A derailed train - The role of the Hungarian state and of civil society in supporting refugees from Ukraine


The author, who is a university professor, writer, and literary translator, spent three weeks as a volunteer interpreter at Budapest’s railway stations. Her account is based on her own experiences, helpers’ testimonials, information from social media and Facebook groups, and online media.

Helping point offering free accommodation for Ukrainian refugees at Keleti Railway Station in Budapest, Hungary

Almost immediately after the war started on 24 February 2022, Ukrainian refugees started arriving in Hungary. It is, however, inaccurate to speak of them as “Ukrainian” refugees, because there were many other nationalities and peoples among them: third-country nationals, including students from Africa, India, Vietnam and Central Asia and, last but not least, Ukrainian-Hungarian dual citizens.

The NGOs that had formed during the 2015 refugee crisis reacted immediately, starting their operations outside Nyugati Railway Station, and they were joined by other NGOs, large and small, such as Migration Aid, Budapest Bike Mafia and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. The amount of humanitarian aid and donations (food, clothes, toiletries, utensils, accommodation, transportation, money) offered by ordinary citizens reached unprecedented proportions, while groups of volunteer helpers responded immediately to any need that arose.

In time, three of the six church relief organisations recognised by the state (the Hungarian Red Cross, the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta, and Hungarian Reformed Church Aid) appeared on the scene. Non-recognised denominations, civil associations, and the Hungarian Two-tailed Dog Party were also present, the latter working out-of-doors. In addition to sorting and distributing the donations, other tasks included providing interpreting, childcare, document procurement and railway ticket purchasing, accommodation and job searching, transportation and extra/specific tasks. This phase of decentralised refugee support, which emerged organically, ended on 21 March, when the state took full control of refugee reception services and moved them to a hard-to-reach location, the BOK Sports and Conference Centre (the news of this reorganisation broke only two days before it took effect). Its effect on volunteers from civil society was like a violent train derailment.

The changeover exposed the biggest problem in managing the refugee crisis: the flow and exchange of information. Information was provided that was declared official and then turned out to be not just false but even misleading, delayed, secretive and indicative of the dilettantish nature of the organisation underway, as well as instructions that could be given only by telephone or only in person, verbally, and which were therefore not possible to document easily, or verify.

The BOK Hall is a facility run by law enforcement for refugees in transit where new arrivals receive care for no more than 24 hours, after which they are discharged and sent to accommodation if they are lucky. It is a windowless, giant, tent-like temporary structure with a height of at least ten metres, with corridors formed by portable metallic cordon walls; people entering through these corridors are given wristbands and are then registered by helpers. The interpreter's role is strictly limited to facilitating communication between two parties: the refugee and the officially registered helper present at the venue, nothing more, and it provokes admonishment if he/she initiates another conversation with the refugee (this is based on personal experience). Refugees are allowed to spend only one night at BOK, on a cot behind a screen, next to the ticket office of the Hungarian Railway Company, and sharing the space with about 60 other people. Some cold snacks are available, but they often run out. Going outside the building was not possible for refugees at first but this rule was eased with time. Those people who need to submit a request at the authorities for temporary protection either have to use public transportation, which may be complicated as transfers are necessary, or need to walk three-and-a-half kilometres to the relevant office.

According to press reports, of the 110 billion forints allocated for aid to refugees from the EU, the six state-licensed aid organisations (the Charity Council of six religious organizations) were allocated altogether three billion in equal shares, 500 million forints each, but the organisations have reported in mid-June that they have not yet received these funds. It is therefore understandable that these organisations continue to fundraise from individual donations. Many individuals no longer trust the well-known, state-funded organisations and have doubts about their using the donations for the purpose for which they are intended, and therefore they have donated money to independent organisations, including interpreters. The six large aid organisations are also in charge of cross-border donations and those collected near borders. Civil society organisations including Migration Aid, which runs a 260-bed hotel for temporary stays, have not received any of the EU funds. That 260-bed hotel on Madrid Road, opened by Migration Aid on 12 March, hosted 1 500 guests until 11 May, with 80 volunteers working in six shifts.

There are also some good aspects to the state-organised aid: the BOK facility has given the transiting refugees the opportunity to wait in a cleaner, more comfortable environment and to buy train tickets on the spot. However, from here they are still being allocated to the same private hotels (as a courtesy of the Hungarian Association of Hotels), shelters, schools, and NGO-run accommodation facilities as before.

