21 March 2020
The guiding principle of the Hungarian government’s refugee policy is to differentiate between Christian “real refugees” who have been persecuted in their home country, and Muslim “dangerous refugees”. Our report looks how that works in practice. Is a Christian family treated differently in transit zones? Is it really easier to get refugee status in Hungary if you declare yourself to be a Christian? (Our interviews were conducted in February before the coronavirus disease outbreak.)
“When panic broke out in Kiskunhalas because the locals did not want a refugee hostel in the town, teenage girls I knew came to me and said Irén, we’re scared, they are going to rape us. To which I replied that there is only one young man in the hostel and I am certain he is not going to rape you,” said Irén Honti, the Lutheran pastor in Kiskunhalas, a town in southern Hungary, who was visiting the refugees in the hostel from the start of the refugee crisis. Since the closure of the hostel she has been going to the transit zone in Tompa, on Hungary’s southern border with Serbia, where asylum seekers have been waiting in a pretty bleak situation for a long time. [One of the main routes for refugees heading towards Western Europe is through Serbia and Hungary.]
164 pairs of socks and a Farsi Bible
“In December there were 164 people in the Tompa transit zone. I know that because we took them all warm socks. We counted how many we needed, and it was 164 pairs. They get food and clothing in the transit zone; we just treat them to a little extra kindness. It’s an attempt to make their situation a little more human. They really appreciate being able to cook their own kind of food, so we take them tomato puree and vegetables,” said Irén.
There are only a few Christians in the Tompa transit zone, but the pastor says that all the refugees are desperate for human contact, regardless of religious affiliation. They need someone to listen to them, to hear what they have been through, since this state of confinement is very tough. However, Irén doesn’t just listen to them; she feels that it is her evangelical calling to visit the most afflicted and welcome them with love.
“‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me,’ said Jesus. This is the message I would like to spread,” she said.
In the Röszke transit zone, further east along the border, there are more Christian refugees than at Tompa, mainly Kurds and Iranians. However, their religious affiliation has no bearing on their situation, as the account by one Iranian Christian refugee who had been in Röszke reveals.
“We were treated like animals,” said Sayed, an Iranian in his thirties. “There was barbed wire and gravel everywhere. There was a sentry post opposite the window of my container where border guards were constantly watching us. For four months someone visited me every single day to try and persuade me to go back to Serbia. After four months they gave up.”
Sayed’s father was an important figure in the local Muslim community, and when he found a Bible in his son’s possession he assaulted him. Since the punishment in Iran for Muslims converting to Christianity is imprisonment or even death, Sayed decided to escape.
He dared not take a Bible with him, since this would have been too dangerous at the border. The Farsi Bible he uses today is the one he received during his two year stay in the Serbian refugee camp. Reading this Bible was his only useful occupation during his year in Röszke.
“It brings such shame on a Muslim family when a family member converts to Christianity that often they will report one of their own family rather than endure it,” said one Christian helper who asked not to be named, and who organises prayer sessions in Farsi for refugees living in Budapest. This is for enthusiastic groups of 10-15 people aimed at Christians from Muslim countries who do not belong to any particular organised church. So you could say that even in Budapest, Iranian refugees go to “underground” events.
Inside the transit zone
Inside the transit zones, the living space per head is smaller than the prescribed minimum for prisons in Hungary, says András Lederer, of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the human rights organisation that is helping refugees. He says that each sector is made up of 5-bed metal containers in a U-shape round a yard strewn with gravel, surrounded by barbed wire. There is a whole line of these sectors, one after another. No one is allowed out on the service road that runs past them — they have to stay in their own yard. The refugees are divided in each sector according to whether they are family groups, single women, single men or unaccompanied children.
You are only allowed to leave your sector if you are going for a medical examination in a surgery container, if you have an asylum hearing or if you are meeting one of the Helsinki Committee lawyers. Each sector has a male and female shower block and a public activity space formed by two connected containers. The latter is the only area with air-conditioning, which is particularly important in summer: it gets pretty hot in the metal containers and there is no shade at all in the yard. The two transit zones were recently expanded and can now hold 700 people.
