It is still early days for writing about the mass migration phenomenon that dominated European headlines in 2015, and is likely to continue dominating them this year. The discourse is still largely on the journalistic and political level, steeped in the different ideologies of the moment. There is a deep polarisation between those who – in the name of European values – advocate openness and integration, and those whose priority is security and the maintenance of European social characteristics and the preservation of European values. As regards both the level of the discourse and the polarisation of views, this is even truer within Hungary – except that the camp of those who advocate openness is very small, partly for historical reasons, and partly as a result of deliberate recent political choices.

This article will attempt to go beyond the journalistic and political perspective: to furnish a comprehensive – albeit unavoidably superficial – descriptive background of facts, timeline narrative, data and references to primary sources. The target audience are: (a) those who seek factual references in order to intervene in the current debates; (b) those who will begin to write the story of Hungary’s response to the 2015 European Migrant Crisis from a historical perspective. It will consciously address the contentious issues of the day, such as the demographic and national mix of asylum seekers, and the major points of the debate about Hungary’s response.

To begin with, we need to address the problem of “political correctness” in language use. If one speaks about “migrant crisis”, some will take this to mean that he or she is anti-refugee, a closed-minded right-winger who would deny to most arrivals, if not all of them, the right to asylum. If one calls it the “refugee issue”, others will take it as proof that the writer is pro-migrant, an advocate of taking everybody in, a globally-thinking “left-liberal”, to use a current pejorative term in Hungary. The author of this article refuses to be drawn into this debate and will consciously alternate, randomly and loosely, between the expressions. But for the sake of acknowledging correct language at least in principle, let us define the words in question.

“Migrant” does not necessarily mean “non-refugee”. Mixed migration flows are defined by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) as “complex population movements including refugees, asylum-seekers, economic migrants and other migrants”.1 A distinction must be made between migrant and refugee at the earliest possible moment, but until then, it is proper to use the wider term, “migration flow”, and hence “migrant”, as a generic term that includes also asylum-seekers and refugees.

“Refugee”, properly used, applies only to those who have gone through the process successfully, and been granted asylum. (Before that, they are “asylum-seekers”.) However, the term “refugee” has always been used more loosely, including those who are still undergoing the process and those who have not yet asked for asylum (but have the intention to do so): it would be pedantic not to go along with this looser, more practical use, which allows us to distinguish very early on between refugees and economic migrants. It is clear, however, that when the word is used in this sense, many “refugees” eventually drop out of this category: in 2014, 55%2 of first-instance asylum claims in the EU were rejected.

“Asylum seekers” would also be a valid generic term in the current situation: almost all of the arriving people apply for asylum, even when their chances are slim or zero, since the alternative is to be detained and expelled. Initiating the asylum-seeking process gives a breathing space during which it is possible, if necessary, to “disappear” among the undocumented resident population of Europe.

“Crisis” and “issue” are loaded words, too. Realistically, the mixed migration inflow that has peaked (so far) in 2015 is unarguably a problem for Europe: we may wish to minimise its impact by speaking of an “issue”, or emphasise its gravity and suddenness by calling it a crisis. It can be argued in any case that, even looking no further than its expected international legal consequences (the collapse of the Dublin convention, possible amendments to the Schengen convention and perhaps even to the 1951 Geneva Convention) the dictionary definition of “crisis” is more than adequately met. Using the word does not imply hostility to the phenomenon.

A reminder: unlike in many European countries, in Hungary the refugee issue is currently “on ice”, as there are no refugees passing through: there are only less than a thousand who are staying in the country waiting for decisions on asylum, and very few returns under the Dublin agreement. The future of the issue is bound up with that of EU-mandated quotas for the redistribution of refugees – which Hungary is staunchly opposing – and with the future application of the Dublin agreement.

This article will be divided into three sections. First, a timeline of how the story unfolded in Hungary, to give the context for what follows. Then, some data: I hope not to bore the reader, going into excessive detail, but hard knowledge – usefully disaggregated facts and figures – on this issue is hard to come by, even for qualified and well-informed people.

