Up Close and Personal: Migration Crisis in Hungary, Part II

People are still showing up at our borders here in Hungary. ZsuZsa from Migration Aid spends her days helping refugees find new ways across the border, keeping them informed with current intel and updated maps. Megan is making sure they have rain ponchos, as the weather has turned. Now the path is through Croatia, but that could close any day, forcing refugees fleeing war and poverty to try to enter Austria through Romania and Slovenia.

The migration crisis is not a Hungarian problem; it is a world problem. On this one point most everyone agrees. Expats and Hungarians here are asking: Why are United Nations not intervening at the root by going in and doing whatever has to be done to get rid of ISIS. But what to do? Obama's attempt to back moderates was a flop. Putin seems to think backing Assad is the answer. Do we back another tyrant? Won't that backfire in the long run, as it has done so many times before? We are still getting the backlash of that in Iran.

I'm ashamed to admit it. but we could lay the origins of the current situation at the feet of the United States. Europeans remember well that it was the US that destabilized the entire region by its gratuitous invasion of Iraq on trumped-up accusations of WMD more than a decade ago in a war begun by George Bush and supported by Hillary Clinton. So here we all are reaping the harvest of a political chess game over oil by the rich and powerful. I wonder if Cheney foresaw this when he engineered that maneuver, or if he just wasn't thinking. Whatever...

So who are these migrants? This is where it gets confusing. Many are Syrians seeking refuge for their families from life in a civil war zone that has become unlivable. Some are Afghans and Iraqis fleeing decades of foreign invaders (like the US) and Taliban warlords. Some are from Africa, where their way of life has been made impossible by climate change. I am told some are Bosnians fleeing the economic ravages of a war two decades ago, and rumor has it that some are opportunistic Roma from the villages of Hungary, which are being deserted by their poorest and least assimilated residents. Not all are running from war; some are running from poverty. Some just want to get to Western Europe's streets paved with gold and the hope of receiving the few hundred Euros per month that some western European countries are granting to refugees. Would you walk hundreds of miles across borders for 143 Euros a month? Depends on what you're living on now!

An American friend asks me what the Hungarians are so afraid of. I tell her they have been invaded many times and see this as another group of people who want to take over their small, beleaguered nation. They are trying to defend their country from the new invaders. Their fear is not pretty, but fear seldom is. "I can't believe the things my own friends and former classmates are writing on Facebook and other public postings," a Hungarian friend tells me on the last warm night in a park-side café where we have gone to talk. In the weeks since waves of migrants began arriving here, the xenophobia that lurks not far below the surface of Hungarian society has escaped. It has been oozing out through the cracks in national policy for sometime, and now it is has transgressed the boundaries that barely held it in check. It has a long history here. Another Hungarian friend who works internationally but comes from a small village tells me a story about her sister, who still lives there. She went to the bank to ask about a loan to buy a flat. The bank officer advised her to wait a few months to "see what will happen." What did she mean, my friend asked. "Whether or not there will be a war!" replied the sister. Another woman, a doctor, feared taking a train to her destination lest she be raped by the migrants. Yet there are no migrants anywhere near that village or where the doctor was going. Walking down the street in Budapest is no different from what it was in June, except that it is colder.

My favorite Hungarian colleague now works in the Netherlands as an interfaith University chaplain. The Netherlands are as white and homogenous as Hungary, but they are handling the situation differently. She is leading community efforts to assist the refugees in their new land. While the Hungarian church is defending Orban's fence in the name of protecting Christianity (siding, as it always has, with the rulers), the church in the secular Netherlands is helping refugees assimilate, holding intercultural dinners and picnics. A traditional Muslim man gets tutored in English by a Western college girl, which affects his attitude toward women; a Muslim woman makes her first trip to the grocery alone. But all these new migrants, particularly if they settle in entirely Muslim communities, may not assimilate. Sweden is having its problems. Yet even with this influx, migrants still will make up less than 5% of the population of Europe. Is that such a threat to a way of life? We shall see.

As climate change erodes arable land, as civil war erodes entire societies, as corruption erodes trust in governments, as economic inequities erode hope, people will try to go where they think they stand a better chance. It will not stop. It will continue, and we can only determine how we will handle it. The Hungarian borders from Serbia are closed now. The fence stands with razor wire, like a child playing peekaboo, hoping that by closing its eyes s/he can make something disappear. For the moment the refugees have left Budapest in their search to get into Western Europe--routes through Croatia (in spite of danger of landmines left over from the Bosnian War) and even Slovakia. Keleti train station in Budapest is back to business as usual. The floors of the plaza outside are clean. The Migration Office doors are locked. There are no brown-skinned men or women in headscarves, no hungry children, only Hungarian workers smoking on their breaks. If we want to we can pretend for problem has gone away. But it hasn't, and it won't.