Hungary: between ethnic community and European state

Martin Kovats
11 December 2003

The movement of people for political reasons played a significant role in Hungary’s post-communist transition. At the eastern end of the country, the austerity and nationalism of the later Nikolai Ceausescu years in Romania (repayment of foreign debt, destruction of villages) led to an influx of refugees from Hungarian minority communities in Transylvania.

This issue provided a basis for the political mobilisation of those opposed to the state socialist regime but, more profoundly, led to a fundamental re-evaluation of Hungary’s national interests and of the relationship between the Hungarian state and Hungarian minorities living in neighbouring countries.

The opening of the country’s western border with Austria in 1989 to allow the departure of thousands of East German ‘tourists’ tore a fatal rent in the ‘Iron Curtain’ – one that led directly to the destruction of the Berlin Wall, signalling the end of the cold war division, not only of Germany, but of Europe as a whole.

From haven to transit-camp

In the last fifteen years the profile of refugees in Hungary has reflected the country’s regional political environment and westward reorientation. Between 1988 and 2002 a total of 178,872 asylum applications were lodged, of which almost 48,000 came from Romanian citizens in 1988-90. Just as this wave of asylum-seekers died down, the outbreak of war in neighbouring Yugoslavia provided a new source of refugees (48,000 in 1991 alone). Until the Dayton peace accord in 1995 a further 27, 000 Yugoslav citizens sought asylum in Hungary, and another 8, 444 in 1998-99 as a result of the Kosovo crisis.

In 1989 Hungary joined the 1951 Geneva Convention, but negotiated a moratorium, which meant it only started admitting refugees from outside Europe in 1997. In 2001-02 over 90% of the 14,945 applications received came from ‘non-Europeans’. The 1998 Asylum Act allows for applicants to be recognised either as a ‘convention’ refugee or to be granted ‘accepted’ refugee status. Between 1997 and 2002, only 1,150 have secured the former and 2,985 the latter.

The overwhelming majority of ‘non-European’ applicants do not see Hungary as their final destination. Almost all have arrived in the country illegally and over two-thirds of claims are dropped before completion, invariably because of the ‘disappearance’ of the applicant before a final decision has been made.

Official statistics are not based on ethnicity, but it is generally accepted that almost all asylum applicants from Romania, Yugoslavia and the Ukraine are ‘ethnic’ Hungarians. Though Hungarian society has a somewhat ambiguous attitude towards such people (they are our brothers/sisters, but also they should stay in their home countries) they are not perceived as alien, but are easily integrated into the economy and society. There has not been the basis for the kind of asylum hysteria that has been experienced in Britain.

However, Hungary’s asylum profile increasingly conforms to ‘western standards’. In recent years Hungary has received considerable support from the European Union to strengthen its border controls and increasing media attention has been given to the deviant phenomenon of ‘human traffickers’. In May 2004 Hungary will join the European Union and become further integrated into the evolving European asylum regime, its culture and ideology.

The pattern of labour migration

The introduction of a ‘market’ economy has had a dramatic impact on employment in Hungary with the number of jobs the economy is currently able to sustain having fallen by 30%, from 5.5 to 3.8 million. The official unemployment rate is low at 5.7%, but over 40% of those of working age are not in employment (female employment is less than 50%). Foreign investment-led restructuring of the economy has increased regional differences.

Western Hungary experiences shortages of skilled labour which have encouraged many Slovaks and even Austrians to commute daily to work in Hungary. The establishment of western businesses and new demands has drawn labour from western countries (from company directors through to language teachers). At the same time, the relative strength of the Hungarian economy (and relatively higher wages) attracts workers from the poorer countries to the south and east, especially ‘ethnic’ Hungarians from neighbouring states.

Over 100,000 foreigners work legally in Hungary. Those with permanent resident status (around 40,000) can seek work on almost the same basis as Hungarian citizens. Strict rules apply to temporary residents, who can only be employed if they hold a valid work permit. In 2002 the government made almost 82,000 work permits available in line with the number of vacancies in the country, but only just over half were eventually issued. The complexity of getting a work permit (which requires finding an employer willing to support the application) means that many foreigners, especially ‘non-Europeans’, chose to establish themselves in business or as self-employed.

It is estimated that more foreigners work illegally than legally in Hungary. Some of these are westerners who can provide language (teaching or translating) or other services on a cash-only basis. The depressed agricultural sector employs many illegal workers, especially in the summer season, and entrepreneurs in the building industry profit from the low labour costs of employing insecure foreigners.

In recent times a number of high-profile raids have been made on construction sites and illegal workers’ hostels. However the authorities generally turn a blind eye to illegal employment. For example, every morning at dawn, Buda’s central Moscow Square becomes a literal ‘labour market’, with dozens of men lining up in the hope of being able to earn £5-£8 for ten hours’ hard labour.

Another source of immigrant labour (and residents) is an influx of new citizens. In 1993 a law on citizenship was passed which differentiates between ‘ethnic’ Hungarians and others. For the latter, citizenship can be obtained after eight years of ‘naturalisation’, whilst those with Hungarian ancestry can apply after one year of residence. ‘Hungarians’ are also far more likely to pass the language and constitutional knowledge tests which form part of the procedure. Consequently, during the 1990s those obtaining Hungarian citizenship were almost exclusively ‘ethnic’ Hungarians.