Thirdly, I will sketch out some of the main lines of the arguments and counter-arguments that dominated political and media discourse in 2015, with an attempt at balance and with references to primary sources for further explorations which others might wish to undertake.

In conclusion, I would like to emphasise the distinction between the micro and the macro: the humanitarian and the politico-historical. It is essential to give both aspects the attention that they respectively deserve, each in its proper context; and it is dangerous – but in my recent experience, quite frequent – to confuse them, or to slip heedlessly from the one to the other. And the politico-historical aspect itself is extraordinarily complex: to reduce it to short-term party politics or emotional reactions can lead to missteps of historical magnitude.


1) The prelude (2011 – early 2015)

2011: “Arab spring”. Gaddafi is overthrown, ending the silent pact whereby Libya prevented migrants from embarking towards Italy. In summer 2011, the first visible migrant surge arrives in Europe on the Libya–Italy route: it includes sub-Saharan African economic migrants as well as Somali, Sudanese and Eritrean political asylum-seekers, and an increasing number of those fleeing the Middle East conflicts.

2012: serious civil war begins in Syria; hundreds of thousands of refugees begin to arrive in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

2012: Serbia recognises Kosovo-issued travel documents, making it easier for Kosovars to cross Serbia.

Summer 2013: new surge of “boat people” from Libya towards Italy, and the famous wreck at Lampedusa, with over 600 deaths. This grabs the world’s attention and triggers the Italian “Mare Nostrum” rescue operation, which reinforces and propagates the “humanitarian imperative” principle (see the last section of this article) and its application by EU member states.

2014: new insurgencies and Taliban advances in the north-western provinces of Afghanistan increase internal displacement and refugee movements into Pakistan, Iran and Turkey.

Summer 2014: major surge of refugees on the Italy sea route. Over 3,000 die on this route in 2014, amid much international media coverage. The number of Syrian refugees crammed in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan exceeds 3.5 million.

June 2014: elections in Kosovo, with six turbulent months following. The Kosovar migrant surge begins through the Balkan route and Hungary attracts the attention of other refugees looking for safer passages than the southern Mediterranean route, and – importantly – of people-smugglers.

March 2015: the “Kosovar surge” through Hungary ends. There is a brief lull in arrivals before the surge of refugees from the Middle East.

2) The crisis unfolds (May – September 2015)

May: an average of 2,500 refugees is registered in Hungary every week, arriving from Serbia – almost half are Afghanis. They are registered as asylum-seekers at police points near the border, given temporary stay permits and rough directions to refugee camps further inland, where they are supposed to stay until their requests are processed. In reality, there is a chaotic flow of people through the country, mostly bypassing the refugee camps and slipping, or being smuggled, into Austria. The Budapest railway stations, especially Keleti Station, become the main hubs where migrants congregate, meet their smugglers and arrange further transportation. Their asylum requests are left pending or cancelled.

June: an average of 4,000 refugees is registered every week, arriving from Serbia – now relatively fewer Afghanis. Hungary still tries to adhere to its obligation to register all arrivals, an obviously increasingly purposeless and unrealistic task.

June: local humanitarian groups and agencies scale up their activities at the railway stations and along the route. A newly-formed group, Migration Aid, is particularly dynamic. There is much goodwill and readiness to help on the part of local individuals and associations, though the lack of professionalism and coordination, and unhelpful overpoliticisation, are also evident. The government holds on to its position that it will assist migrants only at the designated points, i.e. in the camps, although by the end of June the daily arrivals exceed the total capacity of all official refugee camps in Hungary.3

17 June: Hungary announces its decision to build a fence along its border with Serbia, and immediately begins the work.

29 June: riot in the overcrowded Debrecen refugee camp, sparked by an internal dispute among groups of refugees.

July: an average of 7,500 refugees is registered every week. Now Syrians outnumber Afghanis.

Mid-July: the government begins to offer some services – additional water pipes and toilet facilities – in designated “transit zones” at the railway stations. Many local humanitarian groups and individuals continue to help, but still with little coordination, and outright mistrust between “leftist” groups and those closer to the Government, such as the Red Cross and the Catholic/Ecumenical services.4

August: the number of arrivals from Serbia approaches 12,000 per week.

