Ukrainian refugees aren't too eager to stay in Hungary, and the state isn't too keen on encouraging them to do so

May 11. 2022. – 11:57 AM


Ukrainian refugees aren't too eager to stay in Hungary, and the state isn't too keen on encouraging them to do so
Ukrainian refugees arriving in Hungary at the Beregsurány border crossing on 24 February 2022 – Photo: István Huszti / Telex

According to the UN, around 570 thousand Ukrainian refugees have arrived in Hungary since the beginning of the war. Although this is already a big figure, the Hungarian government has previously spoken about an even higher one. Moreover, for a while now, the police have also been publishing the number of those entering the country from Romania, and based on these numbers, Hungary has received more than one million Ukrainian refugees total. In spite of this, only 20 thousand (which is an extremely small number) have requested the so-called “sheltered status” in Hungary, which guarantees financial support and medical care. The fact that most of the refugees do not wish to wait out the war’s end in Hungary is no explanation for it. According to the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the refugees are not aware that they are entitled to any assistance because the Hungarian authorities do not provide adequate information about this. Added to this is the fact that a recent regulation has made it even more difficult for them to actually receive financial assistance.

According to UNCHR, between the outbreak of the war and 8 May, more than 568 thousand refugees have come to Hungary from Ukraine.

This enormous figure easily overshadows the numbers of the 2015 refugee crisis.

At this point, close to 6 million people have fled Ukraine, which is outstanding from a historical perspective as well. In 2015, by the end of the year, the Hungarian authorities dealt with 391 thousand illegal immigrants, and there were days when the number of those crossing the border within 24 hours was between 7-9 thousand. According to police data, the number of those arriving from Ukraine during the first few days of the war was more than twice as high: between 15-20 thousand, but even in mid-March there were 8-10 thousand refugees entering the country daily.

In recent weeks this figure has stabilized between 4-6 thousand. This shows that there are less refugees coming now: while the average daily number of those leaving Ukraine in March was 108 thousand, in April this was “just” 50 thousand.

But what happened with the more than half a million people, who – according to the statistics – came to Hungary?

The government is playing with the numbers

What became obvious in the very first days of the war is still true: most of the refugees travel on from Hungary – generally towards Western Europe. They mostly spend 1-2 days in the country to rest and figure out where to go next.

The Hungarian government however, is calculating with a higher number than mentioned above. At the government’s press conference held on 21 April, Gergely Gulyás said that since the outbreak of the war 625 thousand Ukrainian refugees have come to Hungary, even though the UNHCR only registered 545 thousand. The difference might be because the government also includes those arriving from Romania in the statistics.

Since 8 March, the police has regularly published the number of those entering from Romania and claiming to have come from Ukraine. There have been days when the number of those crossing Hungary’s border with Romania was between 15-16 thousand. In recent weeks, the daily traffic has settled around 6 thousand people. This means that there are now slightly more refugees entering Hungary through Romania than directly from Ukraine.

If we add up the total traffic of both sections of the border, then we end up with more than one million refugees who came to Hungary.

In the early days of the war the government actually estimated that up to 900 thousand refugees may come to Hungary from Ukraine. The statistics are somewhat distorted by the fact that some have crossed the Hungarian-Ukrainian border several times. This is realistic, as reports reveal that many have either returned to Ukraine, or are commuting between their war-torn home and another country.

According to UNHCR, more than 1,5 million Ukrainians have entered Ukraine since 28 February.

The Ukrainian Embassy in Budapest seems to be bothered by the controversial data about refugees coming to Hungary as well. They sent an official request to the Hungarian government asking for a commissioner to be appointed so that regular and accurate data reporting would be ensured. The Embassy claims that the numbers published by the government do not add up.

Naturally, not all the 570 thousand refugees who entered Hungary traveled on, but the government has not disclosed how many Ukrainian refugees might be in Hungary. Gergely Gulyás said that 80 percent of the refugees traveled on to another country. But the government has not published data on the refugees currently in the country. At the government’s press conference on 21 April, government spokesperson Alexandra Szentkirályi said that the Disaster Relief Agency has provided lodging for more than 10 000 people (5000 of them children) so far.

If we go with the Cabinet Minister’s estimate, then there should be around 150-160 thousand Ukrainian refugees in Hungary right now. Accommodating and providing for this many people would be a significant burden for the state, but it is very likely that there aren’t this many Ukrainians here. According to the numbers published by the National Directorate for Aliens on 6 May, 20 275 Ukrainians have applied for the so-called “sheltered status” since the war began.

