The least we can do

Hungary has made the news in Ireland. When I was there last week it seemed like all anyone was talking about was the migration situation. Pictures of Keleti train station. Pictures of Szeged. Pictures of the fence. Pictures of families sitting, waiting for an uncertain future.

The one overriding question asked of me was “Is it as bad as they say?” And the only answer to that is no. It’s worse. And then they asked why Hungary (and by implication, Hungarians) wasn’t doing more. People in Germany were offering up their homes on AirBnb. Austrians were driving to the border and beyond to pick up families and take them home. Angela Merkel was offering to take in hundreds of thousands. Ireland might only be taking 4000 (to our shame, some say) but Hungary doesn’t appear to want any at all.

I had neither the political nor the sociology background to answer their questions with anything even approaching authority. But when I started to talk about my experiences and what I’ve seen and heard and read, I was a little surprised at what came out.

None of the current Hungarian government is on my Christmas card list. Neither is the Roman Catholic Church in Hungary. I believe they both could have done more. And yet I found myself taking quite a defensive position.

I reminded my petitioners that here in Hungary, people don’t have much. Monthly take-home salaries are figured in hundreds of euro rather than thousands. Flats are small. There are no spare rooms to offer.

Some 40% of the population hasn’t enough to make it to the end of the month. Farmers watch as the crops they need to get their family through the winter are picked clean by those passing through. Many in the east of the country live hand to mouth. Many in the cities, too.

And while the international press might scathingly report on the quality of food provided at the camps, they forget that patients in Hungarian hospitals fare no better. And while they castigate the police for their heavy-handedness, they forget that Hungary, as a Schengen border country, has been charged with keeping that border safe.

And yes, it could all have been done differently. Ideologically it’s a shared border that should be manned by all Schengen countries. The responsibility should not fall on Hungary alone. But then does Hungary want help? Yet another question I cannot answer.


The government here is making a hames of it all (and it’s not alone).  But the people, individual Hungarians, are showing a generosity of spirit that should not be forgotten. It has to be difficult to see Keleti awash with young people scrambling not for food but for places to plug in their smartphones. To see queues at Western Union as money is wired for train tickets out. To see placards thanking Germany and shaming Hungary.

It’s an impossible situation. Everyone has an opinion. Many are simply afraid.

Afraid that ISIS might be using this exodus to Europe as a cover. Afraid that we might wake up one morning to find our churches replaced by mosques. Afraid that our poor and our homeless will lose out to those who are looking not for a safe place to live but for a better standard of living.

Fear makes us say stupid things. It makes us batten down the hatches and indiscriminately protect what we have. It makes us add exclusivity clauses to which neighbour we should love.

And while letters of accusation fly back and forth between governments and EU leaders scramble to get their act together, more and more refugees arrive at the Schengen border in the hope that they will be granted access to a safer world. The very least that we can do is to show some compassion.

First published in the Budapest Times 18 September 2015

18 Responses

  1. Well done………brave. The difficulties that face ordinary Hungarians will not have appeared in the English newspapers. Reports of this humanitarian disaster seem to have taken a different tack over the last week or so, the horror of the drowned child seems to be fading and is being replaced with a realisation that what we are seeing is a mass migration of people, whether you would describe these people as refugees would depend on your point of view and your definition of a refugee but they are certainly real people with real needs. While your friends at home are pointing accusing fingers at Hungary it would be good if they pondered Germany’s actions (Germany has been portraying itself as some kind of white knight)…….a dwindling population means that Germany needs to expand its population with young blood, it has announced this to the world, recent figures for this years intake have moved from 800,000 to 1,000000. Not refugees but immigrants. Strange that after those annoucements people who have been forced to leave their homes in war torn Syria have decided to make the dangerous journey across Europe to seek a future in ……….Germany. Another thought, those who seem to know, suggest that while the Syrian civil war continues, this mass migration problem will continue. Certainly one of the reasons that it is continuing is due to the propping up of President Assad by Russia and Iran………both countries who would be very happy to see the turmoil in Europe continue. In the middle are people for whom we as individuals cannot but feel sympathy and compassion……….our governments have to make harder decisions.

    1. I can’t help but wonder why a concerted effort wasn’t made for programme refugees way before now. It’s not as if this mass migration is something that just happened on a Tuesday. It’s been on the cards for months if not years. Programmes, whereby people can apply for asylum from their home country and then be taken in by the host country (which is in large part what Ireland does and what I think Cameron is arguing for) would appear to be the sensible route. Help people from the start – don’t force them to make a journey to God knows where in the hope that they might just be accepted. Canada has been doing it for years. As has Australia. Finland did it successsfully with Somalia… but then, perhaps it’s already too late.

      1. As events are working out the stance that the British Government has taken over the last couple of years seems to have been a reasonable one. However I am less bothered about the decisions made by some of the individual countries but rather more concerned about how the EU is approaching this crisis………not very well, this on the back of a poor showing during the still ongoing Greek problems and the EU approach to the problems in Ukraine do not leave one with a great deal of confidence in the EU future.

