When Thomas Mann, the famous German novelist, visited Budapest in 1937, he was greeted by Hungarian poet Attila József with a poem. The poem celebrates Mann, a political refugee of his time, as "a European among whites."
This line emphasizes how European identity is always much more than race or ethnicity. Now, at a time when so many people are acting inhumanely in the name of protecting Europe from foreigners, I often remember this poem.
Some people say this is the worst refugee crisis since World War II. I don’t think this is true. The number of refugees to have arrived so far this year is less than 430,000. It’s less than 0.6 percent of the total European population. Hosting half a million people is a logistical challenge, but it doesn't threaten the foundations of Europe. Lebanon, a country with 4.5 million inhabitants, has taken in 1.2 million Syrian refugees – Turkey, 1.9 million. They have a refugee crisis. Europe doesn't.
Fences before food
Nils Muizenieks, Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, is right to say that Europe has a political crisis, not a refugee crisis. And this political crisis constantly puts our European values to the test, beyond anything else we have experienced since World War II. It urges us to rethink our European identity.
Both as a European who believes in the very European idea of equal dignity of human persons, and as a Hungarian, a citizen of a country that gave hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants to the world, I have been ashamed to see how my government treats refugees. Instead of spending precious financial resources on providing food and shelter to refugees, Viktor Orban’s government has launched a hate-campaign and built a barbed-wire fence on our Southern border.
In the past, a great many Hungarians have sought political asylum, including Lajos Kossuth, the hero of the 1848 revolution, or the 200,000 people fleeing from Soviet tanks after the 1956 revolution. It is a disgrace that our nation should be treating refugees in this way.
We all lose rights
Despite the government’s failure to provide adequate help, the Hungarian society shows many signs of solidarity. Grassroots groups provide food and water to refugees at train stations. Among others I also felt compelled to help those who seek asylum, so I hosted four Afghan refugees in my home for a night before they took the road on to Germany, where they have relatives to help them - because I thought the best way to protest inhumanity is to act humanely.
Unfortunately, hosting refugees with no papers will soon become dangerous if the Hungarian Parliament approves the latest bill submitted by government politicians. This bill would give law enforcement extra powers to deprive us of basic civil liberties, such as privacy - allowing police to break into homes without a search warrant, in order to find refugees hiding there.
"Among sinners, the silent is an accomplice," wrote our famous poet Mihály Babits. This government wants to force Hungarians into silent complicity. This is reminiscent, for many of us, of the darkest times of Hungarian history, when those who helped or hid Jews risked punishment.
On Thursday, thousands of Hungarians protested against the anti-refugee legislation - brave people, but painfully few. The majority of the population has fallen victim to political manipulation and fear-mongering. It’s very unpopular to speak up for refugees; only a handful of organizations, like the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, do so. The silence of most Hungarian churches is painful. After all, how can you follow the Bible and its teaching about helping strangers, if it is a crime to host refugees? “For I was a stranger, and you invited me in,” said Jesus.
Ironically, most refugees don’t want to stay in Hungary. They want to move to Germany or other Western European countries. But the government won’t let them leave: it blocks train stations and forces asylum seekers into overcrowded camps, where conditions are anything but humane.
As it happens, the Hungarian government, in behaving in this way, is enforcing EU legislation, which is clearly outdated and irrational. It is time for Europe to act, and adopt a new refugee policy.
The real challenge, for us, is to remain European among whites.
Peter Sarosi, HCLU