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Posts Tagged ‘Hungary’

Lion fountain in Vörösmarty tér, Budapest

Lion fountain in Vörösmarty tér, Budapest

Keleti (Eastern) railway station in Budapest has been much in the news lately thanks to the Hungarian government’s flip-flop position on the passage of refugees (who, having fled homes made unsafe by war, paid smugglers and risked drowning, have lost nearly everything) seeking to find asylum in the European Union. As a portion of the total population of the countries they come from, these crowds are small (most of Syria’s refugees are in other part of Syria or in camps in neighbouring states such as Lebanon and Jordan), but there has been no co-ordinated attempt to process those who have travelled to Europe.

Keleti station was also where I found myself arriving to in 1987 on a train from Vienna Westbahnhof, at the start of what turned out to be an 18 year separation from my country of origin. In my own head, I fancied myself something like the like the narrator in Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains, and I don’t think flying in to Hungary would have had the same impact. Trains are less generic than planes, and terminus stations inject you in to the heart of the city. On the way they give you sneak previews of back gardens, back bedrooms (and the lives that must go on in them) and the state of people’s fences and side streets forces you to contrast with how they look on the other side of the border.

On a train you inhale the country from behind glass before you step down onto the platform and into the crowd. For me, it was simply exotic to see people going about their daily business. Many in uniform (nearly all Hungarian conscripts, a few Russian officers), others dragging many heavy bags with bags taking “goods” to sell in one of the city’s markets, and a few tourists and visitors, like me. The atmosphere further enhanced by the (to me) by the odd-smelling tobacco smoke and even odder smelling fumes from some of the cheaper motor cars in the streets outside. Plus, of course, the exotic further destinations on offer…. Moscow, Bucharest, Berlin, Athens.

You didn’t have to be in Hungary too long for it to be impressed upon you, with both pride and worry, that Hungary is just one of those countries on transit routes in and out of Europe. Whether Hungary itself was in or out of Europe was never answerable, not completely. The rhetoric from the Hungarian authorities in English toward the EU may fairly be paraphrased as “this is just us imposing the EU’s own regulations on the registration of refugees”. But the script in-country appears to be darker; the language and tone is more about exclusion and the protection of ‘heritage’.

Here are a few recent Orban quotes, just on the topic of immigration (taken from this blog posting on The Orange Files):

 

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“Economic immigration is a bad thing in Europe. It shouldn’t be seen as something that is of any use at all, because it just brings difficulty and danger to the European person. This is why immigration must be stopped. This is the Hungarian viewpoint.” January 11, 2015, speaking to Hungarian Television reporter while in Paris to attend the Republican Marches against terrorism (source in Hungarian).

“At the same time, one must make it very definitely clear that we will not permit—at least as long as I am the prime minister and as long is this government exists—it will not happen that Hungary becomes the target of immigrants.” January 11, 2015, speaking to Hungarian Television reporter while in Paris to attend the Republican Marches against terrorism (source in Hungarian).

“We do not want to see among us significant minorities that possess different cultural characteristics and background than us. We would like to preserve Hungary as Hungary.” January 11, 2015, speaking to Hungarian Television reporter while in Paris to attend the Republican Marches against terrorism (source in Hungarian).

“We do not want a multicultural society.” February 5, 2015, during interview with the German dailyFrankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (source in Hungarian).

“We want no more people to come. Those who are here, go home!” May 8, 2015, speaking about the refugee camp in Debrecen, the largest in Hungary (source in Hungarian).

“This camp must not be developed, but closed and those who live in it sent home!” May 8, 2015, speaking about the refugee camp in Debrecen, the largest in Hungary (source in Hungarian). 

“We would like it if Europe would continue to belong to the Europeans.” May 19, 2015, speaking during a European Parliament plenary-session debate regarding the Orbán government’s stance on immigration and the death penalty (source in Hungarian).

“Now they are calling us to account because we don’t argue in the questionnaires that you have to like immigrants. After all of this, why should we like them?”  June 5, 2015, speaking with regard to the government’s National Consultation on Immigration and Terrorism on pro-government state-run Kossuth Radio (source in Hungarian).

