Interview with András Kováts, director of “Shelter Foundation for Assisting Migrants”
There is a very real refugee crisis unfolding in Hungary, and nobody knows how long it will last. The government provides funding for everything except essentials: billions of forints squandered on billboard campaigns and a 175-kilometre border fence, while the migrant servicing system is overwhelmed. The answer has yet to be found on a European level, as well.
Abcúg: The government has conducted a scaremongering campaign for weeks now, saying that if we do not address the issue of immigration we will be unable to recognize the country in 10-15 years. Is this really such a grave danger? Or is this just the latest political slogan?
András Kováts: First of all, we shouldn’t mix up immigrants with those refugees who leave their homes as a result of persecution. The government communication line is not straight in this issue. Europe and Hungary are experiencing a refugee crisis. The term “subsistence migrant” has been introduced to the Hungarian public in February, saying that many people are attaching themselves to refugees who are not themselves persecuted but want to live in better conditions. We are talking about the whole thing as if “livelihood” means the same for them as it does for the young middle-class Hungarian moving to London. People from the Third World do not leave because they can only afford to buy five glasses of cider on a Saturday night out. They are leaving because they cannot meet their basic needs. Shouldn’t those who see their children die of starvation, have no drinking water within a ten-kilometer range have the right to leave?
Abcúg: In Syria there is a civil war, and many people can come to Hungary from that direction.
Kováts: Still, we are quite strict with granting refugee status. In Europe approximately 85 percent of Syrians will receive asylum, this ratio in Hungary is 65 percent. The same with the Afghans: 25 percent in Hungary while 65 percent in Europe prove to be eligible for refugee status. Even a tenth of Kosovars received the same paper in Europe, while none of them managed to secure it in Hungary. This is the case even if we consider that Kosovo has its very own ethnic conflicts and that some people are persecuted there. But they will prefer requesting asylum in a place where they have a better chance of getting it, and this is why they continue on to the West.
Abcúg: They may just carry on, but according to the government this will not always be the case. Lajos Kósa said that 15 thousand people will soon be returned to Hungary on regular charter planes.
Kováts: Statements like this should not be taken seriously. There is a year-long deadline during which the opportunity to do so is open for the Germans, and migrants are well aware of this. They wait until this deadline passes, and they will apply for asylum afterwards. Notwithstanding the unlikely event of the German authorities starting an all-out manhunt on refugees hiding in the bowels of their big cities, they will not be able to send them all back. Regardless, Viktor Orbán is indeed right when he refers to an extreme migration that generates a huge crisis, and if we are not careful we can easily go wrong. The problem is that, as the matters stand, he is the one committing these grave mistakes right now.
Abcúg: So will the fence planned on the Serbian border be able to at least partially lift this pressure?
Kováts: At first, it will increase it, as many will take to the roads immediately, to make it through to Hungary before the fence is completed. But it would be a mistake to deny that brutal measures usually work: a fence is a fence, migrants will have little chance but to be trespassing. Yet they will still aim to get into the EU as before, and they will most likely try their luck through Romania. This means that the only real result such a fence can achieve is that the present pressure will be passed from Csongrád county police to Békés county police.
Abcúg: What should be done?
Kováts: If we want a real solution, then the first step would be to communicate to the EU that we are buckling under pressure if you do not increase our refugee contribution five-fold. The professional managing system is under extraordinary pressure at the moment. The Italians, Maltese and Greeks constantly lobby Brussels for more money to tackle what they maintain is a huge crisis, as the masses of refugees cannot be handled. The media is plastered with pictures of boats on the Mediterranean, while at home journalists have not been allowed into refugee camps for a year. Well, of course if the government’s real objective is inciting hatred, then showing photos of vulnerable people might not be the best way to go about it.
Abcúg: Is that all? We need more money?
