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NGOs in Hungary learn to adapt under pressure

Since the passage of a new anti-NGO law in Hungary, civil society organisations have been on the edge. No one knows for certain what will happen. The biggest fear is that there will be a backlash after the European Parliament voted to support triggering Article 7 against Hungary.

It is an average Monday at Menedék, a Budapest-based NGO. The team meets in a big conference room to discuss weekly issues and report back from the weekend, while project managers share recent developments, good and bad. The phones are off, but there is always somebody waiting for a random client to show up and ask for some assistance or to sign up for an activity. The mood is casual, as usual. The team is very diverse and made up of old and young members. They are expats from non-EU countries, former refugees, university students and experienced NGO workers.

November 5, 2018 - Balint Josa and Anna Fedas - Issue 6 2018MagazineStories and ideas

During a workshop organized by an NGO in Budapest, children were asked to draw how they saw the future. Photo courtesy of Balint Josa.

The association is pretty liberal when it comes to political or religious backgrounds and has residents, citizens and former asylum seekers on the board. Yet the team is significantly smaller than it was last year; many chairs in the conference room are empty.

Menedék is an association of individuals, independent from politics or any formal institution, created to offer help to foreigners arriving in Hungary or Hungarians leaving the country. It carries out a wide range of projects, mostly assisting migrants with social programmes, organising cultural activities and language courses, holding intercultural workshops and helping with the integration process. It is one of the largest Hungarian NGOs in the field. Yet the NGOs involved in this kind of work are often labelled by the media, which support the ruling party Fidesz, as “Soros-NGOs”.

Polarisation and hateful rhetoric

Recently all public funding mechanisms aimed at assisting migrants, which were funded under the umbrella of the Hungarian ministry of interior and referred to as the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF), have ceased to function. All new calls for proposals by the immigration and asylum office are on hold. Any NGO in Hungary that has offered assistance to people in the migration or asylum process are closing down, significantly decreasing their activities, or seeking new sources of funding. The AMIF grants sponsored a variety of programmes, including language courses, work placements, integration training, police education, research and all sorts of social and cultural programmes. However, after an interview was published with Kristof Altusz, a deputy state secretary within the Hungarian foreign ministry, who admitted that nearly 2,000 people a year were receiving protection and that the immigration and asylum office were sponsoring “Soros-like” activities for NGOs, the interior ministry put everything on hold. Menedék and several other NGOs had to let many staff go. Since then, the mood has been grim, but people continue to sign up as volunteers. There are still plenty of citizens who are deeply concerned to show that Hungary is not a xenophobic, hostile country.

The government of Hungary invests an inordinate amount of its political energy into the single issue of migration. The society is extremely polarised. Many are convinced that our borders are under siege by Islamic terrorists, controlled by hidden powers, embodied in the “evil” George Soros – a former Hungarian citizen of Jewish origin currently living in the United States, who has donated millions of dollars to philanthropy and funding the globally-respected Central European University in Budapest. On the other side are those who do not believe in the threat of migration and claim that the real issue is state corruption, including the rapid acquisition of wealth by the family and close circle of the prime minister. They are worried about the lack of democracy, the power shift and the inhumane experiences that the small number of asylum seekers in Hungary must endure.

Rhetoric in Hungary is full of hate, with each side labelling the other as a traitor, despot, mercenary, communist or agent for some hidden interest. In recent years a large number of critical and independent newspapers and radio stations have disappeared and the Hungarian press reflects this widening division. Government-sponsored media, like Magyar Idők, Origo and Ripost, regularly pay significant fines for spreading lies about NGOs and the political opposition, while the prime minister, Viktor Orbán, often brands opposition-owned media as fake news.

In this environment, NGOs are treated with an unprecedented level of suspicion. On a daily basis we are forced to deal with new laws and policies, cuts to funding and flagrant hate speech. Accusations lacking any concrete evidence are commonplace, and death threats are becoming routine. Workers at NGOs like Menedék are forced to create new security protocols. We have lawyers on call and ask our families not to tell random people what we do or where we work. It is tiring, expensive and counterproductive. Many people have been unable to put up with the pressure and have left the NGO sector altogether, but those of us who remain are more dedicated than ever. It is an interesting time to be a human rights defender in Hungary. It is challenging but empowering. We did not expect to be political, but politics has found us. 

