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Hungary accepts Venezuelan refugees with the utmost secrecy

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One of the foreign policy projects of the Hungarian government is such an act of kindness that is rare even in worldwide comparison. Hungary is welcoming hundreds of people fleeing a tough situation, and the country gives them the support needed for a better life. But the public knows nothing, and we can only take a guess why that is. But first, the details.

Ne maradjon le semmiről!

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Merkel would be proud

Several independent sources confirmed to Index that Hungary accepted approximately 300 refugees from Venezuela after the country's descent into political and economic turmoil. The Hungarian program would put Germany's 2015 "Wilkommenskultur" to shame.

What do the Venezuelan refugees receive from Hungary?

  • Free plane ticket to Budapest
  • Free accommodation for a year
  • Integration program with a free Hungarian and English language course,
  • Settlement paper that allows them to legally work a few weeks after their arrival.

The state only examines if the refugees have any Hungarian ancestors. All the refugees we've met seemed Hungarian only virtually: one of their grandparents were Hungarian, and not even their parents spoke the language anymore. A huge majority of them learned their first Hungarian words after they arrived in Hungary, and they had their first contact with the local culture here as well. The first and last names of the Venezuelan refugees we spoke to were not Hungarian.

But the weirdest thing about the program is not even this, but the utmost secrecy that happens to surround it.

The Venezuelans we spoke to told us that the program organisers asked them to not speak about the circumstances of their arrival to anyone. It became apparent during our interview that not even the refugees themselves understand why they need to keep quiet, as they have truly arrived from a horrible situation, therefore their need for help is completely respectable and justified.

Robbed for the breakfast, raped by the police

"Not long before my departure, I've been robbed. A motorcyclist stopped next to my car and pointed a gun at me. I've told him I have no money, and he ended up taking away my breakfast that was on the passenger seat," explained one of the Venezuelans why the country was no longer suitable for living a normal life.

"Hundreds died of starvation at home, or because their medicines were no longer available. I saw a 16-year-old boy who was shot dead by the police at one of the protests," a twentyish girl told me. Her grandparents emigrated to Venezuela after the end of the second world war, but she had visited Hungary a number of times before. She even spoke the language, but just a little - our interview was still easier to conduct in English.

Police was brutal. A friend of mine was arrested at one of the protests, and he was tortured for days in prison. They raped him with a baton.

another one of them illustrated the current standing of things Venezuela.

"There was hardly any food in the shops anymore. Everyone was starving, including me, and I used to be a doctor. We've lost weight, my cousin lost 25 kilograms," a man who has been in Hungary for six months told us.

"Factories suspended production as the government put their own people in their management. And those people didn't have the slightest idea about anything. When I arrived at Venezuela in 1956, it was a prosperous country" - a man speaking Hungarian explained. "Maduro's government ruined everything, my entire family was starving" - he added.

"Two weeks before my departure there was a day when I was robbed three times. They took my phone, my watch and my documents, and then finally, the battery from my car" - the young doctor remembered. His English was broken, as he just started learning the language upon his arrival in Hungary. He did not yet give Hungarian a shot.

They do not speak Hungarian

The people we interviewed provided a haunting insight into the current state of Venezuela. Even though it had been a rich and safe country before the reigns of Chaves and Maduro, it is now one of the most miserable and most dangerous regions in the world. Similar to the other war-torn parts of the world from where Hungary is not willing to accept any refugees at all.

Syrian or Iraqi asylum seekers have no chance of receiving Hungary's protection even if they hail from the significantly sized Christian minorities of these places. (The Hungarian government supposedly accepted 1000 Iraqi and Egyptian Copt families, but no trace of that ever surfaced except for the word of deputy PM Zsolt Semjén.) At first, it might have seemed as if their Hungarian lineage may be the basis of accepting the Venezuelans who indeed need protection, the interviews made that notion a bit wobbly.

"Nobody here speaks Hungarian"

the 1956 emigrant Hungarian waved his hand dismissively. We interviewed him at the first stop in Hungary for the Venezuelan refugees, the Sport hotel in Gárdony. We asked him about more people to do interviews with, but he said there were at least 300 people in the hotel in the previous months, and hardly anyone spoke the language. There were fifteen of them there at the time, and as he said, he was the only Hungarian-speaker.

Secret immigration network

The organised nature of this program makes it apparent that these are not individual decisions - this is a conscious effort from the government's part. The people whom we interviewed in separate locations, and who do not know each other have unanimously described the procedure of their arrival the same way.