  2. Reblogged this on clive75mercer and commented:
    I am trying to understand the point of view you are expressing. However, my understanding is that these people don’t want to stay in Hungary, they just want to pass through, so why not ease that passage, why close the border, block the route, why the xenophobia about Islam threatening Christianity. Why the declaration of a state of emergency, giving the definitely “dodgy” Government virtually limitless powers over it’s own population. Sorry Mary, I hear what you are saying , or read what you are writing, but the actions taken overnight on September 15 th., ostensibly in response to the Migration issue, are more likely a God sent opportunity for the Orban Regime to assume an unassailable position, that may well see their exit from the European Union, and into a closer alliance with President Putin’s Russia. I wonder how the Hungarian People would react to that possibility, or how many remember Russian Tanks rolling into Budapest in 1956, when 200,00 Hungarians fled into Austria. I suspect that the poverty of those years under communist domination, are reflected in the economic state of the country today, the poor quality housing, poor quality health care, and the anti Semitism, that hangs on from both the Communist, and Nazi era’s. Hungary’s 20th and so far 21st century history does not make pretty reading.
    Yes, resoundingly yes, there are wonderful people who have given, shared, and cared for immigrants on their passage through the country; the new laws are going to make such humanitarian acts, difficult and those who would offer such care will be placing themselves at great risk, from heavy handed retribution by the Police and Military. acting at the behest of the Government. That the Hungarian Catholic Church hierarchy has absolved itself from taken even the most basic humanitarian actions, not even stepping up to “mildly ” chide the Government that it’s actions are not in line with basic Christian beliefs, is indefensibly. These people have no right to their positions as leaders, guides, mentors and comforters; they are as bad and damaging in their own way, as the paedophile revelations that have rocked the Church over recent years. Utterly, utterly shameful.

    1. In accordance with the Dublin Treaty, my understanding is that even if people don’t want to stay in Hungary – it is back to Hungary they will be sent if their claims for asylum are turned down by Germany or Austria or whomever. And then what?

  3. A few thoughts from an American who has lived in Hungary for several years. What many outside Hungary don’t appreciate is that the government’s attitude towards the migrants is not much different from how it treats its own people. And yes, you are right about this being mostly about the government and not so much the Hungarian people themselves, although at some level they are connected. Europe, in general, is also much more tribal than the US and it is much harder for immigrants to become integrated into their societies. Unlike the US, where the children of immigrants are essentially fully integrated, the children of immigrants in Europe tend to face even more discrimination than their immigrant parents.

    But this is also about something else, something much more important to the current government. Another factor not many appreciate is how well this situation can be exploited by the current government to promote a certain political stance to mitigate the defection of more extreme right-wing elements of the ruling Fidesz party to the Facist Jobbik party, which continues to gain in popularity here. Many things the government here does feeds into this need to protect its right flank. And this is a legitimate concern. Many of the most highly educated and ambitious young Hungarians leave the country because of the lack of opportunity, and frankly what’s left are not the more liberal leaning people. Outside of Budapest is another world (just as you find outside the major US cities), where people are even poorer and especially the young are more open to the kinds of messages promoted by Jobbik. But while one can debate about whether to let the migrants in or keep them out, what I personally find disturbing is the complete lack of any expression of sympathy or compassion by the government towards these people or even simply an acknowledgement of the difficulty of their situation. One could say I’m sorry for your suffering, but there is little I can offer. But the government has chosen not to do this, invoking the need to protect “Christian values” as their defense. It is a strange world.

    1. I wonder Mark about the idea that first generation Muslims migrants (as an example) would appear to be fully integrated say, in the UK, and more often it is their British-born children who are not. I’m not sure assimilation is generational. Fully with you on the complete absence of any expression of sympathy or compassion – and that, too, is lacking not just for migrants, but for Hungary’s own poor as well. The criminalisation of homelessness comes to mind.

      1. Mary, I have read studies on the generational aspects of assimilation in Europe, hence my remark. My experience in the US is the opposite, with the children of immigrants being more or less fully assimilated. In the US you have this interesting combination of full assimilation alongside cultural celebration and the preservation of the mother language and culture. Hence annual celebrations across the US for Cinco de Mayo, Carnivale, Chinese New Year, St. Patrick’s Day, various Italian saints, etc., etc.

        1. When I lived in the States (CA, AK, WA) I was struck by the ghettoisation (if that’s word) whereby nations tended to live together in neighbourhoods that were predominantly Spanish, Polish, Irish, Lithuanian, etc. Little homes from home. When I went out there first as an emigrant in the early 1990s, I was struck by how much the Irish stuck together and became, if anything, even more Irish than they were at home.

      2. Well, sure. You find that everywhere in the US, But over time these neighborhoods either spread or become more diffuse or even change identity completely from, say, (old) Irish to (new) Korean. This isn’t even limited to ethnicity. In Brooklyn, you have new hipster/gentrified neighborhoods that used to be predominantly black and Puerto Rican. It’s all just the natural churn that occurs across most urban areas.

