As for the Ukrainian question, there are a few differences between the Hungarian and Italian approaches to the emergency. These differences mainly stem from the socio-economic and cultural features as well as from the intentions of the Ukrainian refugees in the two countries. This is already clear at the entrance of the large reception centres in Budapest, such as Bok, which opened in the beginning of March, after the start of the war.

We visited it at the end of July, at a time in which refugee fluxes were much lower compared to last winter and the spring before it. The centre is made up of an area inside a large sports centre, where most refugees stay no longer than 24 hours.

In the biggest reception center for Ukrainians in Budapest, people usually only stay for a few hours.

The government officials who showed us the centre looked proud. You can immediately see that it is a point of transition rather than a point of arrival. There are even information desks about the departing trains and a proper waiting room, for those who spend even just a few hours waiting for trains to other European countries, Germany above all, but also Poland, Czechia, France, and Switzerland. There are also beds, for those staying longer than a day.

“On 2 March, we recorded 1,240 arrivals – states a member of the civil defence – right now we receive about 150 people a day”. All those present want to specify that non Ukrainians too are welcomed there, as long as they come from the war-torn country. A while later, in fact, we met 4 Nigerian students who arrived in Budapest from Lviv.

For months, the government told about thousands of arrivals, in springtime as many as 10 thousand a day. However, according to Orbán’s dissidents, this is just a way to highlight the welcoming attitude of the country and to try and rebalance the violences and difficulties of their migration management.

“There are two different systems” claimed Simon Ernő, spokesperson for UNHCR Hungary. The EU provisions for Ukrainian refugees should be extended to everyone. “Here in Hungary instead, over the years, we have witnessed a radical and progressive hardening of the migration policies”. This happened to the extent that, under EU pressure and after the sentences by the European Court of Human Rights, the government was forced to close down the controversial transit zone along the wall between Serbia and Hungary.

The law forcing seekers to submit their asylum requests in foreign embassies and the one on so-called safe third countries made it clear that the government would not take steps back on non Ukrainians refugees.

The provision according to which those who pass through a safe third country are not worthy of seeking asylum in Hungary has also been contested by the Hungarian section of the Helsinki committee, one of the most proactive NGOs in the country, despite the government’s repression of the organisations that help migrants. “We have highlighted the government’s contradictions – underlines Zsolt Szekeres from the Helsinki committee – because, according to this logic, even Ukrainian refugees entering from Romania should be pushed back, as they too come from a safe country”.

Of course, this is not about narrowing the rights of Ukrainians, who are entitled to flee and hide from the war, but rather to extend the provisions to all asylum seekers coming from extra-Eu countries, from Asia and Africa, continents where wars, violences and persecutions are not uncommon.

The data we analysed has been confirmed by independent organizations and by migrants themselves.

These differences also emerge as one meets the migrants themselves. Inna, for instance, is a young Ukrainian artist who used to work for a video production company in Kiev. After the Russian invasion, it was her company who moved all the employees, including herself, first to Poland and then to Budapest. “I don’t know for how long I will stay here,” she tells us in a bar next to the Keleti station, where she arrived a few months ago, from Poland. “I would like to go back to my country someday, but not before the end of the war – she adds – I am from the Donetsk region, where my parents are right now. Unlike myself, they support the Russians”.

Here in Hungary, everyone has been kind to me and we received the temporary protection status foreseen for Ukrainians in Europe only a few hours after we had submitted our request”. You can see in her eyes the discomfort of finding herself in a complicated situation, but at the same time having the certainty of being finally safe.

The 19 year-old Pakistani Haseeb instead passed by Hungary for only a few hours, and illegally. He submitted an asylum request in Italy 2 months ago. His story is much different, as he has experienced the Europe of walls and pushbacks. He lived in an area of Pakistan with a strong Taliban presence, and he left the country to escape forced conscription. He spent a year and a half on foot through the Middle East, then Bulgaria, Serbia, and finally the European Union to L’Aquila, a small town 100 km away from Rome, where he is now hosted in a reception centre for asylum seekers and refugees.

I arrived at the border between Serbia and Hungary last year. I hid in the woods during the night, then I managed to avoid the patrols and entered Hungary, spending only one day in the country, just the time to reach Austria.

Haseeb proved skillful and lucky, but the data we already mentioned, about 300 thousand people who got pushed back in just a year and a half, speaks for itself. 

The exception made for Ukraine by European institutions and member countries could open a new chapter for European migration policies. This would be a chapter about openness, social inclusion, organic and structured management of a phenomenon which has now existed, with the current features, for almost a decade.

The reception of Ukrainians could represent a turning point for migration politics in EU.

However, the direction we are taking is opposite to this. At the Eastern borders, Orbán led the way, so much that even Poland and Lithuania have completed the construction of protective walls along their borders. On the Southern front, sea arrivals are seen as a perpetual “emergency”, despite the strong fall of the last few years, so much that the issue has become central in the electoral campaign of the right-wing parties that will probably go to the government at the end of September.

These right-wing parties too have been inspired by Orbán’s migration management model. And the European Union stands by and watches.

This project was supported by the Collaborative and Investigative Journalism Initiative (Ciji). Thanks to the “cross-border stories” grant, 10 reportage across Europe were funded. The freelance journalists Irene Pepe and Aron Coceancig have contributed to the realization of this reportage.

Photo: Inna Chubar, Ukrainian refugee, at the Keleti station in Budapest – Andrea Mancini / Openpolis