Budapest, a transit station for Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war

More than 530,000 people have arrived in Hungary since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but only 8,000 have requested international protection once there

Ukrainian refugees arriving in Budapest on March 22.
Ukrainian refugees arriving in Budapest on March 22.ATTILA KISBENEDEK (AFP)

Jaled, 55, brings a cup of hot tea to his son Basel, 18, who is sitting at one of the tables inside BOK Hall, an Olympic facility near Budapest’s Keleti railway station that is currently serving as a transit zone for Ukrainian refugees. “We don’t know where to go,” says Jaled, who is originally from Syria but whose son was born in Odessa, in southern Ukraine. What this sad-looking man does know is that they will not be staying here very long.

At least 530,000 people have crossed into Hungary from the Ukrainian border or from Romania since the invasion began on February 24, according to official figures released on Monday. Most, like Jaled and Basel, are only passing through, but it is impossible to know just how many that is, because nobody is keeping track.

Jaled and Basel’s involuntary journey began on February 27. It started in Odessa, took them to Moldova, to Bucarest in Romania and now to Budapest. The pair are considering where to go next – Germany, Belgium, Canada are mentioned, but nothing seems very clear. Jaled starts to cry when he is asked how he’s feeling. It is hard for him to accept that right now, his refugee status defines him more than his career as a researcher in nuclear engineering. Or that he now relies on help from strangers to find food and lodging. That they will probably have to stay in overcrowded emergency centers for an unspecified amount of time.

The Hungarian government is underscoring its own efforts to aid the incoming refugees. Around 1,500 have been passing through BOK Hall every day after arriving in Budapest by rail. They are allowed to stay for 12 hours to rest, eat, purchase train tickets, exchange money and, if necessary, to request information on how to remain in Hungary. The country is holding an election this coming Sunday, and it is proving to be the closest race since the ultranationalist Viktor Orbán, considered an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, reached power 12 years ago.

Humanitarian groups such as Cáritas, the Red Cross and Migration Aid are also here to provide relief to the fleeing Ukrainians. Marta Pardavi, co-president of the Hungarian branch of the Helsinki Committee, a human rights organization, praised “the very positive and swift” reaction by the government, which opened up spaces to offer emergency aid as early as February 24, the day of the invasion. “This kind of welcome is an exception in a very closed system,” she warned. The Orbán administration has made this much clear on several occasions: the doors are open for refugees fleeing the Ukraine war. Everyone else will be considered a migrant and turned away at the border.

Despite the open policy for Ukrainians, Human Rights Watch has noted that the Hungarian government is not providing them with proper information about their right to one year of international temporary protection, which would give them access to healthcare and education services.

The rebirth of civil society

So far, only 8,000 people have filed international protection petitions, but Hungary is sheltering tens of thousands of people and Pardavi worries that the welcoming attitude may not be sustained in the long term, particularly in a country where “there is no optimal cooperation between the state and civil society.”

But the head of the Helsinki Committee has also noticed “a rebirth of civil society and volunteering.” In the last month, organizations that had been heavily criticized for aiding Syrian war refugees in 2015, such as Migration Aid, have been welcomed in places like BOK Hall, where the government admits that every bit of help is necessary.

Migration Aid has also erected a shelter for refugees in transit in an industrial zone north of Budapest. In just one day, with help from 30 volunteers and equipment donated by private individuals, they put together 64 rooms and 260 beds inside an empty building.

Márton Elodi, a 26-year-old software developer, found out on Facebook that volunteers were needed, and he has been coordinator of the shelter since March 11. The facility offers food every day thanks to donations from individuals and businesses. “This place is more humane than others, and we can see the refugees, especially the women and children, cheering up after a few days,” says Elodi.

This is not yet the case for Daria Naimitenko, a 22-year-old journalism student who left Ukraine with her mother-in-law on March 25. They crossed into Moldova, then to Romania and arrived in Hungary. Their plan is to move on to Bratislava, in Slovakia, and request a visa to travel to the United States, where a relative of theirs lives. Naimitenko’s husband stayed behind in Mykolaiv and her family lives in Luhansk, in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine – two place names that are in the news every day and evoke the anguish felt by the thousands of people forced from their homes on a journey with an uncertain destination.

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