  4. First of all, well done for an excellent article – a very well-balanced appreciation of the situation in Hungary. Do not, however, be sucked into (Mr?) Mercer’s empty rhetoric – dragging in everything from nazism to pederasty – and persuaded to feel shame in any degree. One may deplore the (in)action of others but shame must be reserved for one’s own – and in this awful situation the individual can make no more than token response. Even to take all that one has and give would merely, in effect, increase the mendicant horde by one.

    Nor is there much to be gained from apportioning blame for the situation, be it to the Bush ‘n Blair consortium, Saddam Huseyn and his like, ancient intra-Moslem schisms, people traffickers or anything else. Nothing can be done about them now. More culpable for the present situation are the Germans. They started the fashion for employing large numbers of ‘guest workers’ from the Middle East, mainly Turkey, when they were seriously short of manpower, and by proclaiming their desire to receive hundreds of thousands more they have opened the floodgates.

    It would have been sufficient, one thinks, for the Germans to let it quietly be known that opportunities existed, no specific number, and that applications were invited – thus involving no other countries. Those interested in working in Germany would then obtain passports, would be given visas and work permits as required, and the need for anyone illegally – i.e. without documents – to force an entry to the European Union would have been obviated. The present situation encourages numbers beyond estimation to flout the established conventions of international law. Those who know, as they surely do, that they would not be allowed into another country without such documentation have resorted to mob rule on a grand scale, relying on overwhelming numbers to cause the law to be set aside. Is there here an analogy with the teenage party advertised on Facebook, at which more arrive than anyone had envisaged and wreck the house?

    Worse still, many of these uninvited guests seem to feel entitled to special treatment. I was horrified yesterday to see on TV a migrant, leaving Zagreb on a train for which he had not had to buy a ticket, complaining loudly that there was a shortage of food, water and medical attention. He had clearly not been in Turkey long enough to learn the proverb that ‘The visitor eats what he gets, not what he hopes for’.

    Few if any of these migrants set out with the intention of seeking asylum in Hungary, a country with a long tradition of accepting distressed immigrants, from those fleeing Genghiz Khan onwards. Hungary also earned, the hard way, great distinction as the frontier of Christian Europe against the Ottoman Empire – followed by yet more immigration to repopulate the areas depopulated by the Turks. Being once more in an exposed frontier position Hungary has, at no little expense and after hoping for the need to go away, resorted to applying EU and generally conventional rules that others seem happy to ignore.

    To what is this all going to lead? One can foresee the end of the Schengen area, perhaps the end of the European Union itself, as its basic weaknesses have been laid bare. One of the attractive features of Europe (have you read Márton Csombor?) has always been the variety within the continent, and to abolish it, whether high-mindedly or militarily, has seemed to raise more problems than it solves – and as for the euro . . . I rest my case. The one sure outcome of all this seems to me the rise of a new category of beggar, but just where they will be time alone will tell.

      1. You won’t have read Kelemen Mikes’s Letters from Turkey, in which he points out (Letter 4) that the Moslem doesn’t hate the Christian, he despises him. That’s what’s happening now – these migrants don’t hate us, but they’ll take all they can get off us. How long do you suppose before Germany is a Moslem country?

  5. don’t take Gemany as measuerment….. the Goverment made at the beginning a big mistake…..and now don’t know how to get out of this situation ….beeing overrunned by 100.000’s of ” Refugees” …. big parts of Germans don’t want the 100.000’s of fals Refugees……we ( nobody…no staate) can handle more than 700.000 Asyl seekers per Year….by Sheltering, Housing, Healthcare, Food, …Registering and keep track of them by law!!!!

    1. But it’s Germany with whom Hungary is being compared Uli – and yes – even 10 000 could be a logistical nightmare (as Munich just discovered)

Talk to me...

%d bloggers like this:

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information on cookies and GDPR

Cookies and GDPR Compliance

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.

General Data Protection Regulation

If you have voluntarily submitted your email address so that you can receive notifications of new posts, please be assured that I don't use your address for anything other than to do just that - and that's done automatically. I might use your address, if I knew how to, but I don't.

This blog does not make money, it does not carry sponsored content, it has no ads for which I receive any form of payment. If I review a place or a restaurant or a book, I don't receive any compensation from anyone. I wish I did, but that would require marketing myself and life is too short. If something changes, I will be sure to let you know.

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the unsubscribe or manage subscription links at the bottom of every email you receive. When you comment on a blog post, Google Analytics tracks where you're posting from. This is stored and I can check my stats to see how many clicks I had today, where people clicked from, and what they clicked on. That's it. Nothing more.

I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive, particularly to other commenters. If you want to have one of your comments deleted, the please get in touch with me at: I'm all for the right to be forgotten so will happily oblige.

So, in a nutshell, if you give me your email address voluntarily to subscribe to new posts or if you opt to subscribe to new comments, then you email is just used for this. Nothing else. Promise.