Between 1999 and 2001, 19,351 persons obtained Hungarian citizenship, of which 13,259 had Hungarian ancestry and another 3,717 were former citizens (mainly those who had emigrated during the communist period). Over time the number of those fulfilling the long ‘naturalisation’ criteria will increase the number of ‘non-Hungarians’ securing citizenship, however it is likely that their numbers will remain low and will have little impact on the ethnic diversity of the population.

Viszontlatasra, Magyarország

Hungary has a long history of population loss, notably the mass emigration of workers and peasants at the end of the 19th century, as well as the departure of over 200,000 citizens in the wake of the events of 1956. However, during the 1990s, despite the economic and social problems accompanying transition, Hungary did not experience significant emigration.

It is estimated that only around 25,000 Hungarians regularly work abroad: research in 1999 indicated that only 4% of the population would consider working outside of the country and just 1-2% would be willing to settle abroad. From May 2004 onwards, Hungarians will not enjoy full working rights in Austria, Germany or Italy for up to seven years, but will have the same entitlements as other EU citizens in all other member states.

Hungary’s peaceful political transition has meant that few Hungarians have sought political asylum abroad; an average of around 100 per year have applied to EU states. Canada, which in 2000 reintroduced visa requirements following a rapid rise in asylum applications (from 10 in 1994 to 1,936 in 2000) was the exception, largely as a result of claims made by members of the Roma minority.

In 2001, France granted asylum to a number of Roma from the town of Zamoly who had publicly left the country after years of the authorities failing to provide them with proper housing. The scandal left one man dead (after being beaten up by Roma fearing an arson attack) and produced a hysterical reaction in Hungary, with the government claiming that the Roma were being used by the Russian secret service to undermine the country’s EU membership. Nevertheless, despite a few similar attempts to attract political attention, migration is not a tactic generally deployed by Roma activists.

Rather than the poor leaving the country, the threat to emigrate has recently been adopted by Hungary’s doctors in pursuit of a wage claim. This development draws attention to the possible problems Hungary may face once it joins the EU in respect of the departure of the highly skilled (the cost of whose training has been borne by Hungarian society).

Hungary has long suffered from some degree of ‘brain drain’. For example, ten Nobel Prizes have been won by scientists born in Hungary, but none for work carried out there. Even the 2002 laureate for literature, Imre Kertész now lives in Germany. Given the low level of wages compared with western Europe (average take-home pay is less than £300 a month), as well as the imperative to maintain low labour costs to attract foreign investment, it would seem inevitable that ever more highly skilled Hungarians will leave to work abroad. This may create serious problems, especially within the public sector (doctors, nurses, teachers).

A national community in a European space

On 1 May 2004, Hungary will become an eastern border state of the EU, though it will not become a full member of the Schengen Agreement until at least 2006. Three of Hungary’s neighbours will be fellow EU members (Austria, Slovakia and Slovenia) and Romania is currently in accession talks.

The prospect of EU membership has required Hungary to impose visa requirements on citizens from the two neighbouring states which have no prospect of joining the EU in the foreseeable future (Ukraine and Serbia-Montegnegro). This is a painful development not only in respect of undermining cross-border trade in disadvantaged regions of the country, but also because it erects a new obstacle dividing ‘ethnic’ Hungarian communities from the ‘mother country’. To limit the impact of the new regime, Hungary has signed agreements with both states providing for long-term (one-year) multiple entry visas to be issued free of charge.

The issue of visas has given new impetus to a long-running debate about whether the Hungarian state should allow all ‘ethnic’ Hungarians to obtain Hungarian citizenship. The sensitivity of the issue should not be underestimated as a central feature of post-communist Hungarian politics has been the re-evaluation of the relationship between the Hungarian ‘nation’ and the state.

Numerous initiatives have been taken since the constitution was amended in 1989 to declare the state’s ‘responsibility’ for all ‘Hungarians’. In 2001 Hungary passed the controversial Law on Hungarians Living in Neighbouring States (Status Law) which allows for ‘ethnic’ Hungarians to apply for a Hungarian Card; this both symbolises their membership of the Hungarian nation and entitles them to privileges within Hungary, as well as benefits to be enjoyed in their home countries but financed by the Hungarian state.

However, dual citizenship raises a fundamental problem. On the one hand it would extend the state’s embrace of the ‘nation’, but it would also entitle Hungarian minorities to settle in Hungary, thus contradicting the aim of the state’s policy to maintain a Hungarian presence beyond the state’s borders. At the same time, with an increasingly aged population, Hungary needs immigrants and the ‘Hungarians abroad’ represent a pool of easily integrated and relatively highly skilled labour.

EU membership will also make Hungary a more attractive destination for ‘non-Hungarian’ foreigners, whether, residents, workers or refugees. How Hungarian politics and society responds will largely depend on whether the country can enjoy economic growth enabling the state to maintain social cohesion. It is likely that Hungary will experience a strengthening of ‘euro-scepticism’ as the domestic political consensus with regard to the ‘national interest’ of securing EU membership gives way to the struggle to assert ‘national interests’ in distinction to ‘Europe’.

The low turnout at the referendum on joining the EU (45%), the problems anticipated in respect of the agricultural sector, and the deep division within domestic Hungarian politics may well provide the basis for an increase in populist nationalism in the coming years. More specifically, Hungary will become more closely integrated within the activities and culture of European asylum politics, which will lead to a more high-profile debate on the rights and ‘problems’ of refugees and illegal migration.

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