Refugee Week 2019: Hostility and hope in Hungary

Claudia Hyde recently took part in a study trip to Budapest as part of the Fellowship Programme run by the organisation René Cassin. In this Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT) blog for Refugee Week 2019 she reflects on the current treatment of refugees in Hungary and the importance of individuals and organisations standing together to challenge prejudice and oppression.

Refugee Week 2019: Hostility and hope in Hungary

Pictured: the offices of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a Budapest-based charity that advocates for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers

In January 2019, I began taking part in the Fellowship Programme run by René Cassin – the Jewish voice for human rights. The Fellowship Programme aims to equip human rights activists with the knowledge and skills they need to enact positive social change, by exploring human rights issues through a unique Jewish lens.

For me, the Programme has dual relevance. Not only have I had the opportunity to explore my own heritage and culture: I have also grown my passion for human rights. Persecution, identity-based hostility and violence thrive under conditions where human rights are undermined. We know that the Holocaust and genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur did not take place overnight, but resulted from the gradual erosion of the rights of minorities. This process must be resisted at every step.

To better understand how we can help ensure human rights are protected everywhere, in May 2019, the fellows travelled to Budapest for a study trip. Over the course of four busy days, we met with NGOs, community groups and activists who are fighting tirelessly to uphold the universality of human rights in a country where they are under threat.

The Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, is a self-described proponent of 'an illiberal state'. Since his election in 2010, Orbán’s government has been accused of undermining press freedom, eroding democratic protections and targeting Hungary’s minority groups.

No group has borne the brunt of this more so than refugees.

In October 2015, the Hungarian government decided to close its borders to refugees and migrants, causing Hungary’s refugee population to decline. Moreover, as part of a package of xenophobic measures, the government passed a draconian law in January 2018 which prohibits providing aid to undocumented immigrants and asylum-seekers. Organisations and individuals who support refugees are faced with the threat of imprisonment.

While in Budapest, we learned of the situation facing asylum seekers in Hungary. There are widespread reports of arbitrary detention of asylum seekers, as well as inadequate access to food in detention and expulsions at the border. Moreover, there is significant anti-immigration sentiment in Hungary, with the government reportedly paying for billboards displaying racist messages and hostile coverage of refugees and migrants in Hungary’s press.

Nonetheless, what stands out from our visit is the importance of standing together in the face of discrimination. The inspirational activists we met all tell a similar tale of solidarity between Hungary’s minority groups who have joined forces to resist the government’s actions. Bonded by their shared histories of oppression, Roma, LGBTQ+ and Jewish groups in Hungary have sought to counter hostility with hope.

This year’s theme for Holocaust Memorial Day is Stand Together. It explores how genocidal regimes throughout history have deliberately fractured societies by marginalising certain groups, and how these tactics can be challenged by individuals standing together with their neighbours, and speaking out against oppression.

Refugee Week runs from 17 to 23 June. It provides us with the opportunity to celebrate the contribution of refugees to the UK and promote better understanding of why people seek sanctuary. This Refugee Week, I am inspired by the efforts of all those activists on the ground and throughout history who have stood in solidarity with others in order to combat hate – and the situation in Hungary reminds us not to be complacent.


Claudia is the Local Government HMD Officer at Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.

The HMDT blog highlights topics relevant to our work in Holocaust and genocide education and commemoration. We hear from a variety of guest contributors who provide a range of personal perspectives on issues relevant to them, including those who have experienced state-sponsored persecution and genocide. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of HMDT.

Refugees of the Holocaust

Refugees of the Holocaust

Learn about how people sought refuge from the Holocaust, including the Kindertransport which enabled around 10,000 children to escape Nazi Germany. Sadly many of them never saw their parents again.

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John Hajdu

John Hajdu

John survived the Holocaust in Hungary and lived under the subsequent socialist regime in Budapest. He later arrived in the UK as a refugee.

Read John's story