Home European News Hungary’s Ukrainian refugees in two minds as relations sour

Hungary’s Ukrainian refugees in two minds as relations sour

Hungary’s Ukrainian refugees in two minds as relations sour

Ukrainian refugees are struggling to accommodate the kindness of individual Hungarians with the nationalist government’s pro-Russia rhetoric.

Far fewer refugees settled in Hungary than in other neighbouring states in the first place — is the relationship starting to sour?

  • Job fair in Hungary. It is estimated that over half of Ukrainians in Hungary lack sufficient financial funding (Photo: International Organization for Migration)

Refugee organisations themselves, however, argue national politics has little to do with the quality of life of Ukrainians, and urge the Ukrainians in Hungary to reconsider, despite the difficulties.

“Ukraine’s primary enemies are Russians and Putin, obviously. But the number two is Viktor Orbán,” Viktoria Petrovszka, a Ukrainian woman living in Hungary, tells EUobserver.

Born in Transcarpathia, a region detached from Hungary by the Trianon Treaty in 1920, she moved to Budapest in 1998. Transcarpathia’s dwindling Hungarian population is a source of tension between Kyiv and Budapest.

While the Hungarian prime minister finally approved the EU’s €50bn four-year economic aid package for Ukraine in February (after his initial veto), he remains a vocal critic of Ukraine’s fast EU accession.

“This pains Ukrainians greatly,” Petrovszka says. “Now, they think the whole of Hungary is bad. Last year, we invited a Ukrainian band to Budapest. They refused, and told us they wish we left the country soon too.”

Speaking Ukrainian and Hungarian fluently, she has been an active part of relief for Ukrainians since February 2022. Chairing the Ukrainian Association “Unity”, she organises aid and events for the refugees settling in Hungary.

At the start of the war, scores of Hungarian volunteers headed to the border between the two countries, gathered in Facebook groups, and volunteered their homes and belongings for Ukrainians.

“We didn’t expect such support,” says Natali Harmse-Ishchenko, a Ukrainian lawyer, who works at firm Bona Fide supporting refugees.

“What we see is that it’s a politicians’ game. Ukrainians watch the news about Hungary and Orban, and usually, they are not happy about the relations. But we feel supported,” Harmse-Ishchenko adds.

She was in Budapest when the war started, but her family still lived in Kharkiv, a city in northeast Ukraine. From their four-bedroom flat, they could see Russia. Her parents left in March — mere hours before a Russian missile struck their flat, destroying one wall.

They have settled in Budapest — but long for their native country.

Among the last in the EU

Many fewer Ukrainians settled in Hungary than any of Ukraine’s other neighbours. According to Eurostat, less than 32,000 Ukrainians were given temporary protection in Hungary by August 2023, which is a far cry from Slovakia (103,000), Romania (133,000), let alone Poland (977,000).

It puts Hungary in second-last place in Europe after Greece.

“Hungary remains mainly a country of transit,” explains Daniel Bagameri, head of office at the International Organization for Migration Hungary (IOM), a UN organisation based in Budapest. “We had numerous clients who asked for only one night’s accommodation, or information about trains to Vienna.”

“EU countries opened their borders at the same time, and everyone could calculate the median pay of different countries, and see where they could make a living,” he says — referring to Hungary’s economy which is only slowly recovering, with GDP-per-person below EU average.

According to data collected by IOM, over half of Ukrainians in Hungary lack sufficient financial funding.

“And we can see that it’s difficult to get along as a foreigner,” Bagameri adds. This is due to the language difference, as well as the lack of a pre-existing Ukrainian diaspora. This can result in a lack of information, which 40 percent of IOM’s clients flagged as a problem.

Added to that, Bagameri says, Ukrainians face significant challenges in accessing housing, the job market, and healthcare.

“The Hungarian system facilitates transiting too,” he concludes.

Larysa Taranets fled Ukraine in March 2022 after the full Russian invasion of Ukraine (Photo: Lili Rutai)

Communities to the rescue

On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, a dozen women gather at a sports centre in central Budapest, in an old townhouse. They are members of the Ukrainian community in Budapest, enjoying the social aspect of this class as much as the movement.

The instructor is Larysa Taranets, a 40-year-old woman who fled Ukraine in March 2022, seeking protection in Hungary.

She recounts acts of kindness from Hungarians: an old acquaintance of hers waited hours at the border to pick her up, and hosted her in his flat. His friends passed on clothing. And when she was looking for a flat, she found someone on Facebook who was happy to help her.

That’s why she was surprised to see the controversial billboards claiming Brussels would ruin Hungary with sanctions suddenly appear in October 2022 — shifting the blame for the country’s economic hardship from Moscow to the EU.

“It’s wrong. I know people are not like that,” Taranets says.

She enjoys the similarities between the two countries: the food, the plentiful Ukrainian restaurants around the city, and nature. And the connections to other Ukrainians, like the women showing up every week to her yoga classes.

“Sometimes I post about my life here. Because of the news, (my friends) think that everything is bad here, and that Hungary is looking to take the western part of Ukraine, and that Hungarians hate Ukrainians,” Taranets says. “I think a small part of my mission is to change their opinion.”


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