25 August: a Twitter message from the German Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) states that the Dublin process is suspended for asylum seekers from Syria – in other words, they will not be sent back to any other country of first entry, but processed in Germany.5 Within hours, the news spreads around the world that “Angela Merkel promises that Germany will accept all Syrian refugees”. The percentage of Syrian asylum seekers in Germany jumps by 11% in September, from 30% to 41% of the total of asylum-seekers.6

27 August: the bodies of 71 refugees, tightly packed and suffocated, are found in a refrigerated truck abandoned on the main Hungary–Austria highway, not far from Vienna. Clearly a tragedy caused by the callousness of human smugglers, it shocks public opinion and activates the authorities of both countries, who increase their controls along the border. Vehicles queue for unsustainable lengths of time at the borders. The smuggling flow from Hungary to Austria is badly affected: during the next days, the number of migrants crowded at Budapest railway stations increases dramatically.

From 28 August: the Austrian border authorities stop undocumented travellers from passing through by train. Accordingly, Hungarian authorities control passengers on departure from Budapest and do not allow refugees to board. The bottleneck at the railway stations and the frustration of the refugees reach crisis point.

Last days of August: international NGOs begin to focus on Budapest railway stations. Over the next few days, many new banners and faces emerge at Keleti Railway Station, and appear in many foreign-language broadcasts.

1 September: Hungarian railway authorities, unable to contain the riot-like scenes at the departures of international trains, stop all trains to Austria.

3 September: an ill-considered attempt by the police to bring migrants from Keleti Railway Station to the Bicske refugee camp by deception (see later section of this article) increases the tension and further poisons the atmosphere.

4 September: many hundreds of refugees, stuck at Keleti Railway Station in Budapest, demonstrate and set off on foot along the main highway towards Austria.

4-5 September: the Austrian Chancellor, in response to the crisis unfolding in Hungary, agrees to let migrants pass through Austria to Germany. Immediately, the Hungarian Government deploys dozens of buses to take migrants from Budapest – partly from the highway along which they are walking, partly from Keleti Railway Station – to the Austrian border. The migrants refuse to cooperate, mistrusting the government: the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta is deployed on an emergency basis, and manages to convince leading groups of migrants to board the buses. Trust is re-established and the crisis defused. The highway is emptied and the overcrowding of Keleti Station is drained off.

6-7 September: the Budapest railway stations are largely emptied of refugees, as the authorities now provide buses and trains to transport them directly from the Serbian border to the Austrian border. A makeshift transit camp is established at Röszke, the last point on the Serbian border where the fence is not yet complete and the refugees are streaming through at the rate of 4,000 per day. NGOs, too, move their operations there. The authorities abandon their attempt to register the refugees.

8 September: the Hungarian Prime Minister invites the heads of two major Hungarian NGOs, the Ecumenical Charity Service and that of the Order of Malta, to thank them for their work and discuss further action. They agree to advocate for more emphasis on socioeconomic assistance to the countries of origin. Close coordination is established between these two organisations, plus the Hungarian Red Cross, and to some extent, Caritas, which will prevail in their subsequent activities both in Hungary and the neighbouring countries.

3) Hungary shuts down (15 September 2015 – present)

15 September: the fence is completed on the Serbian border, diverting the flow westwards to Croatia. Migrants can now enter Hungary from Serbia only through the designated crossing points where a preliminary assessment is made of their request for asylum: over the next days, the rate of success of this process is near zero. The flow of migrants thus turns west, to Croatia. A Hungarian–Croatian border fence is under construction.

18 September: a train with 1,000 refugees arrives in Hungary from Croatia, with Croatian police on board, creating a diplomatic incident, although the operation had apparently been agreed in advance between the two police forces7 – a first experiment in managing the refugees’ transit on that route.

From 18 September: following the faulty experiment described above, the management of the migrants is improved: Croatia loads them on arrival at its Serbian border on to trains that go directly to its still open border with Hungary. The refugees walk through to Hungary, which loads them on trains directly to the Hungarian–Austrian border: here they are made to walk through to Austria. No attempt is made to register them, on the grounds that Croatia, being an EU country, is assumed to have done it already.

