Anti-migrant town welcomes Ukrainian refugees in Hungary

Beregsurany residents, who tend to support Hungary’s anti-migrant policies, open their doors to growing numbers of Ukrainian asylum seekers.

Ukrainian refugees in Hungary's border town of Beregsurány
Ukrainian refugees in Hungary's border town of Beregsurany [Amanda Coakley/Al Jazeera]

Beregsurany, Hungary – Minibuses carrying people who have fled the war in Ukraine do not stop arriving in Beregsurany, a rural Hungarian town near the Ukrainian border. The moment one drops off a group at the town hall, another quickly takes its place.

Everything moves like clockwork. Volunteers register each person and organise onward transport. Elderly residents of the town push forward with hot tea and meat sandwiches. Medics stand by to offer assistance.

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, this sleepy village has become a hive of activity as thousands of people sought safety from rockets and bombs.

Overseeing this military-like effort is the town’s mayor, Istvan Herka, a man with snow-white hair.

“We know these people who are fleeing. Our lives intersected all the time. So this war has struck a chord in our heart,” he told Al Jazeera in between phone calls. “[Prime Minister Viktor] Orban did the right thing by keeping the border open. We had to help in any way we could, and our community is rising to the challenge every day.”

Impressive effort

Hungary has received more than 140,000 people from Ukraine in just seven days. All along the 135km (84-mile) frontier, volunteers from across the country have travelled to the border region to help with the impressive humanitarian effort.

Overall more than 1.2 million people have crossed Ukraine’s western borders according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a number that is expected to grow in the coming days.

_INTERACTIVE- Where are Ukrainians fleeing to

Beregsurany has a population of about 600 people, the majority of whom are elderly residents. When news broke last week of Russian President Vladimir Putin starting a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, members of the community met in the town centre to plan for an expected influx of Ukrainian refugees.

“We knew immediately people were going to come through here, so we ran down and turned the heating on in the town hall and started to carry pots of tea to the border. We were right, within a few hours there was demand,” said Andrea Lukacsine Posze, a resident.

She has been at the town hall every day since last Thursday, making hundreds of meals and sorting thousands of donated items.

“We’re here. We’re doing everything we can,” said Lukacsine Posze.

Selective sympathy

Hungary, like Poland, has been accused of selective sympathy given its opposition to any European Union open-door policy that benefits those fleeing conflict, poverty and oppression from beyond the continent.

In 2015, Hungary closed its border with Serbia and erected a razor fence to deter people from crossing into the EU via the Balkan route.

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 violated EU law.

Orban has previously said his people “didn’t want any migration” and referred to those seeking help in the EU as “Muslim invaders”.

Speaking to Al Jazeera on Thursday, he said it was his country’s ability to “tell the difference between who is a migrant and who is a refugee” that led to the eastern border staying open.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks to the media as he visits the Ukraine-Hungary border
Orban speaks to the media as he visits Beregsurany [File: Bernadett Szabo/Reuters]

Late on Thursday, EU interior ministers gave unanimous backing to a plan to grant temporary residency to Ukrainians fleeing the war.

The protective measure will also apply to people who had residency or refugee status in Ukraine and will give them access to employment, social welfare and housing for up to three years.

Fidesz stronghold

Beregsurany is a stronghold of the Fidesz ruling party led by Orban, and the residents tend to fall in line with government policies on key issues such as migration.

“It was never that important for me as I live so far from the border with Serbia,” said Lukacsine Posze. “I do think we should help everyone, but I guess you don’t realise how important that is until it arrives on your own front door.”

In the past few days, two unaccompanied minors arrived at the Beregsurany crossing, Imre Szabjan, the head of the emergency department at the Hungarian Charity Service Association of the Order of Malta, told Al Jazeera.

They were 12 and 17 years old and have been taken into shelter in Budapest, Hungary’s capital.

Laura, 8 fleeing from Ukraine without her parents sits on a bus
Laura, 8, fleeing from Ukraine without her parents, sits on a bus in Beregsurany to go to the Netherlands [File: Bernadett Szabo/Reuters]

Among the people arriving in Beregsurany were Maria Blahoslovennio and Maria Vseblaha, two nuns from the western Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk.

Together they shepherded students from their Greek Catholic school to safety, a mission that took them several days. All the students’ parents are still in Ukraine to help with the war effort.

“When we heard about the war, we prayed with our sisters for peace and it gave us comfort,” said Blahoslovennio, who is in her early 20s.

“Faith has an important role during times like this and there are priests across Ukraine to help people if they need it.”

The group was picked up by a German charity who had driven 12 hours to take them back to the city of Munich.

Source: Al Jazeera