If you’ve read the news recently you might well think that nobody in Europe has any interest in helping refugees. Governments are struggling to form a response to the current crisis, busy shifting the burden onto their neighbours, and arguing about quotas. On a local level, however, thousands of people throughout Europe have been stepping in to fill the void that the politicians have left. In Hungary, one group is bucking their country’s political trend and rather than rejecting refugees, offering them a helping hand.
When it comes to the European refugee crisis, the situation in Hungary is a particularly interesting one. The country’s geographical location means that it is a popular “transit country” for people travelling from Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Already this year, Hungary has registered some 120,000 people as immigrants, compared to 42,000 in the whole of 2014. At the same time, the country is currently – on paper at least – one of Europe’s most anti-immigration nations. Its conservative government recently ran an anti-immigrant billboard campaign and a poll in April showed that 46% of Hungarians classified themselves as anti-immigrant (a three-fold increase when compared to polls taken in the early 1990s). Things got even more extreme recently, when this July Hungarian troops began building a border fence along the country’s southern border with Serbia in an attempt to stop the flow of people entering the country.
But while the official line in Hungary is being clearly drawn up against the newly-arrived refugees, civil groups have been springing up all over the country, with Hungarians coming together to provide food and clothing for the exhausted and desperate people entering the country. One of these groups is Migszol, short for the “Migrant Solidarity Group of Hungary”. It was set up earlier this year in the city of Szeged – close to the country’s borders with Serbia and Romania – when a couple of friends noticed that people who had recently arrived in the city, including children and babies, were being locked out of the city’s railway station overnight, and temperatures were dropping. The next day they created the the Migszol Szeged Facebook group and within a couple of days the group had 1,000 members.
Today the group has over 2,500, with roughly 200 volunteers providing 24 hour support to hundreds of migrants each day. The organisation is based out of a wooden hut provided by the local council, with the city also covering the group’s electricity and water bills. The group has received financial support from generous donors, but most of its requests are for non-financial aid, with requests posted regularly in the Facebook group for food or other supplies, that people then bring by.
By now the Migszol movement has spread throught the country, with initiatives in Budapest, Debrecen and Pécs as well as other towns, while a similar group, the Migration Aid Group, now has over 12,000 followers and counting. So why did it all start in the city of Szeged? Maybe it’s the fact that the town lies near the border to other countries that means its residents are more open to different cultures, and less influenced by xenophobic national campaigns. That cultural openness is certainly at the core of the group’s key beliefs – that rather than building walls between countries, societies and people, solutions can be found by bringing them together, tearing down the (metaphorical and literal) walls that separate us and treating everyone as an equal, as a human being. Or, in the words of the group’s manifesto: “We’ve had enough walls, let’s build schools and hospitals, homes for Hungarians and migrants alike!”