Our Ukrainian neighbours celebrated Independence Day in the shadow of the losses of the Russian invasion that started six months ago. We help the best we can to ease the pain of war: providing 24/7 legal assistance & info to those fleeing.
24 February 2022
On that day, six months ago this week, Russia attacked Ukraine. It’s a day that many of us will remember for a very long time.
The next day, my colleagues and I rushed to the Hungarian-Ukrainian border to see how we, as human rights defenders, could help those having to flee their homes.
For the past 12 years, I have worked at the Refugee program of theHungarian Helsinki Committee providing legal help to refugees. Sadly, the second half of this time was spent witnessing the willful destruction of Hungary’s asylum system by the country’s government.
By May 2020, the Hungarian Government had heavily invested in hate campaigns against refugees and migrants, and practically shut the country’s doors via a series of legislative and practical acts.
After the war began
Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war to Hungary arrived in a country that did not officially welcome refugees. They quickly became aware of the complete absence of available reception facilities.
With that said, the Hungarian Government should be commended for quickly opening the Hungarian-Ukrainian border and granting temporary protection for Ukrainians fleeing the war. But during the critical first few weeks of the war, little else was done. Much-needed assistance coordination, usually done by the central administration, was nowhere in sight.
Nevertheless, we persisted
So, in the absence of government action, non-governmental actors tried to step in and make up for the missing state structure.
- Refugees were welcomed by hundreds of volunteers at the border with homemade sandwiches and offers of accommodation.
- Volunteer groups quickly organized themselves, and international and civil society organizations quickly responded to the emergency.
But even today, the government only provides assistance by funding charity organizations that provide food, transportation and shelter.
What refugees actually need
- Information is vital for refugees, but remains a scarce commodity. They need to understand their situation and the options they have in order to make informed decisions about their lives. Since the beginning of the war, we have visited places across Hungary where refugees are being housed to provide them with information and legal assistance. We also answer questions through email, social media and personal consultations.
- Immigration assistance. The immigration authority usually responsible for providing information has been absent at the border and at the shelters. This is one reason for the extremely low number of applications for temporary protection in Hungary; of the million-plus people who entered Hungary from Ukraine, less than 30,000 have applied for protection (this is low even compared to other Central European countries).
- High-quality in-country support. The level and the quality of assistance offered to refugees varies significantly across the various shelters. There’s still an absence of translators in most places, and non-state actors (e.g. municipalities or hostel managers) who help are often left to their own devices. Many don’t have the resources to organize the complex (and novel) task of helping people restart their lives.
As a refugee advocate, I was grateful and happy to see Hungary’s level of mobilization and goodwill at the outbreak of the war – an effort reflective of European solidarity.
But six months into the war, key questions remain:
- What are the exact numbers of Ukrainian refugees in, and travelling on from Hungary?
- How can this initial energy and compassion be sustained without a more significant governmental contribution?
- Who will coordinate the efforts, in the long run, to help Ukrainian refugees who stay in Hungary?