  • Approximately 5000 Hungarians emigrated to Venezuela in the twentieth century, mostly after the second world war and after the 1956 revolution. This loose circle of Hungarians expanded into a several-thousand-strong community due to the families, and it was in this group where news of the Hungarian state helping those with Hungarian ancestors flee the country started to spread by word-of-mouth amongst friends or at closed events.
  • Organisation efforts were done by the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta, supposedly because the organisation was founded by a Hungarian baroness, Csilla von Boeselager (née: Csilla Fényes), who fled to Venezuela. Her sister and president of the Federation of Hungarian Organisations in Latin-America, Ildikó Fényes Kunckelné had a large role in organising the project.
  • As far as we know, applicants had to present evidence for their Hungarian lineage at the Hungarian House in Caracas. Some said everyone was on board who could as much as prove one Hungarian ancestor. The former 1956 refugee said that his brother was excluded despite his Hungarian birth and knowledge of the language.
  • As there is not a Hungarian embassy in Venezuela, the administrative work was done by the embassy in Quito, Ecuador. The Ecuadorian embassy managed to get the plane tickets to Venezuela, where the refugees entitled for it could receive them.
  • After their arrival, the refugees were given free accommodation in countryside hotels, where they could wait until the Maltese charity got their immigration papers in order and helped them find a job and a place to live.

"We managed to get a house in the outer parts of town, where the seven of us, my family, live" the young man who used to be a doctor in Venezuela summarised the experiences of the first six months. He said they will not have to pay rent for the house for the first year, but they need to find jobs in that time to be able to sustain themselves. "I've been working for six months now, not as a doctor, but the salary's good. I can do groceries at the market from a day's pay," he pointed out.

Hungarian government = Organisation supporting immigration

Budapest public transportation is amazing, the wages are alright. And it's safe. They would murder you in Venezuela if you were walking around the streets at three in the morning, here I can do that without a problem." 

The young man's enthusiasm is understandable, as what the Hungarian government has done for him is the manifestation of the noblest intentions of humanity.

The program ticks all the checkboxes that humanitarian experts want in a refugee program except for the ancestry-based discrimination.

Refugees are not forced to enter the country illegally. Hungary selects those deemed worthy of asylum in their country of origin and they are provided with unobstructed entry. They are enrolled in integration programs right after they arrive, so they can gradually join the life of Hungarian society.

The problem is that this is a condemned activity punished by a special tax. 

The government created the immigration special tax precisely to sanction such activities. According to the regulation, the following are subject to the immigration tax:

  • Providing financial support to organisations based in Hungary that pursue activities that assist immigration to aid their operation (In the present scenario, that is the Hungarian government supporting the Charity Service of the Order of Malta).
  • Any programs, plans, or activities that are directly or indirectly aimed at furthering immigration constitute activities assisting immigration.

The law contains detailed provisions about the sanctioned activities:

  • Organising education: The charity organised language courses and cultural classes for refugees.
  • Building and operating a network: The government and the Ecuadorian embassy built and operated a network that helped the refugees get to Hungary.
  • Propaganda activity showing immigration in a good light: The Government, the Charity Service of the Order of Malta, and the Federation of Hungarian Organisations in Latin-America are performing activities that promote the program amongst foreign citizens.

There are no exceptions in the regulation, the law does not treat non-Hungarian citizens with Hungarian ancestors differently, therefore those involved should pay a 25% special tax after their activities. 

Taxing the help provided to Venezuelans with Hungarian ancestry underscores just how nonsensical this law is.

Keeping the program under wraps might be indicative of the government being aware of the tax obligation imposed on the charity by their own law.

We have sent our questions to the Ministry of Interior Affairs and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,  but they have declined comment as the answers could compromise the safety of those involved. 

We tried to get in touch with the president of the Federation of Hungarian Organisations in Latin-America, but she did not answer our questions. She did mention though in an interview last October that she's already living in Hungary and none of her Hungarian friends remained in Venezuela, but she did not talk about her role in the extraction of Hungarian descendants from Venezuela.

A press release from April 2018 issued by the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta tried to calm the public emphasising the legal status of the Venezuelan families placed in Balatonőszöd, citing the panic about illegal immigrants in the small Hungarian town.  The press release was lost in the noise, but what it tells us that last April (so before the introduction of the immigration tax) the charity only helped 30 people into Hungary, therefore, the vast majority of the refugees had to arrive in recent months, and the charity did its job knowing full well that the same activity is otherwise subject to the special tax.

The statement says the charity is helping "fellow citizens," but that is inaccurate, as the refugees are all Venezuelan citizens, most of them have never been to Hungary, they do not speak the language and have no knowledge about Hungarian culture. 

The statement also stresses how difficult it is for those living in war-torn countries, and how much the help from Hungary is needed. The charity happens to emphasise that same humanitarian ideal that the government is vehemently denying both in propaganda and legislation.

This article is the translation of the original published by Index in Hungarian.

(Cover:  Lokman Ilhan / Getty Images Hungary.)

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