Previously at the Keleti station, the magnitude of theft was intolerable; not only did the refugees’ belongings, luggage and sometimes even their pets disappear, but also the donated goods meant for the refugees disappeared, probably so they could be sold. This could, however, have been remedied by proper entrance control, as was demonstrated at the Nyugati station, where the situation was better (there were only two entrances there, and the authorities acted more like partners with the volunteers in controlling them).

At the BOK facility, however, humanitarian aid provision is not continuous because private donations of food, toiletries or clothes are not allowed inside. This system, which relies only on some elements of decentralised refugee support, completely excludes spontaneous help from ordinary citizens, with just the six supported organisations being present along with accommodation providers and a few enthusiastic individuals offering transportation. It quickly became apparent that, with the exclusion of the civil society organisations, there were not enough volunteers, and especially interpreters were in short supply as former volunteers were excluded.

Representatives of the Disaster Management Directorate staff have hardly any authority, and if a refugee lacks a document, the staff sometimes conduct humiliating, aggressive interrogations, almost blaming the refugee (in my personal experience). There were also cases of authorities forcibly pushing refugees into ambulances for transport to neuropsychiatric hospitals where they were forcibly medicated (my student was a helpless helper in one such case).

However, the representatives of western organisations arriving in buses and offering onward travel to refugees are admitted into the BOK facility; in an attempt to fill up their buses, they urge minor refugees to board and then take them onward if they have biometric passports. It could be argued that this is unlawful, as the age limit for travelling without parental authorisation is 18 in Hungary (in Ukraine it is 16). It may be easier for minor refugees to return home if their parents are looking for them from a nearby country, but in the EU they would undoubtedly receive better care. On the other hand, an orphaned or perhaps half-orphaned boy of almost 18 years of age from Mariupol who arrived in Budapest alone and who had worked independently for two years in IT was placed in a children's home because his identification documents had been stolen.

It is important to prevent the trafficking of women and children, but it would be almost as important to regulate the housing mafia: a holiday home at Lake Velence was rented to refugees for USD 2 000, while an 80 m2 apartment in Budapest was rented for EUR 2 000 – several times above the local market price. An NGO (A21) specialises in detecting such cases.

If you want to volunteer to help refugees now as an ordinary citizen, you must pre-register to enter the closed circle of helpers at the BOK facility and choose a shift of 4 or 8 hours. Here, instead of what used to be a civic/urban space resembling a marketplace, there are camp-like conditions, or to put it mildly, large-scale industrial conditions. The warmth and kindness that were being shown by civilian volunteers is carried on by just a handful of persistent helpers there, but by now almost everyone has dropped out and joined civilian helper groups elsewhere that are “more like a family”, as they say. Previously, many individuals “dropped by” the railway stations to volunteer when they had a bit of time and helped the new arrivals with compassion. This has completely disappeared, as the BOK facility can only be accessed by pre-registered, organised, scheduled helpers, and interpreters only on a contract with the Metropolitan Police. Effective volunteer support cannot be provided in a pre-determined way, though, or according to a strict, mandatory timetable, not least because the helpers’ mental resources are finite, and they need to know exactly when to stop and rest (I experienced this kind of sudden exhaustion myself).

Care for the small number of asylum seekers who have stayed in Hungary has not been centrally organised but left to NGOs and small organisations collecting donations (the Lutheran Mandák House accommodates and provides care mainly to large Roma families with dual Hungarian-Ukrainian citizenship, while refugee children are being looked after by the Oltalom Charitable Association, which has been facing financial difficulties for years itself).

As a result of the above, there is an increasing tendency on the part of refugees to bypass the Hungarian system. This can be seen from the accounts in the Facebook groups for volunteering interpreters who report the number of arrivals to Hungary from the state borders: for example on 9 May just eight refugees arrived in Budapest by train. Another form of evasion is not to get off at the designated place of arrival (at the outskirts of Budapest), but to travel on to the city’s central railway stations and find their own way there, or to travel on directly to another country.

