By Sandra Kolb
One and a half million people have fled Ukraine in just ten days- a mass exodus presenting numbers Europe has not experienced since World War II (UNHCR, 2022). As people leave their homes, most are heading to the neighboring European countries of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova in search of safety. The response from these receiving nations is one far different and beyond what was presented in 2015 when almost one million people also entered Europe requesting and seeking asylum. With individuals fleeing conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq, the majority of the people entering Europe back then were escaping the ongoing war in Syria (UNHCR, 2015). This influx of refugees in 2015 is often today referred to as “Europe’s refugee crisis.” These individuals were met with harsh and nationalistic responses from receiving states, particularly Hungary. Antimigrant policies emerged, resulting in immense political debates within the European Union (EU) and across the world as some states pushed to keep refugees out. Those within the EU that kept their borders open, on the other hand, saw mass numbers of refugees entering and passing through. What resulted in a non-unified response from European nations conflicted with the European Union’s two-decade long open- border policy, leaving refugees in what the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) referred to as a “legal limbo” (UNHCR, 2015).
Today, however, Europe is presenting entirely opposite behavior. Within the first ten days of conflict in Ukraine, those fleeing west into Europe have been greeted at the borders with a structured and a well-organized humanitarian response. Many are being welcomed by volunteers ready with food, water, blankets, and hygiene products (UNHCR, 2022).
This article will present some of the potential factors determining a nation’s response when a significant influx of refugees enter or cross through its borders. A comparative analytical lens will be applied to the case of Hungary in order to suggest why such an immense difference in behavior and overall response is taking place today in relation to those in Europe in 2015. Hungary’s behavior, implemented policies, and future-oriented action will be explored. In the light of a comparative political approach, the sudden shift to a “welcoming” response is to be credited not towards any changes since 2015 per se. Instead, such a drastic change in behavior uncovers a long-term and deep-rooted intolerance held by nations towards specific groups of people. As a result, leading to “selective” behavior from the receiving countries-accepting some individuals and groups but excluding others.
Current trends and statistics from the UNHCR show increasing numbers of refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced individuals (UNHCR, 2020). These rapidly accelerating numbers have been continuously faced with growing trends of restrictive asylum policies from states in addition to increasing levels of intolerance. Such trends are a common concern dominating the discipline of Forced Migration, trends many scholars have long drawn attention to (Loescher, 1993; Betts, 2014; Czaika, 2009). Therefore, such sudden “against-the-trend” behavior from Europe exposes deep-rooted levels of intolerance and discrimination, suggested here to have led to “selective” behavior. Such intolerance leads to discrimination beyond just refugees and migrants as a group, but rather, specific ethnic and religious groups within this realm of refugees and migrants. In 2015 when individuals attempted to enter Europe, majority being Syrians, they were greeted with wire fences and anti-immigrant policies. On the other hand, Ukrainians entering Europe today are being greeted with humanitarian assistance and European solidarity.
In both circumstances, unprecedented numbers of refugees were crossing through and entering borders, whether by sea or land, attempting to escape violence and persecution within their country of origin. Entering Europe is an effort to escape the ongoing war in hopes of finding a safe haven until many hope they can soon return home. This is especially predominant as the war unfolds in Ukraine. Individuals crossing the border into neighboring European countries eagerly await the war to deescalate in hopes of returning to their homes (UNHCR, 2022).
In recent years, Hungary has been criticized by various human rights groups and NGOs regarding its strict and hardline border policies. Specifically, its response to the mass influx of refugees attempting to enter Europe in 2015. Initially, the government refused to provide trains between Austria and Budapest, making it difficult for those seeking asylum to cross further west into Europe (UNHCR, 2018). Not long after, the Hungarian government completed the construction of a fence along its border with Serbia as another effort and attempt to stop the movement of people across its borders (UNHCR, 2018). In addition to this, in 2016, Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, passed a law that legalized pushbacks- the practice of pushing asylum seekers back across borders without process, an act in direct violation of nonrefoulment- a fundamental principle of International Customary Law (European Commission, 2021). On the other hand, one week into the conflict in Ukraine, over 100,000 people have crossed somewhere along the 135km long border Hungary shares with Ukraine. These individuals have been met with well-organized humanitarian aid, a much different response than what was presented to those seeking safety back in 2015 (UNHCR, 2022).
When comparing such a drastically different state response to an influx of refugees entering its borders today, compared to the response and behavior in 2015, a pre-existing and more profound intolerance is exposed. Rather than the common discourse across the literature suggesting intolerance towards refugees and migrants, an intolerance that is towards select groups of people is expressed. This “selection” results in the acceptance of certain groups and the exclusion of others. Perhaps going further and considering the perceived levels of education and literacy rates held by these national, ethnic, religious, or cultural groups. Through its acceptance of Ukrainians today compared to its unwillingness to accept those wanting to enter its borders in 2015, majority being Syrians, Hungary thus provided the empirical basis for this article and the broader concern it draws upon- interrogating the difference in humanitarian response regarding refugee policy. It is acknowledged however, that other factors and variables have come into play which help explain this difference in behavior and the policies implemented. Such factors include, but are not limited to, historical and contemporary country relations, ideological influences, and the potential for repatriation by some groups and not others. These variables allow for and require further, more in-depth research as the conflict in Ukraine continues to unfold.
A final thought to conclude is an urge to readers to think about their own degree of tolerance and acceptance towards different groups of people. Why was a fence built in September of 2015 but not in February of 2022 when in both circumstances, it was just a search for safety and refuge by innocent civilians pushed out of their homelands as a result of conflict?
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Sandra is a first year research student working to complete her MA in Politics & International Relations at the University of Auckland. She completed her undergraduate degree in International Relations at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. Her thesis and surrounding research looks at forced migration, asylum policies, and how public discourse has and continues to impact such policies.