Philanthropic Aid For Refugees in Hungary - Case Study

During this period hundreds of thousands of people have transited the country, who arriving mainly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, aimed to reach Western European countries. The majority of them had to interrupt their journey on the territory of Hungary, and while looking for opportunities to continue their journey, they were stuck in public spaces such as railway stations and parks for a period lasting from a few days to a few weeks. While state institutions denied responsibility and action outside of refugee camps, and classical professional aid organisations were reluctant to help, a spontaneous humanitarian reaction on the part of everyday actors emerged.

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A significant number of individuals, formal and informal organisations offered donations and volunteer work in order to provide for basic physical needs of refugees, such as food, clothes and medical care. Moreover, large segments of the population have been supportive of these actions, and regarded the efforts of volunteers and philanthropic actors with sympathy.

To systematically map ideologies and individual motivations behind such activities, between October 2015 and January 2016 we have carried out qualitative research among volunteers and philanthropic donors active in helping refugees during Spring-Autumn 2015. The present analysis relies on 32 semi-structured interviews. Snowball sampling was applied, based on existing personal contacts with the field, as well as on approaching online social media groups established for the sake of organizing these helping activities.

As opposed to the case of ethnic Hungarians in minority communities, these philanthropic actions were initiated in a social context, where public ideologies denied the “moral worth” of those becoming addressees of support. The public (national and local media, newspapers, television, social media, physical public spaces etc. ) in the respective period has been pervaded by a securitization discourse controlled and initiated by the Hungarian government.

Media analyses have revealed that the frame of securitization depicted refugees and migrants as potential threats to the Hungarian society through various narratives: diseases and health-threats, cultural differences, physical attacks, violence and terrorism, and demographic characteristics related to their numbers or fertility rates were all assigned to refugees in order to emphasize them as inherently threatening for the Hungarian society (and also for Europe, “European culture” and Christianity at large). Alternative framings emphasizing war and conflict as major sources of mass-emigration, the insufficiency of legal frameworks of protection, as well as life-conditions of and insufficient humanitarian supplies for the people on the move were marginalized in the media and in the public discourse. Hegemonic securitization discourses constantly delegitimized the activities of philanthropic actors and volunteers, and evoked a continuous demand for the latter to justify their activities towards the larger public. According to our interviews, the hegemonic character of the securitizing discourse, with “unworthy migrants” at its core, was typically countered by universalist ideologies. These ideologies emphasized the denial and immorality of any type of distinctions between potential targets of helping: classifications of different attributes, merits, worth or deservingness of the sufferers.

Thoroughly formulated universalist claims were most eloquently embedded into the humanitarian ideology, confining the application of such lack of judgmentalism to an extraordinary moment in time and space. The “state of emergency” in these narratives legitimized life saving beyond norms and obligations of the everyday functioning of the society. “When there is an earthquake and people are under the rubble, we don’t ask people whether they are good or bad people. We equally rescue people from beneath the rubble of a prison building and people from beneath the rubble of the hospital or of the kindergarden building. (. . . ) There are moments in life when we do not pose this question. There is a person in front of you who traveled through the sea, who is afraid, who doesn’t really know what the future will look like. We don’t ask them these kind of questions. We ask them if they are hungry, cold. ”

18 May 2020

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