Crossing the Ukraine-Hungary border by car, taking a bus towards Italy, or walking from Afghanistan to Bosnia Herzegovina, at the European Union’s borders. Getting on a boat to cross the Mediterranean sea, up to the Italian coasts. Or again, trying to climb over a wall in Morocco, beyond which the European dream lies.

These are some of the main migratory routes towards the old continent. Along them, thousands of people cross their paths with barbed wire, walls, shipwrecks, customs, fingerprints, and violence.

Italy in the South and Hungary in the East are the main access doors to Europe.

Migration is as old as humanity itself. It has never really been halted by human actions or governments’ policies. In recent years, in Europe, two main routes were at the centre of the news, namely the one from North Africa and the countries surrounding the Gulf of Guinea to Southern Europe on one side, and the one from the Middle East and Central Asia towards Eastern Europe on the other. Two countries more than others were affected by these two routes: Italy in the South and Hungary in the East. These two different nations are protagonists of different cultures and stories, but have been sharing the same challenges posed by migration and by the shortcomings the Eu has demonstrated in managing them.

On top of this, there has been a significant exodus of Ukrainians starting last March, as a consequence of the Russian invasion. In the first six months of the conflict, more than 7 million people fled the war. As we will further explain later, the Eu authorities managed the exodus from Ukraine much differently than usual, proving a welcoming attitude which unfortunately just represents a virtuous exception.

Almost 10 years after the beginning of the “European migration crisis”, it is clear that the European Union has decided not to decide on this issue. It has not reformed the policy as required by the times, leaving millions of people to their fate and the issue to national politics.

The gaps in European politics favored anti-immigration parties.

This irresponsible attitude produced a general hostility towards migrants almost everywhere. The consequence was an increased support for anti-immigration parties. These political forces, once in government, had the chance to implement oppressive and discriminatory policies, especially in border countries, where citizens and authorities felt abandoned by Eu institutions.

This happened in Hungary and partly in Italy, where these social and political processes risk to be fully carried through in the next legislature. In fact, the latest polls about the 25 September elections suggest that Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), a right wing, sovereignist, anti-migrant party, will be the first political force of our country. Its leader, Giorgia Meloni, has repeatedly shown interest in the “Orbán model” of immigration management.

Hungary and Italy, Europe’s Eastern and Southern doors

What is journalistically known as the “European migrants crisis” began in 2013. It seems like a long time ago when an increasing number of people started travelling on foot or by makeshift means towards Europe, in search of asylum. The year 2015 marks an important turning point.

During those months, the Eu reported the arrival of almost 2 million people coming from war-torn countries like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, but also Libya, Mali or Burkina Faso.

1,8 million people migrated towards Europe in 2015, according to EU data.

In these extremely dangerous trips, human rights are violated, and many people suffer and die. It was reported that at least 1,200 migrants died on only 5 boats that sank while crossing the Mediterranean sea in 2015. And in the same year, the building of the “Orbán’s wall” began, on the border between Serbia and Hungary.

Today, the data shows a lower number of arrivals. It is not because fewer people leave, nor because policies have been implemented to improve the social-economical conditions in the countries of origin. The reason is rather that restrictive migration policies have worsened and spread across the continent.

Moreover, the Eu itself has been trying to limit the arrivals, externalising its borders outside the Union, through agreements with third countries, such as the one signed with Turkey in 2016. These arrangements aim to keep the problem far from the eyes and hearts of the Europeans. Other examples are the 2017 memorandum with the Libyan government, the fences that separate the Moroccan territory from the Spanish enclave of Ceuta and Melilla, and the detention camps on Greek islands.

The contradictions of the European Union’s migration policies
The Dublin Treaty was signed in the Irish capital in 1990 and is still in force in Europe. According to the regulation, the duty to examine the asylum requests falls, apart from a few exceptions, on the country where the migrant illegally arrived. The other Eu member states have no responsibility whatsoever. This mechanism inevitably creates an unequal situation in Europe, because the reception process and the asylum requests mainly fall on the countries of first entry. This is the case for Italy (for the Mediterranean route) and Hungary (for the Balkan route), where migrants are also sent back, if they try to leave in order to reach other European states. Although the treaty was modified, first in 2003 and then in 2013, it still works pretty much in the same way. And it is accompanied by return policies operating at the external borders of the Eu, which contradict the founding values of the Union, such as the defence of human rights and dignity. Through the years, Brussels signed agreements with North African regimes to control the Mediterranean route and with the Turkish regime to control the Balkan route. This has been done with the explicit aim of holding back migrants in their territories and preventing them from reaching Europe. In this way, the arrivals decreased and the issue lost its centrality in the public debate. The consequence was sentencing thousands of people to the violence of Libyan prisons or to forced-returns at the Turkish borders, as reported by human rights organisations and many journalistic investigations. Another deep Eu contradiction has emerged recently, in the management of the Ukrainian refugee crisis. It is clear that the treatment of Ukrainian migrants fleeing the war and those fleeing conflicts in other countries have been unequal. For the first ones, the Eu activated a directive which allowed Ukrainians to freely circulate in all the Eu countries and obtain a form of protection, which on the contrary is denied to thousands of people coming from other war-torn countries.

