So far only eastern European countries have pledged their support
“In migration and refugee issues, geography matters,” Balázs Orbán, Political Director for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, told me in Budapest on Thursday — the day Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine which shook the world.
Russia’s assault on Ukraine leaves neighbouring countries such as Hungary, Slovakia and Poland with a stomach-churning sense of Cold War déjà vu. But the region is already feeling the effects of the invasion, as refugees make their way to the borders. Before the scale of Russia’s military ambitions became clear, central European politicians warned that millions could be displaced in the event of conflict. It’s now feared that the refugee crisis could turn out to be even worse than predicted.
For the time being, most of those arriving in Hungary from Ukraine are ethnic Hungarians from the border regions, often provided with shelter by family or friends. Hungary ceded large portions of its territory to Ukraine in the Treaty of Trianon following WWI, and around 150,000 Hungarians still live in the country today.
Attempts by the Ukrainian government to limit the use of the Hungarian language by these communities have led to bitter disputes between Budapest and Kyiv. Such negative relations raised fears that Hungary might be hesitant about accepting non-Hungarian refugees from Ukraine. But various government officials have assured me that Hungary will accept all refugees, no matter their ethnic origin.
The humanitarian commitment of the wider central Europe region has also been called into question because of the complete rejection of refugees by Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic during the Syrian refugee crisis of 2015. Yet now, none of these nations show a desire to shirk their duty.
Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Kamiński has already announced that reception centres for refugees, offering meals, medical care and accommodation, are being set up along the Polish-Ukrainian border. Around 15,000 people entered Poland from Ukraine in the 24 hours following the outbreak of war, and the numbers are expected to increase rapidly. Hungary announced a waiver on the usual procedures for seeking asylum and is expecting up to 600,000 refugees, while the Czech Republic has a plan in place to accept “many thousands of refugees,” according to ministers.
Geography matters — and Ukraine’s neighbours are putting aside their fears of migration to provide succour to those in need. Yet with a truly huge wave of refugees possible, the West now faces a humanitarian dilemma. Does it respond in kind to eastern Europe’s rejection of southern refugees in 2015 (an episode which caused untold bitterness and resentment in Brussels); or does it volunteer to share the burden?
Hungarian politicians are well aware that they are in no position to demand refugee relocation, given their staunch opposition to such schemes when the boot was on the other foot. “If other countries voluntarily help us take in refugees, then we would welcome that,” Balázs Orbán told me on Thursday. “But we don’t want to force countries to do what they don’t want to do.”
The large number of Ukrainians already living in countries like the Czech Republic and Slovakia also means many are likely to favour joining existing communities in the same region. But if the stream of refugees turns into a flood, the EU and Britain will face a choice between leaving eastern Europe to deal with a humanitarian crisis alone, or making refugee aid a collective effort.