“There is no political persecution in either Serbia, Macedonia or Greece. Thus those who arrive here have come from countries where they don’t qualify as refugees. They don’t have to flee from there, thus I would like to make it clear that everybody, regardless of why they left their homeland, is a subsistence immigrant (megélhetési bevándorló) once they arrive in Hungary, because they could have stayed in Serbia as well.” June 5, 2015, speaking with regard to the government’s National Consultation on Immigration and Terrorism on pro-government state-run Kossuth Radio (source in Hungarian).

“There is no chance, we are going to send you back. This continent will not be your homeland, you have your own homeland, this is our homeland, we built it. We will gladly work together with you, we have our laws, respect them if you want to come here, which also has its own regulations. But it is impossible that you run across our fences and our borders in a way that violates the law.” July 3, 2015, on what to say to migrants who intend to enter Hungary illegally (source in Hungarian).

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Today even the Pope spoke out on this issue (Orban makes much of his immigration policy on defending Christian values). The BBC reported Pope Francis urging “every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary in Europe” to take in a family. The absurdity of the FIDESZ position is brought further into focus by the fact that many Hungarians have themselves had to flee as refugees in the last 100 years, and that the key event in the 1989 fall of the Berlin wall was the presence in makeshift camps in Hungary of thousands of East Germans, who also wanted only to cross the border.

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Back in 1987 on my own journey, I was being met by the manager of the language school I had been brought in to teach at, so I spent all of 10 minutes at Keleti, and not down to the huge subterranean concourse area of newspaper sellers, fast-food and pastry shops, and people warily selling all sorts of cheap goods. The type of welcome that the Syrian and Afghan refugees have encountered in recent months and, in particular, days in Budapest has veered from levels of volunteer warmth and empathy on a par with what we are seeing in many German and Austrian cities (locals offering food, water, shelter and care, and government agencies acting compassionately to offer aid) down to rather low, state-condoned purgatory and authoritarian and heavy-handed marshalling.

All the while Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, seems have been using the opportunity to make himself politically popular at home by adopting Donald Trumpian levels of political incorrectness abroad.

The test of democracy is not whether you can vote someone like this in, but whether you can vote them out. If not, then plenty of normal and decent Hungarians may also start voting with their feet.

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There’s been a falling domino effect with a succession of reminiscences and reportages about the 20th anniversary of the extraordinary second half of the year in 1989 which saw the very public end of most of eastern Europe’s communist regimes. Those events marked the end of a period of history in Europe, a division drawn in (geo)graphically following the speed of invading forces into area occupied by the Axis powers at the end of the Second World War. 

I was lucky, I suppose, to be living in Hungary in that year and seeing some of that momentum from “inside”, and it is almost nostalgic now seeing the footage and the hearing the voices of twenty years ago. Memories cannot be relied on not to filter, but I can recall the annual influx of tourists from East Germany to holiday by Lake Balaton in Hungary, many in order to meet up with friends or relatives from West Germany, and then the unprecedented build up of those people, many simply camping out in August and September to see what would happen – whether the rumours of a change of heart by the Hungarian government regarding access to Austria via the border crossings would materialise.

It did, of course, and the cavalcade of Trabants and Wartburgs in Hegyeshalom to Nickelsdorf was the moment at which the tightly-laced Iron Curtain unthreaded itself. The Hungarians already had much more liberal and frequent travel opportunities West, but for most other citizens of Warsaw Pact countries, this was forbidden.  For some, such as those suffering the lunacy of the final years of the Ceausescu regime in Romania (where the State had created a pathology of paranoia and schizophrenia at various levels of society) even travel to other communist countries was out of the question.

The Hungarian Communists simply voted themselves gleefully out of existence (well, actually, they re-branded themselves) and set in motion constitutional reform which would see the the digging up and veneration of the leaders of the 1956 uprising, the first democratic elections in eastern Europe, in the spring of 1990, and the packing up and taking back to Russia by the Soviet Army of all traces of occupation (including, literally, the kitchen sinks from the barracks). At last, Hungary could aim properly at being just like Austria!  In those months, its neighbours all did the end of communism in their own ways, and for some it almost did them in. December is the month of remembering the organised chaos of the Romanian revolution, and of the revelations about just how mad that regime was. Then the Romanians were free to aim properly at being just like Italy.

For all that it was an exciting period of history, my personal December 1989 revolution began on the 18th in a maternity clinic in Budapest’s soon-to-be-fashionable 9th district, with the birth of my first daughter, Amy.

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