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A Closer Look At Hungary's Migration History


Let's explore just why Hungary has become such a focus of Europe's refugee crisis.


Part of the answer is simple geography. For many people fleeing Syria and other countries, Hungary is the first nation they encounter within the European Union. Thousands crossed the border just yesterday, before Hungary sealed off a railroad track used as a crossing.

INSKEEP: Part of the answer is politics. Hungarians are deeply ambivalent about the newcomers, in a manner that Americans may find familiar. Historian Stefano Bottoni says the country's politicians have voiced that ambivalence.

STEFANO BOTTONI: The Hungarian government - the Hungarian government party Fidesz, led by Viktor Orban, who's the Hungarian prime minister, sold the migrant issue as an excellent opportunity to communicate to the country the idea of saving Hungary from external threat. And they built up a big communication campaign a bit, which was quite effective, I have to say.

INSKEEP: According to surveys, that view of mostly Muslim refugees as a threat has resonated with Hungarian voters.

BOTTONI: Hungary doesn't perceive itself as a multicultural society, while Germany, Denmark or Sweden or the Netherlands or France perceive themselves as a kind of monoethnic, monocultural societies. But still, it is very difficult for ordinary people to accept the fact that this might be the future, not only of Western Europe but also of this part of the continent, so being a multicultural, a multiethnic society.

INSKEEP: If I look into history, I find out that there wasn't even a country called Hungary with these borders as little as 100 years ago. It's a little surprising that Hungarians would see themselves as this unchanging group of people who should not change again.

BOTTONI: When the Hungarians emancipated themselves from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and started to build up a nation of consciousness, this idea of being a unified people - there is nothing essential in being Hungarians or being Italians or whatever - but still, this idea is now very present. And as surprising that it can be, it was present even at the time of Communism.

INSKEEP: You're reminding me that even though there is a united Europe - a European Union - that unity only goes so far. And there are certain areas that were isolated in the past by Communism or by other forces who see themselves as quite separate.

BOTTONI: Yes, this is precisely like that. And the fact that Hungary, since 2004, is a full member of the European Union, only partly changed the set of mind.

INSKEEP: Well, that raises another question. It's understandable, from what you say, that Hungary was somewhat isolated, that this refugee phenomenon was new to people and that people, initially, were horrified and resisted. But now people like you and others have encountered refugees, have seen the images that everyone else in the world has seen. Do you think anybody's opinion is changing?

BOTTONI: I think it's slowly changing, and also the approach. So in the first approach was why are they coming here? They should come back. It was very, very difficult to explain people that - where?- where to send them back. So the problem is that no one understood, really, the terms of this problem. Now most people, especially in Budapest and the major centers who are touching this problem because they are having some kind of personal conflict with these people, now they understand that their will is to leave Hungary, is not to bother us (laughter), just to cross the country and that the task of Hungary should be that of facilitating these few to Austria, Germany in an order that's civilized and very human way.

INSKEEP: Stefano Bottoni is a historian at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Thanks very much.

BOTTONI: Thank you, indeed. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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