This is less than 4 percent of all the Ukrainians who have sought refuge in Hungary.

The contrast with Viktor Orbán’s statement claiming that

“nobody will be left unprovided for”

is a stark one. The Prime Minister said this at the beginning of the conflict in Beregsurány, near the border crossing between Ukraine and Hungary. He also said that those fleeing the war will not only find safety in Hungary, but a future (so a job and a livelihood) as well. (We have previously summarized how the government revamped its own refugee policy because of the war.)

Receiving financial assistance takes weeks

The number of those who requested “sheltered status” is important because having this status entitles one for medical care, attending school, accomodation, food, 22 000 forints (58 Euros) of financial assistance per month and free language courses. However, experience so far shows that applying for asylum status is far from smooth. A good example of this is the transit center which was set up by the state at the BOK Sports Hall: this is the place where the refugees arriving to Budapest by train are directed.

Although the National Directorate for Aliens is present at the center, requesting sheltered status is not possible here. Refugees are directed to the Harmat street office which takes 30 minutes to get to by public transport – and let’s face it: doing this in a strange, unknown city without speaking the language is not an easy feat. As of 9 May, the process has been made somewhat easier, as the request may now be submitted at any district administration office as well.

Are more than 20,000 sheltered status applications really not many? Even though Hungary is considered a transit country, the number of those who have requested sheltered status is unusually low – Katalin Juhász, legal expert of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee’s refugee program told Telex. According to the NGO’s recent summary, by mid-April 52 times more people have submitted a similar request in Poland, and 19 times more people have done so in the Czech Republic. Even in Spain, 2,5 times as many people have requested a similar legal status than in Hungary. In Poland, which has received more than 3 million refugees from Ukraine, nearly 850 thousand people have acquired a so-called PESEL-card which entitles them to work, receive medical care, food and accommodation assistance in the country.

Juhász thinks that the lack of information and proper communication are the reasons why so few Ukrainian refugees have requested said status. Most of the refugees arriving in Hungary aren’t aware that they are entitled to the sheltered status and the various services and assistance that go with it. At the Hungarian-Ukrainian border crossings the refugees primarily encounter the humanitarian agencies, but according to the Helsinki Committee's experience, they do not receive professional legal information at the registration points run by the Asylum Office on the protection available to them. There’s no one to explain to them what the sheltered status means, how it differs from the refugee status or the permit allowing temporary residence. And at the humanitarian points where the bigger humanitarian agencies are working, the refugees primarily receive needed supplies, food donations and help with accomodation.

“Since the 2015 refugee crisis, the government has been systematically dismantling the asylum system. This is what has become painfully visible now: there is no infrastructure, there aren’t enough professionals for providing proper assistance to the refugees arriving from Ukraine, including informing them” – the HHC expert explained. She added that in her opinion, many would otherwise prefer to stay in Hungary and would request “sheltered status”.

The National Directorate for Aliens said that by 6 May, 10 251 Ukrainians have been granted sheltered status. (At the government’s press conference on 21 April, Alexandra Szentkirályi said that since the war started, the authorities have issued 100 000 temporary residence permits – but this document does not entitle the holder to any support or assistance.)

The approval process for sheltered status takes 45 days. This is important because according to a government regulation, as of the end of April, only those who have this document are entitled to the 22 thousand forint-monthly financial assistance – which means that those in need cannot receive this money while they are waiting for approval. This was not the case before, and those who requested the status were automatically entitled to this amount, although because the wording in the law was not specific enough, it was not clear whether they would receive anything before the end of the approval process. The government’s recent regulation takes care of this detail, albeit to the refugees’ disadvantage. According to Katalin Juhász this is unacceptable, and goes against the spirit of EU rules.

Protection should be immediate, and applicants should be entitled to everything offered by the sheltered status.

It is no accident that the government keeps talking about hundreds of thousands of refugees being in the country. Headed up by the Czech Republic, nine member states (including Hungary) are lobbying at the EC to receive financial help from the EU for handling the refugee crisis. The Czech government estimated their cost for managing the crisis at 54 million Korunas (847,8 billion Forints). Gergely Gulyás had mentioned an amount earlier as well, when he said that the Hungarian government had already spent 40 billion Forints on caring for Ukrainian refugees, only 2 percent of which was covered by the EU.

Another reason why the government’s narrative about the multitudes arriving to Hungary is not entirely correct is because in the early stages of the war, refugees arriving to Keleti and Nyugati train stations were almost exclusively cared for and provided for by enthusiastic volunteers, civilians and bigger humanitarian organizations.

