Tending to Ukraine refugees in Orban’s Hungary

Director general of Terre des Hommes, Barbara Hintermann, met with Budapest’s local authorities in early May to discuss how to address the Ukrainian refugee crisis. (Credit: Courtesy of TdH)

NGOs are helping tend to Ukrainian refugees arriving by the thousands every day in eastern European countries – a harder task in Hungary where there is little collaboration with the government.

The number of refugees leaving Ukraine since the beginning of Russia’s invasion has surpassed the six million mark, according to UN figures. The vast majority have crossed over to neighbouring countries, including Poland, Romania and Moldova.

Hungary has said it has received over half a million people from Ukraine, a claim that even the UN is having trouble verifying. Prime minister Viktor Orban’s immigration laws restricting access to asylum have put the far-right leader at odds with the European Union and the UN Refugee Agency before. Hungary has also been accused of double standards as it keeps a tight border with Serbia to keep non-EU refugees at bay.

Barbara Hintermann, director general of Terre des Hommes (TdH), travelled to Budapest two weeks ago, where the child relief agency has had an office for the past 15 years. The Lausanne-based international organisation spoke with Geneva Solutions about the challenges of tending to the refugee crisis in Hungary.

GS News: How is your organisation adapting its activities to respond to the crisis of Ukrainian refugees in the region?

Barbara Hintermann: We have been present in the region for quite some time, in Hungary since 2007 as well as in Moldova and Romania. We’re also present in Poland and Slovakia but only through local partners. That’s an advantage when it comes to developing and implementing an emergency response since we already have the structure there. The challenge for TDH is now to switch to emergency aid, while also maintaining development aid.

What is the difference between emergency and development aid in terms of your operations on the ground?

Our staff members are really development workers, specialised in system strengthening, for example child protection systems or juvenile justice systems. They also work at a different pace. TDH has also always worked with local partners and within the existing social protection system. We have never done it alone. When it comes to emergency aid, the profiles that we are looking for are different, we have direct response and assistance, not as large-scale as the ICRC [International Committee for the Red Cross] or MSF [Doctors without Borders], but we still provide  for example hygiene kits. We have to go faster, while remaining truthful to our principles such as keeping families together and always upholding the best interest of the child. At the same time, our organisation would like not only to do emergency response, but already think on how we can strengthen local networks and service providers working within the systems, which is sometimes a challenge depending on the country.

You were in Budapest two weeks ago. What are the challenges to host incoming Ukrainian refugees in Hungary, a country harshly criticised for its anti-immigration policies?

The Hungarian government is a difficult government in many regards. Not only for this crisis – It is a right wing government. I met with local NGOs, which are very competent. We had dinner together and discussed their challenges. They have almost no dialogue and no core funding anymore from the government, even though somehow they act as its auxiliaries, taking over certain services that should be provided by the government. The dialogue is also inexistent for us, which is a challenge. That's why we are only working in Budapest. I met with the two deputy mayors of Budapest, they are from the opposition and the dialogue there is really good. We work hand in hand with the authorities in two reception centres, and they will soon open a third one in Budapest with a holistic approach.

What is it like in the two reception centres?

Before there were several hundred Ukrainians there and now we have mainly Roma people in those two centres – not a high number but they are a very vulnerable group. It's not new. They are Hungarian-speaking Roma, that is the diaspora living in Ukraine, which has gone back and forth depending where they can find the work.

Roma have been a historically stigmatised population. How are they being received in Hungary?

That's obviously an issue, especially when it comes to the integration of Roma children in Hungary’s school system. The local organisations working on this issue, including us, are accompanying that process. This is a population that is stigmatised and sometimes it leads to racism. But in general, the integration of children into the local schools is not easy, even in Switzerland. It's not only a question of political will. Each child requires individual support. I think in Budapest, we’re going in the right direction but I don't know whether this will be the case in the rest of the country, since all the other cities are government-aligned.

Viktor Orban’s government has pulled the country’s asylum seeking system apart in recent years. How does this reflect on the ground with thousands of Ukrainians arriving every day?

First of all, there are no accurate centralised figures. There is an estimate by the government of about half a million Ukrainian refugees in Hungary, but we don't know if this is accurate. UN agencies, such as UNHCR and IOM, are assessing the accommodation centers but they haven’t covered all of them. By 14 May, 21,320 people had asked for temporary protection and about 11,647 had received asylum by 1 May, according to public figures. Mr. Gergely Gulyás, Minister of the Prime Minister's Office) said at the end of April that 80 per cent of the refugees are not staying in Hungary. If that trend hasn’t changed then there should be around 200,000 people in the country.

The second challenge is that there is an important number of Ukrainian refugees that are not registered in the system. They are somewhere in Hungary but not necessarily receiving the basic services.

Are many of those arriving in Hungary unaccompanied minors?

There are unaccompanied minors and there are minors separated from their family or family friends. That is for me a big concern in Hungary because we have absolutely no view of the situation and these children are especially exposed to risk of trafficking, abuse, forced child labour, you name it. That’s why it’s important to have a holistic approach, not only have psychosocial support but also child friendly spaces to accommodate children's needs. There also needs to be awareness raising on the risks that I just mentioned.

You also met with European and the United States representatives. What did you discuss?

The Swiss Ambassador invited us for breakfast with European representatives of France, Denmark, Norway, and Germany as well as the US to give a briefing on our activities and challenges. I asked them, how is your dialogue with this government? How can you incentivise the government to comply with European standards?

And it is also very difficult for those governments, which is not a surprise, knowing their attitude towards the European Union. It's also a big challenge for them to influence Hungary and ask them to take responsibility as a host country to refugees.

You had to temporarily close your offices when the war broke out. What are your plans for your operations in Ukraine?

We have been present in Ukraine since 2005 through local partners and as an NGO since 2015, when the conflict started in the eastern part of the country. We had to unfortunately close our two offices on 24 February due to security reasons, but we kept a little setup in Kyiv. We delocalised our staff to the western part of the country and we will soon restart our activities there. We have a proposal of about CHF7.3 million, of which we’ve already raised more than half. First we’ll set up in Ivano-Frankivsk, in Chernivtsi next to the border with Romania and in Uzhhorod, next to Slovenia.

We will follow three pillars: first, strengthening the support for frontline service providers – networks or local partners –, second, providing direct services, such as cash assistance, but also psychosocial support, educational animation, etc, and third, information and awareness building through a desk where people can get information on support networks and and the risks of trafficking, abuse, child labour, etc.

This is very important for the internally displaced people and we need to be extremely flexible because the context is constantly evolving. People are moving out of urban areas because prices have gone up so much. This is linked to many internally displaced people arriving in cities driving up demand, and also I think the presence of the NGOs is in part responsible, we have to be critical of ourselves.