Since July 2018 the transit zones have held both asylum seekers and those whose application has been rejected (the latter are housed in an Aliens sector, which only differs in name—all sectors look the same). The only difference between the two groups is that all asylum seekers are given food, while in the Aliens sector only the children, pregnant women and breastfeeding women get food. Since 90 per cent of applications were rejected last year, more and more have been moved to the Aliens sector.
For those who have been sent back to Serbia the situation is hopeless.
“There was a family of five where the mother had a high-risk pregnancy, and they were sent across the border in the middle of the night against their will. This can both incur a fine under Serbian law and lead to expulsion from Serbia, which has explicitly said it is not willing to take these people back. So they are left in accommodation for foreigners, not under guard but in an open camp from where they cannot apply for refugee status and so cannot work. They are left outside the law, in a completely hopeless situation. In recent years several thousand people who have been sent back to Serbia have found themselves in this position,” says a staff member of the Helsinki Committee.
Everyone understands the language of love
“After the closure of the Bicske refugee camp (near Budapest) in December 2016,” Irén said, “we got in touch with those who were brought to the open camp at Kiskunhalas. We brought a group of 10-15 out and had a very friendly meeting with them. We had tea together and chatted. We had a very nice time together. After that five or six of them would come to our congregation on Sundays and stayed on after the service. The language barrier presented an obstacle but I feel that love is a universal language that everyone understands. The translation apps on phones helped a lot. They were very pleased that this was a place where, even if they could not understand everything, they could practice their faith. This was a very beautiful period that lasted from December 2016 until April 2017.”
Then the hotel at Kiskunhalas was closed and the two tranzit zones were built. Irén carried on her voluntary work initially through the Baptist Charity Service and later through the Reformed Church’s Refugee Mission.
“At first we worked only with the children,” she said.” We did music sessions for them, with 25-30 of them in a group. Sometimes I would have two sitting in my lap and one hanging round my neck as we played the synthesiser while my Reformed Church colleague played the violin. We also did handicraft sessions, making necklaces and mandalas and colouring in pictures. The adults liked joining in — they liked colouring in, too. After a while we began to talk: they really needed to share their problems with someone. They needed people to listen to them, to offer them a welcoming, responsive: love.”
A surprising turn
Even though he had suffered a lot in his time in the Röszke transit camp, Sayed still says he agrees with the Hungarian government’s refugee policy.
“My own safety is my prime concern. Namely, that I should feel secure and not feel my life is under threat just because I read the Bible. I would like to learn Hungarian and start up my own business in this country because in spite of every difficulty I feel safe here. My time in the transit zone was really horrific, but I still believe that is the price you pay for security. It may come as a surprise, nonetheless I do agree with Orbán’s standpoint.”
Another interesting point came up when talking to two young Iranian Christian men — Sayed and Behnam, a 29-year-old student who acts as his interpreter: they were not interested in denominational divisions or institutional or liturgical background. They said that their lives, their decisions and their relations with other people have been fundamentally shaped by the fact that they got to know Jesus through the Bible. It is this personal faith that matters, not which church you belong to. They also said that during their asylum hearings they were examined rigorously on their theological and biblical knowledge. The fact that they were eventually granted refugee status in Hungary was a huge achievement for both of them.
92.4% are rejected
In 2019, 394 asylum applications were made in the two transit zones, with a total of 468 new asylum applications received in Hungary overall. (New arrivals reuniting with families do not have to wait in the transit zones or submit their application there; similarly, students and those who are legally in the country make their applications outside the transit zone.)
Of the 468 applicants, 264 were male and 204 female; 240 were under 18 years old. The most common countries of origin were Afghanistan (185), Iraq (157), Pakistan (27), Iran (22) and Syria (20).
In 2019, 22 people were granted refugee status in Hungary: 12 men and 10 women; five were under 18. Six were from Pakistan, four from Iran and four were origin unknown.
In 2019, 31 were given “subsidiary protected person” status in Hungary (more restricted than refugee status): 20 men and 11 women; 15 were under 18. Of these, 13 were from Iran, six from Afghanistan and six were origin unknown.
