In Hungary, you can go to jail for robbery, for murder … and for helping a refugee

Demonstrators in Budapest protests the government of Hungary’s crackdown on civil society

By Daniel Balson, Advocacy Director — Europe and Central Asia

Helping a refugee is a noble act of charity. Yet, as of this month, it is also a crime in Hungary. People providing legal assistance to refugees or offering them information about where to find help risk being sent to prison for over a year.

In June, the Parliament of Hungary cynically approved legislation that criminalizes the most mundane forms of assistance for this vulnerable population. The legislation, which entered into force this month, was long championed by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has frequently demonized refugees with racist language. Not content with making felons of charity workers, the Hungarian government has introduced separate plans to levy a 25% tax on nongovernmental workers it accuses of “supporting migration”.

These attempts to legislate away nongovernmental organizations come on the heels of an insidious campaign of harassment and intimidation. In May, the Hungarian magazine, Figyelo, published a list of 200 so-called enemies, mostly journalists, civil society workers, and political activists. Amnesty International’s staffers in Hungary, who were included in the list, have received numerous anonymous threats to their safety.

Prime Minister Orban’s war on NGOs has been met with harsh criticism from the international community. The UN Refugee Agency, the UN Human Rights Council, and, most recently, the Council of Europe have repeatedly admonished the Hungarian government for its xenophobic rhetoric and its crackdown on civil society. The Trump Administration has refused to join them. Instead, it has answered Orban’s threat to civil society by bringing senior Hungarian leaders in from the diplomatic cold. In May, the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto — the first bilateral ministerial level meeting between the US and Hungary in six years.

Those who have witnessed this administration’s silence on Prime Minister Orban’s growing repressions may be surprised to learn that U.S. presidents once had quite a bit to say about freedom in Hungary. When Russian tanks rolled into Budapest to quash an anti-Soviet uprising in 1956, over 200,000 Hungarians fled across the border into neighboring Austria. The U.S. accepted over 30,000 Hungarian refugees within three months. President Eisenhower used his 1957 State of the Union Address to successfully call on Congress to grant them a path to citizenship. As Communism began collapsing in Hungary in 1989, President George H. W. Bush declared, “And repression still menaces too many peoples of Eastern Europe. Barriers and barbed wire still fences in nations. So, when I visit Poland and Hungary this summer, I will deliver this message: There cannot be a common European home until all within it are free to move from room to room.”

There are clear steps the U.S. government can take to align itself with decades of bi-partisan U.S. support for human rights in Hungary. During his confirmation hearing, U.S. Ambassador to Hungary David Cornstein demonstrated a keen understanding of the threats to Hungarian civil society. He should put his words to action by immediately and publicly meeting with civil society leaders to discuss their work. The State Department has wisely set aside a pool of money to support media freedom in Hungary. Congress should make additional funding available for a broad swath of democracy, human rights, and governance programs. Beyond the intrinsic value of the programs it would support, such funding would have an important signaling effect: if Orban acts as a human rights violator, Congress will treat him as such. Finally, it is incumbent on all members of Congress to speak out when the White House is silent. In May, Senator Cardin (D-MD) took to the Senate floor to passionately denounce Viktor Orban’s “goulash authoritarianism”. Other members of Congress should follow suit.

Hungary’s civil society is wounded and if the U.S. doesn’t take direct action to staunch the bleeding, the country may lose its remaining advocates for freedom and equality. The nongovernmental organization Open Society Foundation recently shuttered its offices in Hungary, saying it was no longer able to guarantee the safety of its staff. Hungary is a member of the European Union’s borderless “Schengen Zone”. Its citizens are free to travel and work in whichever EU country they like. Many of them don’t share Prime Minister Orban’s animosity towards refugees and civil society. In April, tens of thousands took to the streets of the Hungarian capital to protest Orban’s assault on fundamental freedoms. Still, most are unlikely to go to prison to make a point. They have valuable skills and, as Hungary recedes into xenophobic insularity, they’ve already begun to take their talents elsewhere. Those few who remain won’t remember U.S. generosity in decades past. But the Trump Administration’s callousness to their plight will remain firmly etched in their memory.

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