A particular problem is school enrolment, as 90 % of the arrivals are women with children (60 % are children). Among those who are staying in Hungary, there is a significant number of adults arriving from segregated situations who are illiterate (they are Hungarian- speaking people, most of them dual citizens). Only volunteer-driven NGOs and emerging communities can provide education in Ukrainian, and due to a shortage of space, afternoon schools are dominant, which are being run in the auditoriums of secondary schools in Budapest. The language barrier in schooling is almost insurmountable, starting with the difference between the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets, which is difficult to manage.

There is no support for refugees who remain in Hungary without them demanding the status of temporary protection, or for those waiting for visas. A canteen would be needed along with a club and a free second-hand clothes shop run on a self-service system, but just for holders of temporary protection status (to avoid the abuse of the system it would not be enough to be a Ukrainian passport holder, and vouchers could be used). Furthermore, now it is private initiatives that are providing job placements for asylum seekers, not the state (there is a social media page for this purpose, but refugees’ lack of language skills and the fact that the page provides too much information are obstacles to its effectiveness).

What would be a well-functioning system? Some combination of the two approaches described above.

The state should have provided backup for the work of the experienced, enthusiastic civil society actors, providing the services that are within its remit (dynamic but rigorous and transparent checking of refugees during border crossings, travel coordination, legal administration help, humanitarian aid and medical care), instead of running the closed camps similar to those used for refugees from Syria years ago. It should have offered a carefully selected location for civil society initiatives to help refugees after the train station phase, with coordinated, joint organisation. The open, rapid exchange of information would have been necessary to such organisation, grouping the network of volunteers into small teams specialising in defined tasks and managing them in an inclusive way.

The BOK facility system is showing both signs of improvement and the faults that are making its operations worse. As it turns out, the facility is unable to cope with refugees who ask for donations repeatedly (even at the cost of travelling back to Ukraine and forth to the facility with many children). The exclusion of spontaneous volunteers is also a bigger shortfall than expected. Finally, there is burnout; the industrial operation in camp-like conditions and the pressure of the enclosed space have triggered internecine conflicts and exclusions among the circles of people working there. Some might say this is not too high of a price to pay for order and organisation.

That is not the case, though. The creative chaos that existed during the first phase was of enormous social significance. Refugees came into direct contact with spontaneous helpers from all walks of life, they became close to local people, which engendered empathy in them. The realistic image of the refugees that was thus gained by the volunteers undermined any unacceptable nationalist or other stereotypes, any incipient “Ukrainophobia” or growing antigypsyism. The difficulties at the railway stations also highlighted the important fact that the Government's actions were isolated and powerless, that state aid was not present, and thus critical voices were becoming stronger and the image of “civil society working instead of the state” was becoming evident. Helpers came into contact with people both from villages deep in the country and from the capital, and the day-long waits and rubbing shoulders prompted discussions between different segments of the population (even about the forthcoming elections), which were sometimes frowned upon by representatives of the Government-backed church aid organisations. In such a situation, the intervention of a state with an uncertain foreign policy stance at a time of declining refugee numbers can be seen as a pre-electoral move.

Despite the crowds and the noise, the train stations had been the physical manifestation of civil society, places familiar from peaceful times showing the hustle and bustle of life with a lively, market-like atmosphere. Many think that in such a decentralised, spontaneous format, that external circle of help would have soon dried up anyhow. Perhaps that would have been so, but the volunteering has been exhausted by now anyway. At that time, though, in those locations, the regular arrival and sorting of donations, their distribution among the tents, and the regular transport of both goods and refugees had already become regular features of the landscape (as is the donation tent of the Two-tailed Dog Party, which continued to stand there until 10 July).

In democracies, “marketplace-like” aid prevails over “camp-based” aid with maximum state backing, i.e., the citizens (the average person) and the public offices that their taxes maintain, work together on delivering humanitarian aid. Examples of this include the aid provided at train stations in Vienna (based on my personal experience) and the care in Germany for refugees, including at the Munich train station.

Of the 860,000 or so refugees who have arrived in Hungary, a maximum of 90,000 could still be in the country as of the end of June. Some 26,000 of them have the status of temporary protection (data courtesy of Boston Consulting Group). The Hungarian official figures are based on data from the police collected at the borders and does not refer to refugees remaining in the country. Other EU countries have received 5.3 million refugees so far, of which 2.3 million have reportedly already returned to Ukraine.