Hungary has taken in the second-largest number of people fleeing Ukraine behind Poland. But the government, notorious for its strict anti-immigration laws, has made it clear that hospitality would only be extended to those "legally staying on the territory of Ukraine".
After the Russian invasion of Ukraine began a week ago (February 24), Hungary opened its borders to those fleeing the raging conflict and has reportedly already taken in more than 130,000 refugees from Ukraine.
"We're letting everyone in," Prime Minister Viktor Orban said last week near the Hungarian-Ukrainian border, addressing people fleeing Ukraine.
"All border crossing points of ours are open, fully operational 24 hours a day," Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Wednesday (March 2). "We let everybody come in, including the Ukrainian citizens, and those who have been legally staying on the territory of Ukraine, and we do take good care of them."
Hungary, otherwise known for its staunch anti-immigration policies, has even passed a regulation allowing citizens of third countries who had been studying or working in Ukraine "to enter the territory of Hungary without reason," Szijjarto said. "We organize for them the transfers to the nearest airports to enable them to return home."
'We do not allow any illegal migrants to enter Hungary'
However, the government has also made clear that these words of welcome are not meant for everyone fleeing Ukraine and that it has not changed its stance on barring all those it calls "illegal migrants".
The minister slammed "politicians in Hungary and abroad" suggesting his government had also opened the flood gates to "illegal migrants". It was "fake news", he said, that "illegal migrants would be allowed to enter the territory of Hungary, taking advantage of the flock of refugees," Szijjarto told the UN Human Rights Council.
"The truth is that we do not allow any illegal migrants to enter the territory of Hungary, and we will always protect Hungary from these people," he said.
He reiterated there was no comparison between refugees from Ukraine and the people Budapest has labelled "illegal migrants", who have often arrived at its borders after fleeing war and conflict in places like Syria.
Szijjarto claimed that Hungary had "a very, very clear experience" of how "illegal migrants tend to behave aggressively, ... they ruin the infrastructure and they attack police." The minister said that refugees from Ukraine on the other hand cooperate with authorities and they "line up (at border crossing points) in a very disciplined very patient."
Different refugee groups, different treatment?
Orban isn't the only European far-right, anti-migration leader who has changed their tone towards refugees considerably since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
"These are not the refugees we are used to," Bulgarian President Rumen Radev said last week about Ukrainian refugees, quoted by the Associated Press. "These people are Europeans. These people are intelligent, they are educated people."
Such remarks illustrate a discrepancy between the treatment of Ukrainian migrants and the thousands of African, Arab, Indian and other migrant groups, including many students, trying to flee Ukraine, too.
UN agencies, activists and refugee aid groups have been calling for equal treatment of members of any nationality trying to escape. On Thursday (March 3), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said in an online statement it had received "verified credible reports of discrimination, violence and xenophobia against third country nationals attempting to flee the conflict in Ukraine," which resulted in "heightened risk and suffering".
"Discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, nationality or migration status is unacceptable," IOM Director-General Antonio Vitorino said on Twitter.
More than 28,000 third-country nationals have arrived in Moldova, Slovakia and Poland from Ukraine so far, UN migration agency IOM spokesperson Joe Lowry said on Twitter on Wednesday.
Violating human rights, flouting EU law
Over the past few years, the United Nations and rights groups like the Hungarian Helsinki Committee have repeatedly criticized the Prime Minister Victor Orban's far-right government for its harsh migration policies.
Among other things, Hungary enacted a law in 2018 that threatens jail time for people who support asylum seekers. It also proposed immigration bans and committed thousands of well-documented, illegal pushbacks of asylum seekers.
One of the victims of these pushbacks is Moroccan migrant Jalal, who was traveling the Balkan route in early 2021 and made it over the border to Hungary before he was hit by a vehicle and suffered "terrible" injuries.
Orban has also often made highly provocative statements in the past, including calling migrants "Muslim invaders" and claiming that "all terrorists are basically migrants."
In December, moreover, Orban said his country would not alter its strict immigration laws in the wake of a ruling from the EU's top court, which had said that Hungary's laws contravene EU law.