turns us into enemies.

- D. K.-N.: And if they get employed, they usually get a job in hospitality. I know a refugee who has a diploma in agricultural engineering and religious education and prefers to sell gyros, because, although he was offered other possibilities, he feels that this is more secure in the long run. We can build upon refugee’s language knowledge as well since they speak languages seldom spoken here. It would be good if people with diploma could be employed in their own field of expertise, but this happens very scarcely. Doctors can be happy if they get employed in public health in a much lower position at all. 

NGOs have expressed their concern that the new government communication can endanger EU funds. How exactly? 

- B. A.: The Hungarian Parliament signed a migration strategy two years ago. It was compiled by experts, including us and there were negotiations with NGOs as well.  And we have a national program that should also be in line with the migration strategy. 

- D. K.-N.: This national program is based on the migration strategy and controls how funds will be called during the European Union’s next 7-year budget cycle starting this year. 

- B. A.: The problem is that these statements are in total contrast with the migration strategy and the principles of the national program. After giving it a little consideration, anyone can pose the question in Brussels: hey, we are reading the newspapers, how do you actually imagine this whole thing? This could endanger exactly those funds that would be received by us to solve the publicly feared problems. And thereby it could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Name a principle that the statements are in contrast with. 

- D. K.-N.: The migration strategy explicitly states that we support all types of migration. And now everything is happening against this. 


As experts, are you surprised by this?

- D. K.-N.: It is shocking to hear how members of the Parliament mix up concepts despite the fact that there have been NGO projects held for people working in the media to clarify legal statues. This is harmful not only in respect of the national program and the funds to be received from Brussels, but also because it means that we can throw away the communicational work of long years and of course the money received from Brussels aimed at the sensitization of communication if the information flowing on a national level is false.

If you oppose the communicational change too, why have you not joined the NGOs’ open letter?

- B. A.: We adhere to the standpoint of the Reformed Church. Besides, we are different from NGOs in several ways: we deal with the facilitation of integration and we build up our projects in this direction. We are absolutely practical: we answer a housing problem with a housing solution, a language education problem with teaching Hungarian.

- D. K.-N.: The Reformed Church of Hungary has a very good integration service system, no other churches or NGOs have this. This is a multi-year service tailored to individual needs and offering help in every walk of life for those recognized as refugees. The situation of refugees is constantly evolving: our laws are getting more and more structured and they try to fill the existing gaps not only in terms of custody and expulsion but also concerning integration. The provision of social support for recognized refugees used to be fragmented and bureaucratic, but this changed a year ago, and now this support is written down in an integration agreement, paid by the family care centre and monitored by the Office of Immigration. NGOs rather speak about these problems and they try to pave the way through lobbying and communication. But the main reason we have not joined the letter is our association with the church.

To what extent do the refugees get involved in the life of the Reformed Church?

- B. A.: This is a difficult question in several respects. One is that a project funded from secular sources cannot have the message that it calls people upon church activity.  Another aspect is that it is very difficult not to make a dialogue shaped in this direction become an abuse against defenceless people. It is simply not nice to trouble people while you are hosting them and when your interest is to make them get on by themselves as soon as possible. In this dialogue external congregational initiation could take up a huge role – there are not many -, because in this case we could point out the background of our activity and have a discussion about it on a third, volunteer forum.

- D. K.-N.: If someone would like to help, we can offer several opportunities. For example, at the service centre in Budapest one can organize community child programs or can volunteer as a Hungarian tutor by talking with a refugee in Hungarian once a week even. Young people are welcome just as much as grandparents. There are many possibilities in refugee camps as well if someone lives close to one: it can be a religious service occasion or a simple play centre. Congregational activity like this would have a huge message both externally and internally. There have been a few instances of such activity, but there could be more. Refugees have to face many obstacles to joining congregational life, too. If we make ourselves aware of these problems, we can overcome them more easily. For example, it would be nice to make congregations more open culturally: a Muslim from Iraq has difficulties in joining the life of the Reformed community both linguistically and denominationally. The Scottish Mission has such endeavours, they are looking for the ways a foreigner could become an active member of the congregation.

The RCH Refugee Ministry provides help for internationally protected persons and for recognized refugees in Hungary to build and start their life here as soon as possible. People who are entitled to live in Hungary and were able to move out from the refugee camps and stations can participate in the programmes. They are assisted in housing, employment, education and everyday life. At present the Mission has three projects: the Migrant Afterschool Program, the School Integration Program and the Housing Project. When deciding about the participants of these programmes, the primary aspect taken into consideration is that who has the biggest need for help: single refugee mothers, large families and unaccompanied minors are regarded as people particularly exposed to danger.

The Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe (CCME) emphasized on its conference last year that the proper Christian attitude in the discourse on refugees would be to “accept our responsibility towards the people in need even if it costs money and if the refugees are not from among us.” This would mean that the government, who defines itself as Christian, does not only oppose the refugee policy of the European Union but also that of the Christian churches.

- B. A.: Then one of them is not Christian. There are no other logical answers to this. Ironically speaking, it might be the CCME.