«We don’t want to become a mixed race population»

The geographical locations of Italy and Hungary are relevant when it comes to migration. In the last decade this certainly played a role in how autochthonous communities perceived foreign people. Such a process has been exacerbated by the political polarisation and by the media narratives around the issue.

How much are Italian and Hungarian populations really mixing with foreigners communities?

In Italy, the number of migrants landing on the Southern coasts has decreased after the so-called “refugee crisis”, but the topic keeps on setting the agenda even now, in view of the 25th September 2022 elections, and the favourite parties are precisely the right-wing, anti-immigration ones. Hungary’s situation is different. There, Orbán’s government has been making the defence of borders one of the crucial principles of his political action for years now.

The country is characterised by one of the most radical approaches to the issue, to the extent that last July, Orbán declared:

We are willing to mingle with each other, but we don’t want to become a mixed race population

Such a sentence caused the dimissions of his personal advisor Zsuzsa Hegedüs, after she compared the prime minister to the nazi minister Joseph Goebbels – though she later withdrew the allegations.

In 2011, 385 thousand migrants arrived in Italy. Almost 10 years later, they were 247 thousand. The Hungarian trend is reversed: in 2011, the new immigrants amounted to 28 thousand, against more than 75 thousand in 2020. However, in order to understand the real impact of the presence of migrants in the two countries, it is necessary to compare those figures with the resident population. Foreigners who arrived in Italy in 2020 were 42 for every 10 thousand inhabitants, 23 fewer than in 2011. Hungary instead recorded an increase of 49 units per 10 thousand people from 2011 to 2020. In 2020, there were 77 immigrants for every 10 thousand inhabitants.

There is no “migrants emergency”, neither in Italy nor in Hungary.

Aside from these time variations, the most noteworthy aspect is the disproportion between these numbers and the alarmist kind of communication registered in both countries. We are in fact facing a structured phenomenon, which would just need to be systematised and organised, thereby avoiding the «invasion stigma» that is undoubtedly refuted by the data.

FONTE: openpolis processing Eurostat data
(ultimo aggiornamento: lunedì 11 Luglio 2022)

The Ukrainian refugee crisis is a separate issue. To manage the exodus, at the beginning of March the Eu reactivated its 55/2001 Directive, which had been created over 20 years before, to manage the refugee crisis caused by the Balkan wars. According to this provision, people fleeing the conflict are offered a temporary protection status - which is similar to the refugee status - in every member state, for one year after their arrival, renewable for another two years.

Indeed, there have been no significant differences in the ways Italy and Hungary received Ukrainians, as they both followed the Eu directive. Instead, the main difference concerns the geographic location of the two countries and, therefore, the socio-economic outlook of the refugees who decide to stay.

On one side, Hungary is one of Ukraine’s neighbouring countries, which made it one of the main crossing points for Ukrainians heading West. From March to July, almost one million Ukrainians entered Hungary, even though less than 30 thousand applied for protection. This suggests that the country is mainly an area of transition to other Eu countries.

In Italy, the situation is the exact opposite: out of the 157 thousand people who entered the country from 24 January onwards, 148 thousand (94%) asked for temporary protection. So in this case, the data shows a more permanent kind of immigration.

FONTE: openpolis processing Protezione civile and Unhcr data
(ultimo aggiornamento: martedì 26 Luglio 2022)

As the graph shows, both in Italy and in Hungary the peak of the flow was in March, namely the first weeks after the Russian invasion. After a decrease and an adjustment between spring and the beginning of the summer, arrivals began to slightly increase in July, even though they remained far from the winter’s peaks.

For Ukrainians, Hungary is a crossing territory, while Italy is a point of arrival.

No data is available about the length of stay of the refugees in Hungary and Italy, but our field investigation confirms what was suggested by the number of temporary protection requests. Namely that Hungary is a crossing territory, where migrants stay a few days and sometimes only a few hours, before heading West. Italy instead is a point of arrival, where many refugees come thanks to a network of family or personal relationships, as the country hosts a large, well-rooted Ukrainian community.


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: a Pakistan asylum seeker in the "Fraterna Tau" reception center in L'Aquila, Italy - Andrea Mancini / Openpolis