16 October: the fence is completed on the Croatian border, and Hungary no longer allows trainloads of migrants to enter the country from Croatia. Transits through Hungary immediately pass from 6–7,000 per day to negligible figures: after a three days’ bottleneck, Slovenia takes up the flow smoothly.

18 November: Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia decide to allow only Syrians, Iraqis and Afghanis to cross. Other nationalities are stranded in Athens.

29 November: EU–Turkey agreement by which Turkey increases patrols and fights human trafficking. No visible impact on December crossings, according to UNHCR.8

December 2015: asylum-seekers arrive at a rate about half that of November, which is explainable through the worsening conditions for crossing the sea and the uncertainty for non-Syrian/Iraqi/Afghan migrants.


1) In all of Europe

Eurostat reported 995,190 applications for asylum within Europe9 in 201510 up to 4 December. Although this figure is far from being as exact as it looks, the general picture is that of over one million registrations in 2015, including unreported figures for November and estimates for December. However, it is not clear how many of these are double-counted, as hundreds of thousands of people were forced to request asylum in one of the transit countries, but then they moved (irregularly) to their desired final country and requested asylum there, without informing the authorities about their former request. As an indication, the Eurostat figures for the end of October (the most recent that are complete and disaggregated by country) show 980,910 applications in total, but of these only 556,210 were made in the seven countries that are most likely to be end-stations for asylum seekers, rather than points of forced transit.11 (See also the point raised by the Red Cross figures on transit through Hungary, further down in this article.)

First, to put the 2015 figures into context, let us look at how they have evolved over recent years. From January 2008 to the end of November 2015, Eurostat records indicate 3,239,210 first-instance requests for asylum within Europe. As just mentioned, about one million occurred in 2015 alone. Graphically, this is how it looks:

Number of first-instance asylum applications from non-EU nationals in all EU countries, per month, from January 2008 to September 2015 (source: Eurostat migr_asyappctzm)

The sudden huge increase starting in July 2015 is obvious. The three summer peaks caused by the Mediterranean crossings from Libya starting in 2011 are visible, although not as marked as one might have expected when recalling the press coverage.

It is important to note the strong increase in late 2014, which did not abate with the onset of winter. This was in fact a specific phenomenon: the emigration wave from Kosovo, which lasted from about July 2014 to April 2015 with a total of over 80,000 asylum seekers, before falling back to its historical average of about a thousand people per month. The surge was stimulated by political turbulence following the June 2014 elections, and by an EU-encouraged easing of travel rules in Serbia, which since 2012 had allowed Kosovars to enter with Kosovo-issued documents that Belgrade had previously rejected. This made it quite easy for migrants to enter Serbia, cross illegally into Hungary, and pass through towards Austria and Germany – a well-trod route, already regularly and quietly used by refugees from the Middle East. But there is a consensus in the EU that Kosovars are essentially economic migrants: no more than about 5% of Kosovar applicants were granted asylum in the EU in 2015 or in the previous years.12

It was worth digressing a little on the Kosovar migration surge, because although temporary and quite small relatively to the great wave from the Middle East that followed it immediately, this “pilot crisis” affected Hungary’s attitude to migrants in general, and its entire response to the 2015 refugee question. This response will be examined in the next sections; first, however, let us take a closer look at the overall characteristics of the 2015 refugees.13

Transit routes: The figures are quite confusing, due to inevitable double-counting between countries. Eurostat figures of asylum seekers tend to be higher than UNHCR’s counts at transit points, probably due to asylum seekers registered in more than one country. UNHCR14 estimates 738,000 arrivals in Greece from January to the end of November 2015: 391,000 continuing through Hungary and 263,000 through Slovenia. This, assuming that every arrival had to pass either through Hungary (until 18 October) or through Slovenia (mostly after 18 October), would leave about 84,000 unaccounted for. Moreover, 497,000 were counted in Macedonia and 486,000 in Serbia, although these figures should be slightly higher than the figure for arrivals in Greece, since some migrants came through Bulgaria rather than Greece, and at the same time Macedonia–Serbia was the only passage used to move north.