Last year 650 applications were rejected in Hungary: 368 men and 312 women; 330 were under 18. Of these, 315 were from Afghanistan, 260 from Iraq and 21 from Iran.
The rejection rate was 92.4%.
Sources: Helsinki Committee, drawing on statistics from the National Directorate for Policing Aliens
Just don’t say you are Christian
Professionals working on the ground say that the proportion of Christians granted refugee status in Hungary has not gone up. Dóra Kanizsai-Nagy, a former head of the Reformed Church Refugee Mission who founded Kalunba, an NGO helping refugees to integrate, agrees. She said that her clients were 95% Muslim, 5% Christian, which was in line with the ratio of those granted refugee status in Hungary. Attila Mészáros, who leads the Lutheran Diakónia refugee programme, says they have similar figures, although there are no precise figures for the division of those granted refugee status in Hungary according to affiliation.
“I have been looking at these decisions on asylum applications since 2008, which was when I started working with asylum seekers,” said Dóra Kanizsai-Nagy. “I have the strong impression that conversion to Christianity or persecution as a Christian rarely features in these decisions.”
She says the interest in Christianity is mainly due to the fact during the 2015 wave of refugees many Christian communities got involved in helping them along the refugee routes.
“Many refugees, especially Iranians, said that even at home they had been curious and had tried to attend secret Christian events, but they knew that it was too dangerous to ask about such things openly. And when they were travelling the assistance and love they received from Christian helpers made a profound impact on them. Many say that was the prime reason for their conversion.
“Of course, there will be some who reckon that they can avoid being sent back by claiming that being Christian would be dangerous, if not fatal, in their home country. But I do not think there are many of those, not least because I have read plenty of rejection verdicts that said that it will not be a problem being a Christian if you don’t talk about it; you won’t be in danger if you go back and keep your faith secret,” said Dóra Kanizsai-Nagy.
Several hundred in Hungarian further education
Christian refugees don’t only come to Hungary via the transit zones. There are more than 200 students from Africa and the Middle East in Hungarian universities. They are supported by the Scholarship Programme for Christian Youth project which the state secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office responsible for the Assistance for Persecuted Christians and the Hungary Helps Programme operates with the assistance of the Tempus Foundation. The 2019-20 academic year was the third year of the programme, and in the first six months 202 scholars took part.
When applying for scholarships students have to include a letter of recommendation from their church. This is to prove that they are members of a religious community which is recommending them for the scholarship programme, Katalin Gherdán, the programme coordinator, told me in a written response.
She said the main churches in Western Europe are making a big effort to give applicants proper preparation before their christening so that genuine converts get proper protection.
“The churches have organised numerous conferences and training sessions to help to prepare converts for their christening,” said Dóra Kanizsai-Nagy.
No safety net
Attila Mészáros reckons that the present system leaves the few who get permission to stay in Hungary without any real help, regardless of their religion. Anyone who manages to make it out of the transit zone finds themselves in the same unfair position, whether Christian or Muslim. Without housing or a social security number they cannot get health care or any other support from the Hungarian state. Like Kalunba, the Lutheran Diakónia service’s housing programme tries to fill this gap, drawing exclusively on foreign — mainly German — church sources to finance the work.
Dóra Kanizsai-Nagy believes that this state of exile could allow a national security risk to develop.
“The refugee procedure highlights an important national security issue. The danger, I believe, lies in people who have escaped from hell and have gone through more horror on their way, finally arriving in the safety of Europe, where they experience scorn, anger and rejection. What is more, since all state and EU-funded integration support has been withdrawn, the very people we admitted to the country as worthy of our protection could suddenly find themselves homeless.”
She also said that for her clients this risk has been removed at present due to the huge labour shortage: “Integration has never gone so smoothly before. We have been finding work for people immediately, even if they don’t speak Hungarian and so have language lessons after work. In my opinion what makes people a threat to national security is not who they were before they came here, but what we do or don’t do for them after they have arrived.”
Some names have been changed in the article.