- D. K.-N.: The CCME has indeed been criticizing the view which presents Europe as “a fortress under siege” for years. The emblematic photograph which rose to world-fame and was taken by Spanish refugee activist José Palazon expresses this well, too: it shows Spanish golfers behind whom African refugees are climbing in through the walls.  We are indeed building walls and beyond the walls in the Mediterranean Sea ten thousands of people die and many die at the walls too. The CCMA speaks about how Christian responsibility looks like near the walls of the fortress. Out of the EU’s 7-year budget enormous amounts of money are spent on these invisible walls: on barbed wires, cameras, jeeps, in Hungary as well. Little money is spent on integration. Of course, not everyone can come in compliance with the Refugee Convention. But those who cannot come that way have to be provided the legal possibility to stay in the EU, no matter how bureaucratic it is. We, members of the Reformed Church in Hungary help recognized refugees, but Western churches support refugees in a much more determined and active way. In the framework of its Church Protection Project the German Evangelical Church deals even with illegal immigrants and rejected asylum-seekers. Some of their congregations provide accommodation, food and drink to refugees and pay for their health and legal costs. 60-70% of the supported eventually receive the recognized refugee status by the way. It can be seen from the German practice as well that we give the refugee status to much less people than would be entitled to. If we give more time and opportunity to get to know people, they can more easily prove the legitimacy of their fleeing.

- B. A.: I consider it a Christian behaviour when the church does not only preoccupy itself with how much money it receives for education but is able to communicate higher values as well towards the society. The main driving force behind the prejudice against refugees is the exploitation of the feeling of danger. Recently the Hungarian border security has spent 80 million forints on a Land Rover Defender equipped with all kinds of gadgets which help catch refugees. We can use this money to assist 150 people to reach a self-sustaining level during our 1.5-year programme. Reconciliation could be enhanced if a voice from the church said that there should be order in Kosovo and let’s see what type of mission we could send there to help this.

How could Hungary help Kosovo become a place to live?

- B. A.: Maybe in the way some Hungarian projects supporting voluntary homecoming already successfully do. If people seek asylum and then change their mind, they have opportunities to receive support for starting their business in their country of origin, thereby avoiding the situation of having to leave again due to financial reasons. I think that forming the dialogue in this way can have a good message and its practical implementation is also possible since migration is a problem in the whole of Europe. Of course there is a risk factor as well, as this money gets corruptly stolen in Kosovo just like any other money.

Information about the Interviewees


Dóra Kanizsai-Nagy: I graduated in international relations at King Sigismund College and Corvinus University of Budapest. I have been working at the Refugee Mission since 2008 where the two areas kindest to me, foreign affairs and mission are combined and where we can work towards changes affecting the long-term future as well as the everyday life of people. I was appointed head of the mission in 2011. Since the beginning it has been very important to me to actively search for the ways we can provide practical help to those turning to us. It is very important for me to show how the church can apply the apparently abstract values in practice. The refugee mission aims to provide concrete practical help in the whole spectrum of integration, i.e. in the fields of housing, education, vocational training and employment since this way the refugees arriving in our country and receiving protection can get a chance to rebuild their life and home. ‘Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?’ 


Balázs Acsai: I graduated in Reformed Theology in Sárospatak, where as an exceptional gift from God I was encouraged to apply what I learned in practice. Following jobs in secular and social fields I began working with refugees in 2009 at the refugee station of the Office of Immigration and Nationality in Bicske. As I got to know this peculiar field I realized that this is where I most feel home in service. After spending one and a half year there I came to work with the refugee mission following the encouragement of one of my colleagues. At first I worked as a social worker, and since 2012 I have been mainly working as the coordinator of the housing program. As a theologian it is a great joy for me that I can work in a truly collegial team aiming to make our service operate in a harmonized, practical system communicating the values important for us.

Glossary: A Few Important Terms Relating to Refugees 

Refugee Convention (1951): The term refugee applies to any person who, due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country. The well-founded fear of being persecuted can be based on events taking place after the foreigners left their country of origin or on the foreigners’ activities carried out after having left the country of origin.

Recognized refugee: They receive a status very similar to that of Hungarian citizens, the state can even issue passports for them if necessary. Refugees have the same rights as Hungarian citizens except for the right to vote in the parliamentary elections. They can apply for Hungarian citizenship after staying uninterruptedly in Hungary for three years and if they meet the several requirements.

Protected person: People are entitled to this status if they are not refugees but there is a real danger that if they are sent back to their country of origin they would be exposed to “grave harm”. The meaning of grave harm: death penalty, torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the threatening of a civil person’s life or personality due to indiscriminate violence in the background of which there is armed violence. The status and legal situation of protected people are very similar to those of refugees and thus to those of Hungarian citizens.

Admitted person: The Hungarian law uses this term for those foreigners needing international protection who cannot be sent back to their country of origin because they would be victims of persecution, torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or death penalty but are not entitled to refugee or protected status either. The admitted status is given for one year (it can be extended later) and includes the possibility to be employed, but only in case of formerly obtained work permit. Admitted people are not provided travel documents by the state (even if they do not have any kind of travel documents).

Source of the Hungarian text:

Dóra Sindelyes

Originally published in Confessio RCH Online Review /Quarterly/

Translated by Anna Kótay-Nagy

Photos: Vargosz

Cover photo: Román Péter