A lot of refugees received accommodation because average people offered them a place to stay. And as we see, even the financial assistance the Hungarian state offers refugees is very far from generous.

More and more refugees want to stay in Hungary

In Budapest, the first line of the state’s refugee assistance is the BOK Sports Hall. The arrivals receive food, drink and medical care here. There is free wifi, translators are available, there are showers, a money exchange office and even a ticket office of the Hungarian Railways (MÁV). From here, 24 hours a day, there are free bus transfers to train stations or to the airport. The sports hall reception center operates 24/7, and refugees can also find accomodation here with the help of the state or Migration Aid (a Hungarian NGO). The hall opened on 21 March, so more than a month after the beginning of the war. (According to the government, the number of refugees arriving did not justify opening it earlier, although there were more people coming in early March than now.)

Here’s how the system works: The special trains bringing refugees only go as far as “Kőbánya felső” station. From there, the refugees are transferred to buses which take them to the BOK Sports Hall. Between its opening and 8 May, 33 thousand people have gone through the reception center. In the first week of its operation, the center received between 1100-1200 people a day, while this number is currently between 500-600 people. We sent a question to the capital’s administrative office about the reason for this, but we have not received an answer so far.

Migration Aid’s spokesperson, Viktória Horváth said that they have also noticed that the number of those reaching the BOK reception center – and thus, their refugee hostel at Madridi út – continues to decrease. During the first weeks of the war the shelter equipped with 300 beds was operating with a full house, but in recent weeks it’s been down to a third of its capacity. They don’t know what the reason for this could be, given that there are no official statistics about the number of refugees who have left the country. In Horváth’s opinion there could be a number of reasons for refugees not being in the system. They are most likely not informed properly, and the coordination may be lacking, which can easily result in them not finding the transfer buses which take them to the Sports Hall. It is also possible that there is a lack of trust about the transit center. When refugees were welcomed and provided for at the train stations, they knew what to expect in Budapest, as information was passed on by word-of-mouth among the refugees. This most likely changed when the Sports Hall was opened.

Previously, 80-90 percent of the refugees coming in contact with Migration Aid spent 1-2 nights in Budapest, but nowadays more and more of them are looking for long term accommodation. The charity’s waiting list has a few hundred people on it. Many would like to stay in Hungary and work, and many are waiting for their application for sheltered status to be processed – the spokesperson said. Due to the growing demand the NGO is planning on providing permanent accommodation for some refugees at their Madrid út hostel as well.

At the same time they are also looking for those who would like to rent their apartment to refugees, but at a discounted price. They have noticed that people have become less enthusiastic: the number of volunteers and those willing to provide housing has been declining. This is understandable though, as it is easier to offer to share your home for a day or two, than for weeks or months. According to Viktória Horváth, helping the refugees should be more sustainable, as housing them is becoming more of a financial burden for the civilian volunteers, given that the war has been going on for more than two months with no end in sight.

They only came for a few days, but want to wait here for the war to end

The Municipality of Budapest has also been housing refugees: Deputy Mayor Ambrus Kiss told Telex that as of the end of April they had accommodated nearly 1200 people. The capital published similar numbers at the end of March as well. This is partly because less refugees have been arriving to Budapest, but also due to the fact that the accommodations set up for short-term stay have mostly been housing people who have decided to stay here until the war ends. This is also reflected in the fact that the shelters are operating with 80 percent occupancy and there is no fluctuation at the accommodations. In a conversation we had in March, Mr. Kiss commented that the biggest challenge would be the permanent housing of the refugees.

The capital has provided a total of 500 beds in six locations for refugees. If need be, they could open up more space, but at this point they are concentrating on supporting them via social work instead – for example in helping them get jobs, making sure they receive the vaccines mandatory in Hungary, registering the children in school, etc – the Deputy Mayor said. He explained that the capital is mostly housing bigger families (Hungarians and Hungarian-speaking Roma from the Transcarpathian region) and that in most cases, the men were already working in Hungary before the war broke out, and their families came when the fighting started.

Some of the children were even born in Hungary.

UNHCR has set up so-called Blue Points in two shelters in the capital to provide legal aid and mental health support for refugees. When Telex spoke with him, Ambrus Kiss said that the Municipality of Budapest has so far spent more than a hundred million Forints (263 600 Euros) on caring for Ukrainian refugees. According to legislation, the city is entitled to 4 thousand Forints (11 Euros) of state funds per refugee (retroactively as well), but they have not received these funds from the government yet.

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