Kováts: Sure. We need more experts and a better infrastructure. Migrants shelters cannot be cleaned at the moment, not because there are not enough cleaning personnel but because the influx is so big that there is a constant full house. Three toilets are not enough to serve three hundred people. Registration and the direction of such masses should be done with much more than 40-50 registrars. The fence will cost HUF 22 billion (USD 80 million) while last’s year’s budget for the whole of the immigration administration system was HUF 2.4 billion (USD 8.7 million). If one tenth of the fence’s construction price were spent on the system, it would not collapse under the pressure.
Abcúg: Yet at the same time, if we discount the quota system proposal, that was not particularly popular, nothing happens in the whole of the EU concerning this issue.
Kováts: There were two proposals submitted in parallel. We do not usually talk about the other one in Hungary. This recommended that if too many asylum seekers enter a particular member state then, before the commencement of any regular procedure, part of them could be relocated to another member state facing less pressure. We would have been a major beneficiary of such a system but it could not have been realized. According to the other proposal, twenty thousand refugees already possessing status as such would have been redistributed among member states, out of which we were supposed to take in 307. But we said that this is out of the question, even if all of these people would be those fleeing genuine persecution. I think it would have been a generous symbolic gesture had we taken that much of the misery in the Middle East upon ourselves. But factually this was not a solution to the problem itself. The problem will only go away if we would take our global responsibility seriously and would find ways to deal with the crisis situation in the Middle East and Africa itself. The enormous inequality between Europe and the countries surrounding it cannot be sustained for much longer. If we continue to do nothing, these problems will eventually devour us.
Abcúg: How could this be solved on an EU level?
Kováts: We can introduce a quota system that would be similar to the carbon-dioxide emission quotas: whoever takes fewer refugees that they signed a commitment for should pay for those who are under greater pressure. On the other hand, all European countries should do much more, such as offering legal working opportunities on a seasonal basis. For example, Germany could say that ten thousand people would be able to travel to them annually from the Middle East to work for a designated period of time. The visa requirements for Kosovars to travel should also be cancelled. The EU created their country but even now they are forced to sneak in, and if authorities catch them they are required to apply for asylum as they have no chance of getting into the EU otherwise. We should also start to deal with those wandering around the continent without any legal permit. The Mediterranean countries have already introduced an immigration system under which even these people can acquire residence under strict conditions. These conditions include holding a legal job and enrolling the children to school, among other things.
Abcúg: That would in effect be a continuation of the European integration policy. Isn’t Europe already tired of this idea?
Kováts: There is a slight shift of paradigms here. These days nobody is as welcoming towards immigrants and refugees as in the 1970s when everyone was still an optimist. Europe right now is not that strong and such a crisis will leave a deep mark. Yet, if we look at the measures already taken, there is no change in the fundamentals of the approach. Sweden, for example, still takes in all Syrian refugees, partly out of a sense of moral responsibility and partly because this is their economic demographic interest. They possess a developed welfare state with a high level of social redistribution in which refugees play a role: they learn the language, receive training and they are integrated into the job market. Of course there are things in need of reform in every Western country. But the direction must not change. If Europe wants to save money it could do what Scandinavian countries already do: they sustain refugee camps in Third World countries and they take care of them there. The most important thing is that in this world of today, raising walls and locking ourselves up is not possible any more, unless we happen to be living in North Korea!
Abcúg: Still, a series of cultural conflicts has recently erupted in Sweden.
Kováts: Yeah, just like ten years ago. But every argument can be supported with an example. Leftist liberals constantly speak about migrants with college degrees, while the far-right presents them as a criminal mob. There is truth in both of these opinions. It is a fact that migrants will not suddenly become middle-class citizens. They will be poor people, and this is the case in Sweden as well. The real question is whether they will be given a chance for social mobility or not. Staying with the Swedish example, their second- and third-generation migrants do not do the lowliest jobs. I do not believe that the Swedes simply don’t know what they are doing. Interestingly enough, Hungary used to be a leader of the regional market but over the past decade we lost all of this advantage, with even Romanians slowly surpassing us. And the Prime Minister’s answer to all of that is to announce on the radio that if we are not careful enough, we will not be able to recognize our country in a few years, as Budapest will resemble London and Paris. Now, I only wish that would be the case!