‘They will rape our daughters!” These kinds of preposterous exclamations shattered the idyll of the peaceful village of Vámosszabadi in western Hungary.
This summer a new refugee camp has caused havoc and xenophobic outcries in Hungary. This is just the latest evidence that Hungary needs to change how it treats immigrants, both on a governmental and civic level.
Village life in Hungary is much the same as everywhere else. People gossip, everyone knows everyone, and what everyone is doing. They greet each other on the streets and any animosity against outsiders is long gone... as long as your skin is not too dark.
A few months ago the residents of Vámosszabadi woke up to the news that the government was about to open a refugee camp close to their homes. This decision by the Interior Ministry was not taken in consultation with the political leadership of the village.
According to the ministry’s plans, the camp would be situated within walking distance of Vámosszabadi and facilitate a maximum of 200 refugees. The facility is to be open, meaning the refuges are free to go wherever they want; a measure which further infuriated the villagers.
Immediately after the news broke, the residents organized to protest. The main fears of the villagers included a rise in crime rates, the possibility that the refugees will molest and insult their children, and that they will spread diseases.
Such paranoid worries shows how much certain places in Hungary are cut off from globalization and the rise of racial tolerance.
In the capital, Budapest, people are much more tolerant and liberal because they have some level of interaction with foreigners from all over the world, debunking many stereotypes. Whereas in the villages people are mostly subjected to little or no diversity, and the unknown poses a threat.
This was also the case in Vámosszabadi, which has a population of 1,600.
Although their efforts to prevent the opening of the camp were ultimately futile, the Facebook page supporting their cause got twice as many sympathizers as the number of residents in the village.
The protest group tried to convince people from neighboring areas to join their cause, but failed. The neighboring villages couldn’t understand what the uproar was about. The people of GyÖr, a larger Hungarian city just a few kilometers from Vámosszabadi, didn’t share the villagers’ fears.
Vámosszabadi residents even organized a march through GyÖr, holding torches, to protest against the refugees coming ‘to upset their peace and quiet.’ Despite these protests the camp opened, and obviously the apocalyptic predictions were proven incorrect.
The villagers, however, only agreed to a temporary camp, which will have to cease operating in March, at which time the government will have to review the necessity of the facility. No one really knows what is going to happen after March.
For now the police presence in the area has been drastically raised, cameras have been installed and villagers have bought dogs and installed alarms. Pro-protest Facebook users are cheerfully counting the days until their village “gets rid of the foreign threat.”
But the more they interacted with the refugees, the more most people started realizing their fears were completely unfounded. They met peaceful families residing in the refugee camp.
At first voices could be heard claiming that the refugee camp and its inhabitants don’t cause any problems as long as refugees come from Kosovo. Refugees from Africa, on the other hand, were portrayed as a huge threat to the local community.
After having their first encounters with African refugees, most people have ignored the stereotypes. They have seen refugees going to the library and using the Internet and recognize the differences are actually very minor.
While there are still people raising strong voices against the camp, the fact is that the refugees have more reason to be afraid of the villagers’ hostility than the other way around.
LAST YEAR there were a bit over 2,000 asylum seekers, but this year the number is eight times higher. The country has no experience in coping with that many refugees, and has mismanaged the issue.
Many of them are kept behind bars, in closed camps, even though they are harmless.
Many are subject to police brutality.
This has escalated to such levels that in Germany an Afghan asylum seeker started a hunger strike to protest his transfer back to a Hungarian camp. Some EU countries have even taken measures against having the refugees deported back to these conditions.
The EU direly needs to ease the immigration process, and Hungary has its own issues to resolve. More interaction is needed with foreigners, and the government must make conditions better by granting more open facilities, and not imprison peaceful and innocent refugees.
There should be a thorough investigation of abuse cases. In addition Hungary should look beyond its borders to find examples of solutions. The few facilities Hungary actually has are overcrowded, badly managed, and many of them are prison-like. Easing immigration processes would reduce the time refugees have to stay in such camps, require fewer capacities and overall ease the situation in such camps.
The author is a Young Voices Advocate from Budapest, where he is studying law.
He runs his own blog and contributes articles to a Hungarian economics website. He is also the program director and youth coordinator at a Hungarian economics think tank and vice director at a Hungarian organization called Polgári Platform that he also helped found.