Beregsurany, Hungary-Ukraine border – Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has defended his country’s decision to open its borders to people fleeing war in Ukraine, compared with the response to those who have been seeking safety in the European Union in recent years.
Speaking to Al Jazeera on Thursday at an aid centre in Beregsurany, one of the main crossing points on Hungary’s 135km (84-mile) frontier with Ukraine, he said: “We are not living in a comfortable West, we are living in the midst of difficulties, not just now but throughout our history, so we are able to tell the difference between who is a migrant and who is a refugee.”
He added: “Migrants are stopped. Refugees can get all the help.”
Hours after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Orban reversed Budapest’s hardline border policies that in recent years have attracted sharp criticism by rights groups and international organisations.
“We’re prepared to take care of them [Ukrainians], and we’ll be able to rise to the challenge quickly and efficiently,” he said in a statement.
About 105,000 people have crossed into Hungary in a week and have been met with a well-organised humanitarian mission made up of Hungarians from across the country.
Overall, more than one million people have fled Ukraine, including in Moldova, Poland, Romania and Slovakia, since the war began.
In 2015, Hungary had closed its border with Serbia and erected a razor fence to deter people fleeing conflict, oppression and poverty from crossing into the EU. In July 2016, Orban’s nationalist government passed a law that legalised pushbacks – the practice of pushing asylum seekers back across borders without due process.
The European Court of Justice has ruled the move was in violation of EU law.
Imre Szabjan, the head of the emergency department at the Hungarian Charity Service Association of the Order of Malta, told Al Jazeera the number of refugees is likely to increase in the coming days. “At first the people arriving in Hungary had someone to meet them, now we are seeing more people arriving with just one bag and no idea what to do next. So we are giving them food, shelter and talking through possibilities with them. No one is left on their own.”
During his 20-minute visit to Beregsurany, Orban spoke to people who had crossed from Ukraine on Thursday morning. He also spoke to the army of local volunteers who are providing a 24-hour tea and sandwich operation.
“Hungary is a good friend of Ukraine, and the Ukrainian people. If they need any help, we are here and they can count on us,” he told journalists.
When asked for a message to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, Orban, who has enjoyed a close relationship with Russia’s leader, was coy.
“We try to provide all the chances for negotiations because what is going on now is war, the war can only be stopped by negotiations, and peace talks, and ceasefire – if they need us to make peace Hungary is always available,” he said.
Hungary has supported Western sanctions against Russia but Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarta announced on Monday the country would not allow lethal aid to transit its borders en route to forces in Ukraine.