“Home” after time away feels sharp. Its particularities are momentarily decentred from being normal, so for a short time points of difference contrast and are identifiable, ponderable.
The central Athens that I saw and experienced in October 2017 was an entirely different being to the buzz the elite give central Budapest on my return home. The two cities share the superficial glamour, renovations and licks of paint afforded to areas important for tourists, but their under-invested zones are poles apart. In Budapest, these areas are downtrodden and beat, grey and cracked, with people moving quickly with heads down. In Athens, non-gentrified space seems to be actively reclaimed and engaged and reformed through movement colour graffiti, meeting discussing drinking, painting loitering smoking… people inhabit and use space unashamedly and aggressively, even to the extent of setting garbage bins alight on an otherwise calm Saturday afternoon in Exarcheia.
Perhaps the vitality of city centres reflects in these cases the state of each countries’ civic life, where the wills and abilities to claim and counter-claim space and rights are strong in one and terribly weak in the other. Budapest in September 2015, with refugees encamped at Nyugati (western) and Keleti (eastern) train stations, blossomed momentarily as one set of human assumptions and prejudices were given what turned out to be a fleeting opportunity to encounter “the Other”. The solidarity born from perhaps a forced recognition of common humanity existed in Pest’s streets for a bare few weeks as volunteers gave rise to a grounded humanitarian response that brought a buzz that has never left Athens.
Since that fateful 2015 and the successful sale of refugees arriving in Europe as a “crisis”, the questions of who refugees are and may be and what should be done for them has become, for Hungarians, not a practical, immediate problem to be solved or bettered in ways compassionate and humane. This is at least in part because Hungarians will no longer encounter refugees, as they have been decamped into compulsory detention centres, or are turned away by force at our border (or within 8 kilometres of our border based on government declaration of emergency) expressly so they cannot claim asylum.
With refugees’ removal from sight, our government has been able to mould and distort the identities, scales, political realities, European processes and funds for purposes of its own power-building through the active cultivation of fear amongst us. The Orbán regime has very successfully politicised and packaged emergency migration as one capable of bringing down our white, predominantly Catholic civilization in the Carpathian region above and beyond the threats Orbán’s own realised domestic realities pose to our society, through his entrenching of corruption, gerrymandering, socio-economic inequalities, land grabbing, problematic Russian-funded energy investments, sales of citizenship… and we could go on.
So, as a Hungarian European, whose political realities are made up of an entrenched political position that is intolerant, anti-refugee and anti-humanity, what is the point of understanding how Athens or Greece, or Paris or Berlin, are coping with, adapting to and planning with refugees? How may bringing home stories of integration and solidarity, of bottom-up organising, of individual trauma and talent, alter discourse, or change minds, at any level? The use (or futility) of these questions were particularly stark upon returning home after a week away getting to know the civil and state organisations engaged in many levels of care for refugees. Back in Budapest, the repetitive questions I received from Hungarians began, to me, to present a mirror into the national soul, a time-stamp of where we are ‘at’ in our attitudes not only towards migrants but also into the permissibility of asking particular questions. There is surely a geography to the sorts of inquiry we make across Europe; they speak to where we come from and what confronts us most, and even reveal a hankering for “real”, grounded information for what people and circumstances are really like, unfiltered.
The repeated questions I was posed were variations of – “How are refugees our problem?” Hungary was neither a colonial power nor responsible for the recent invasions and atrocities committed by the West in the Middle East – so why accept any responsibility for anything now? The second, “Won’t refugees (Muslims, unstated, this is my inserted bracket) bring down European civilization? …There are limits to how many we can handle…” While the third most popular has been “Can you tell – is there a difference – between people who were fleeing and those who came just for a “better” life?” with follow-ups around those deserving and undeserving of refugee status. There has been a much-heard response to this question from our own PM Viktor Orban that insists on hardheartedness, following the logic that people have made a choice to suffer in their journey to Europe, a journey that he denies was a necessary one, such that (wannabe)refugees must accept responsibility for the trauma of the self-inflicted journey as well as the pain and burden of rejection in the claims to asylum, as there are no entitlements, to anyone.
In Greece, we heard many questions and reflections around the extent to which the current number of refugees is theirs to bear, and to process and manage, seeing as the issue has become theirs by default through an accident of geography alone. (whereas Hungary prevented a similar situation through its construction of fences and camps…)
In France, the civilizational question frequently rears its head: problematic (no, crap) integration of immigrants for decades gives rise to discussions around whether integration is at all possible; musings and deep discussion (and podcasts) are available on the borders and possibilities between economic integration and maintained cultural and religious difference; and whether Europe and the European project has failed as multi-generational segregation in Paris is a banlieu reality.
The questions being asked in Greece and France are all urgent, and we could add several more – with answers half-formed and unknown. However, they are not being asked in my home, where there is almost a complete absence in the public realm of any truth-seeking discourse or search for nuance on behalf of refugees or possible respondents. In Budapest and extending to even the smallest villages in rural Hungary (population: 200), placards line the streets about the Orban government’s National Consultation on the Soros Plan. The Soros plan is allegedly (the government has not been able to produce it) one whereby Soros wants to settle Europe with a million refugees, and compel European governments to pay them welfare a great deal higher than any Hungarian can receive while he does it. This ongoing Soros propaganda – Orban’s Orwellian Epstein – is one of the starkest, bluntest tools to homecoming eyes, an extreme encroachment on truth and reality through government messaging.
As reflections from the field – no, there was no perceivable difference in desperation between people that came from a zone officially classed as war-torn and those that were ‘merely’ conflict-ridden or without opportunity. While the primary reasons for leaving a place are undeniably different, regardless of why a person decided to leave, all claimants in Greece today completed a perilous, exhausting, traumatic journey to get to the streets of Athens. The young Syrians I spoke with at a café reminded me of the twenty-something Hungarian youth who migrate to western Europe hoping to get a real job that actually pays and makes it worth getting out of bed. Except the Syrians, of course, left Syria because of the bombs. They then left Turkey because a series of employers never paid up even though they had put in days and weeks of labour, most commonly into construction work, which then understandably made work meaningless and life hopeless; or because other family members had been sitting in Turkey for two years already, doing concretely nothing, and in contrast Athens – even if for the period of waiting for their asylum claims to be heard – offered hope, which Turkey never did.
Indeed, adjudicating between asylum seeker claims is the basis of an intricate system. However, in humanitarian situations, with people before you, these differences blur as you meet, see, listen, work, want to give and better understand the people that make up the so-called “waves” of refugees staying now in the camps, ports, shelters, squats, apartments and streets. Working actively amongst kids, men, women – people – the question of what important difference separates me from any one of those without papers besides luck becomes difficult. It’s undoubtedly the reason I will never be able – or want – to adjudicate asylum claims.
And it is the lack of opportunity for these encounters that keeps questions of integration or assimilation, and the raging debate between the apparently vital difference between the two – alive as a theoretical one at home.
The remove that we Hungarians have cultivated for ourselves through the construction of fences, the shirked responsibilities and absence of easy access to facts may have started from political efforts that have so effectively seeped into negating any human face, or empathetic response and understanding of migrant decision-making. It is insupportable for much longer, out of consequences for our own increasingly intolerant and angry society. Today there is a depressing shortage in displays of solidarity and interest in communities of care and nation-building that are not nationalist or isolationist or intent on laying fault for why people find themselves in marginalised situations. As Soros’ tic-tac smile lingers down from every advertisement board in the country, the human cost of inequality and of war is on our doorstep…and we genuinely do not know what we fear.