Age: More than half of 2015 asylum-seekers are young adults aged between 18 and 35. 27% are minors: 18% under 14, 9% aged between 14 and 17. One per cent are older than 65.

The relatively high number of unaccompanied adolescent boys, 15 to 17 years old, has been widely remarked on. Figures are not exact, as in some instances young men underreported their age in order to get the advantages granted to unaccompanied children, while in other cases it was more advantageous for them to do the contrary. The demographic bulge, however, is clear, and the reasons for it are well understood – escape from military conscription, expectations of further education and/or future support to the family left at home.

Countryoforigin: from January to early November 2015, Syrians made up an increasing, and ultimately the largest, percentage of registered first-instance asylum-seekers in all Europe: 37%, followed by Afghanis (17%), Iraqis and Kosovars (11% each), Albanians (9%), Eritreans and Pakistanis (6% each). Interestingly, if we add together Albanians and Kosovars, they make up the second largest group after Syrians; this fact has been somewhat overlooked in the press. It is also important to note that these seven nationalities make up about 90% of all arrivals: other often-mentioned countries, like Sudan, Somalia, sub-Saharan Africa etc., account for very small numbers overall.

There has been much speculation about whether asylum-seekers give false nationalities in order to get more favourable treatment. Time will tell; meanwhile, it can be noted that the percentage of self-identified Syrians jumped by eleven percentage points, from 30% to 41%, in the month following the supposed declaration by the German Chancellor that Germany was accepting all Syrians. (This declaration, as already mentioned, was widely – perhaps deliberately – misunderstood: Ms Merkel did not say that all Syrians would obtain asylum, but merely that Dublin regulations would be suspended for Syrian refugees: Germany would assess all requests for asylum from Syrians, and not send them back to complete the process in their country of first EU entry.)

Gender and family status: Up to September, 78% of those aged 14 and older were males. (Interestingly, this ratio decreased to 55% during November– December.)15 The sex ratio is most skewed among adolescents between 14 and 17, and young adults under 35, where males outnumber females by more than 4 to 1. Even among children under 14 (who generally travelled within family units), the sex ratio is 1.22 in favour of boys. Among those over 60, however, the majority are women. One can estimate from the figures that of the total arrivals, somewhat over one half were single males, including unaccompanied adolescent boys. The rest were family groups, including adult men and women, children and older relatives.16 This confirms the panorama of press reports during the year: depending on the journalist’s objective, it was easy to find either large single male groups, or large clusters of families, on whom to focus the reporting and filming.

Interestingly, the sex ratio differs markedly according to the country of origin. Males predominate everywhere, but among the Kosovars and Albanians, their ratio is “only” about 65%, while among Syrians it is 74%, and among Afghans, 83%. Pakistanis represent the extreme, 96% of them being male.

2) In Hungary

The mix of the refugee population that travelled through Hungary in 2015 has its own distinct characteristics.

Hungary reported to Eurostat a total of 174,055 first-instance asylum requests received until mid-November 2015. Only eight nationalities had more than 1,000 applicants each, and these made up 94% of the total:

This number represents only those who were registered in Hungary as asylum-seekers. Up to approximately the end of August, Hungary made serious efforts to apprehend and register everyone, although most migrants avoided registration if they could, having been made aware that it increased the risk of eventually being returned to Hungary under the Dublin agreement. The Ministry of the Interior claimed that it was registering over 90% of arrivals,17 although anecdotal evidence from speaking to a number of refugees at Keleti Railway Station suggests that the percentage of those who managed to avoid registration was considerably higher. In any event, between 15 September and 19 October, when refugees were being transported straight from the Croatian border to the Austrian border by train, very few registrations took place, on the grounds that they were supposed to have been done in Croatia, a fellow EU country.

The International Federation of Red Cross estimates that from January to the end of November, 391,140 refuge seekers transited through Hungary.18 Until 18 October 2015, the vast majority of the migrants of the “Balkan Route” passed through Hungary; thus, if this figure is more or less correct, it supports the hypothesis that the final Eurostat 2015 figure of 995,190 (see page 43) contains severe double-counting.19

There are a few differences between Hungary and the rest of Europe, in terms of the composition and timing of the mixed migrant surge of 2015.

