by Mariya Parodi, Press Officer for Amnesty International USA
Last week, the United States Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, met with Peter Szijjarto, Hungary’s foreign minister, roughly one month after Viktor Orbán celebrated his election victory and just one day after Orbán’s ruling party, Fidesz, introduced legislation that criminalizes efforts to help refugees, immigrants, asylum-seekers, and migrants. I am an alumna of Central European University, located in the Hungarian capital of Budapest, and developments in Hungary have left me more and more worried about whether civil society will survive in that country. In August of 2012, about one year after then-Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, delivered a speech to the Hungarian Parliament criticizing measures to limit freedom of the press and weaken independent institutions, I moved to Budapest, just a couple blocks south of the Hungarian Parliament, to study human rights law. My Master’s courses were filled with lawyers from around the world as well as a handful of activists, like myself. In the environment around me, however, I felt the constant highs and lows of the Hungarian government’s willingness to tolerate human rights and civic space.
The high was feminist and queer spaces, like Pepita Ofélia Bár, where I could meet people interested in addressing the same issues of equality that moved me. It was also walking around my neighborhood to see a menorah next to a Christmas tree during Hanukkah, visit the historic Jewish district, enter Jewish art exhibits, and purchase jelly-filled doughnuts.
I attended Roma vigils seeking accountability for those that were killed, witnessed Roma flash mobs right in front of Saint Stephen’s Basilica, and heard powerful speeches for International Roma Day.
On Saturday nights, I would accompany my friends as they dressed in drag and went on stage to perform Britney Spears’ songs — tall heels, blonde wig, and all.
For PRIDE, I marched with my friends and classmates for LGBTQI rights in Hungary.
However, just as I saw the very best of civil society, I also saw the very worst of fear tactics aimed to weaken it. At the end of the PRIDE march, protesters assembled to threaten marchers. The bullying was frightening, particularly, because of the power these protesters held: they gathered in large groups, dressed to intimidate, and shouted hateful language.
On the Budapest metro, a friend who identifies as Black and Native American was threatened by radical nationalists. He feared for his life as they singled him out and threatened him on the basis of how he looks.
When I sat with fellow youth on the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, a common place to meet and spend time, a young Hungarian told me how much he had hated Jews, how greedy they were, and how they were working to destroy Hungary. I did not mention that I, and the other young woman he was speaking with, are both Jewish. I simply asked if he’d met any Jews before. He answered he did not need to meet Jews to know how horrible they are.
Prior to the meeting, a leading member of the extreme nationalist Jobbik party, Márton Gyöngyösi, urged the Hungarian government to draw up lists of Jews as they had posed a “national security risk”. For Holocaust survivors, it was a reminder of the brutality they and their families experienced and the shame of the crimes that the country had committed.
I went to the Hungarian Parliament to stand with those who protested his statements. In the crowds, I saw members of my grandmother’s generation: Hungarian Jews. Like my grandmother, many of them lost most of their families in the Holocaust. I looked at the yellow stars they placed upon their lapels in protest and immediately knew why they’d come out in such high numbers in freezing temperatures. They were there to keep new generations from having to hear the frightening messages they were so familiar with.
Recent actions have escalated the threat far beyond inflammatory rhetoric. The Hungarian government’s ‘Stop Soros’ campaign drew on anti-Semitism to portray George Soros, a Hungarian-American Holocaust survivor, businessman, philanthropist, political activist, and author as a rich, media-controlling Jew, attempting to “to breed a Soros-like human race”, as Prime Minister Orbán had phrased it. The campaign has already led to the closure of Open Society Foundations (OSF), a nongovernmental institution founded by Soros in Hungary, and forced it to move to Berlin. OSF had operated in Hungary since 1984, when the country was still under Communist one-party rule. The foundation funded scholarships for Hungarians to travel and study abroad and for libraries and academic research. Viktor Orbán himself was a former Soros scholarship recipient.
Similarly, Central European University (CEU), where I studied, faces an uncertain future in Budapest. Founded in 1989 to help transition Central and Eastern Europe to democracy after the fall of communism, the university gained renown for its faculty, students, and alumni and is considered one of the best research institutions in the world. Yet CEU has faced a wave of government pressure. CEU spent 15 months jumping through legal hoops to appease regulatory officials, opening a campus with Bard College in New York, and now waiting on sign-off approval from the government. If forced to leave Budapest, it would move to nearby Vienna, where it has already signed an MOU in case the dire scenario comes to fruition.
I have written previously about what the closure of CEU in Budapest would truly mean; students in the region have expressed that CEU was set up where it was needed the most and that remains the case today. CEU’s closure would deny Hungarian students the opportunity to learn from world-renowned professors, many Hungarians would lose their jobs, Moreover, it would harm activists, sociologists, economists, and lawyers arriving to study in Hungary from all corners of the world, and hoping to cultivate skills and gain the “academic strength, courage, and conviction to go out into the world and fight for what we believe in”, as my former classmate and human rights lawyer in Calcutta, Debjyoti Ghosh, put it. CEU’s closure would mean that Hungary has limited not only its own capacity to push back against repression, but also the capacity to do so in other countries.
The pushback aimed at Central European University, against NGOs, and against civil society, is fed by fear and active disinformation efforts. It is influenced by an ideology promoted by leaders like Vladimir Putin, who Orbán has channeled in the eight years since regaining power.
The ‘Stop Soros’ laws criminalize attempts to help migrants. What that means is left purposely vague, but the new legal framework could see individuals or organizations arrested merely for providing food or legal assistance to refugees. Organizations that would be impacted by this law do critical work to help some of the people most at risk in Hungarian society. They include Amnesty International Hungary, a country section of Amnesty International, for which I work, that has been falsely and disgustingly described by the ruling Fidesz party as “one of those agent organizations” publishing fake reports and encouraging migrants to break the law. They would also include the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, for which I was lucky enough to intern for while studying in Hungary. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union fights for those in Hungarian society, like the mentally disabled, and who are often ostracized and sent to special institutions where their rights are denied.
The demonization of the Roma, of Jews, of Queers in Hungary has expanded to refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants. In a powerful essay by my Amnesty colleague in Hungary, and fellow CEU classmate, Áron Demeter, he writes about the case of Ahmed, who was given a ten year prison sentence when he left his home in Cyprus to help his family cross into the European Union, and who had done nothing wrong. The police testimony stated:
“I cannot give a description of the person talking with the megaphone. They all look like each other. The migrants are all bearded and have black hair. I couldn’t tell you who was there as he looked like a typical Arab with a big nose and a beard”.
This blatant racism was not a surprise in an atmosphere with posters nationwide with “the people decided, we must defend our country” written across them, and when in February, Orbán told Hungarian mayors “we do not want to be a multi-colored country” and earlier argued his aim is “to keep Europe Christian”, demonizing those seeking safety in Hungary.
Now, in efforts to further demonize refugees and asylum seekers, Hungary seeks to demonize and criminalize organizations that assist them, offer information, or provide legal advice. These repressive laws aim to silence those who speak out and who provide necessary social, legal, and humanitarian services. Freedom dies when people are afraid to express themselves and their opinions, to exist as whole selves in society, to work towards helping one another. These are the values that are at stake when a society embraces some people and demonizes others. This what I fear for if leaders in Hungary can pass through these laws: that the Hungary I came to know, befriend, and appreciate, will cease to be.
If you want to fight for Amnesty International Hungary and other organizations like it to stay open and free, and if you want refugees and asylum-seekers to be able to access information and legal services, follow Amnesty’s work in Hungary, which is more important now that ever.