Firstly, the 2014–2015 Kosovar surge had a far larger importance and impact in Hungary than in Europe as a whole. As mentioned earlier, these migrants passed mostly through Hungary, which registered over 10,000 a month between December 2014 and February 2015 – an unprecedented challenge that shocked the Hungarian immigration system. Kosovars made up the majority of decisions on asylum requests in Hungary during 2014 and the first quarter of 2015. Since their rate of acceptance is one of the lowest (5% in the EU overall), this fact is important because it distorted the image of Hungary in international statistics, making it appear as if it had refused almost all asylum requests in general. When disaggregating figures by the country of origin of the requestor, Hungary is still seen to be difficult in granting refugee status, but not nearly as “bad” as it looked in aggregated European statistics in early 2015, where it was compared to countries in which the proportion of Kosovar asylum seekers was relatively small.

It is essential to remember that practically no refugees have stayed in Hungary. As of the time of writing, there are less than a thousand asylum-seekers in refugee centres, at registered addresses or in detention in Hungary. There may be some illegals who are not eligible for asylum and are not requesting it; on the other hand, there is little incentive for asylum-seekers to remain incognito, as they would be deprived of a number of benefits.

Why do refugees not want to stay in Hungary? The main reason is that they are well aware of their relatively poor prospects in Hungary: the benefits due to them during the asylum process are much lower than in the West, integration into Hungarian society is difficult, and in the long run, job prospects are poor and ill-paid in comparison to the West. In addition, it is known that Hungary has a lower rate of positive decisions on asylum requests than the EU average: for example, in 2014 Germany accepted 94% of Syrian asylum seekers, Hungary only 69%. For Kosovars, the equivalent percentages were 6% and <1%, respectively.20

1 Glossary on Migration, IOM, International Migration Law, Geneva, 2004. ( publications/Glossary_eng.pdf), p. 42.

2 explained/index.php/File:First_instance_decisions_on_(non-EU)_asylum_applications,_2014_(number,_rounded_figures)_YB15_IV.png. Second-instance decisions only added about 5% to the total percentage of positive decisions.

3 The total official capacity at this time is about 1,500, not counting hastily erected tents and other temporary accommodation.

4 It was noticeable, following the media at the time, that depending on the political affiliation or leaning of the interviewee or of the media outlet, there seemed to be no mention of any good work done by the organisations seen as being on the “other side” – a reflection of the general political polarisation evident in Hungary.


6 Eurostat migr_asyappctzm Dec. 2015.


8 December 2015 ACAPS situation analysis, a-acaps_mapaction-situation-analysis—balkan-migrant-crisis-december-2015.pdf.

9 Unless stated differently, figures include all of Europe, that is the 28 EU member states plus Norway, Switzerland, Serbia and others.

10 Eurostat migr_asyappctzm Dec. 2015.

11 Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, France, Norway, Sweden.

12 EU-28_by_outcome,_selected_citizenships.

13 All of the demographic data are extracted from Eurostat migr_asyappctzm Dec. 2015. For some of the disaggregations, figures up to mid-November were used; for others, only until September, as the later data were not complete.

14 Red Cross Red Crescent information note dated 1 December 2015, referring to UNHCR figures.

15 Situation analysis transit migrants, 30 December – link on UNHCR’s Refugees/Migrants Emergency response page

16 There were exceptions, of course. The author of this article, while volunteering on the route in September, met an elderly, sick Syrian woman travelling alone to join her daughter in Germany.

17 Personal communication to the author on 24 August 2015.

18 Red Cross Red Crescent information note dated 1 December 2015, referring to UNHCR figures.

19 The Eurostat figures include, of course, arrivals on the southern Mediterranean route; however, this route became secondary in 2015, Italy, Spain and Malta accounting for only 12% of all new asylum applications in 2015.

20 Ratio of all positive first-instance decisions (granting refugee or other protected status) versus all decisions.

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