What lies ahead?

The biggest challenge NGOs face, alongside the Central European University, is uncertainty. The legislation is unclear and, as of yet, nobody has been sanctioned. No fines have been made and there are activists in jail. Yet we do not know what is on the horizon. Many NGOs fear that there may yet be a backlash as revenge for the European Parliament’s recommendation to trigger Article 7 (which would sanction Hungary in the EU – editor’s note). Many NGOs advocated for the European Parliament to support the move. The subsequent discussions on social media were extremely hostile, which may lead to some form of pushback towards the “supporting” camp.

Neil Clarke, head of the Europe and Central Asia Programme with the International Minority Rights Group and based in Budapest, has this to say: “I am mostly disappointed with the fact that the Hungarian government is so easily pushing out the human and minority rights know-how that has been gathering for the last 25 years in Budapest. Budapest has become a unique international centre for minority rights civil society with several international organisations based here. The new laws will definitely complicate the everyday work by numerous human rights organisations in Budapest. Some of them, if not most of them, will pack up their offices and relocate to a different country. It is a great loss not only for the minority communities, for whom these NGOs play an important role, but simply for the city and its intellectual development. Along with the offices and expertise, the staff will also leave. This heritage of civil society awareness will not be easy to rebuild. Indeed it is even sadder since it was the Hungarian government, with its historic commitment to minority rights, which has supported the development of this unique heritage over the years.”

The Minority Rights Group has over 40 years of experience working with non-dominant ethnic, religious and linguistic communities, and they bring a long-term view of human rights issues to bear in all the work they do. They use tools typical for human rights organisations, like training and education, legal support, publishing, media and cultural programmes, capacity building, international advocacy and networking. Their Budapest office has functioned there since 1996.

Who will support human rights?

What are the observed results of the “Stop Soros” laws? What are possible reactions and solutions to this situation? The Hungarian Helsinki Committee’s statement regarding the adoption of the proposals speaks for itself: “The primary aim of this legislation is to intimidate, by means of criminal law, those who fully and legitimately assist asylum seekers or foreigners, protecting humanitarian values and the right to a fair procedure. It threatens to jail those who support vulnerable people. This runs counter to all we consider as the rule of law, European and Christian values.”

The Mahatma Gandhi Human Rights Organisation is a Budapest-based humanitarian NGO that was created in 1992. “We use football as a tool to fight racism,” says Gibril Deen from the Mahatma Gandhi Human Rights Organisation. “What we observe now, after adopting the new law, is a lack of courage within society to openly support human rights organisations. No one wants to be the first one to be officially convicted. What is more, the section of society that only follows the media managed by the government doesn’t know what is going on in the country. Whereas our partners from abroad constantly ask us about how are we surviving in these hard times.”

Neil Clarke of the Minority Rights Group Europe notes the effect of intimidation and disinformation that the Stop Soros package has had on Hungarian NGOs: “Hungarian NGOs have started to co-operate in order to exchange information and consolidate their positions. They are also trying to explain to the public the threats in the new law. The Minority Rights Group has historically worked in countries and regions outside of Hungary. But due to the political situation here, it has become more directly involved in what is going on in the country.”

András Kovats, the director of Menedék, notes that the difficulty continues in spite of their strong or well-thought out messages. In the extremely polarised media world, whatever you say or do is often not heard, or else it can be turned inside out. The only powerful tools that are almost immune to this are humour and dedication to the cause.

“First of all we can start to co-operate and be linked more than ever before,” suggests Deen from the Mahatma Gandhi Human Rights Organisation. “We, the civil society actors of Central and Eastern European, need to have a common strategy to resist the current political situation,” adds Clarke from the Minority Rights Group Europe. “We have a greater duty and motivation than we used to have before.”

It is also important to stay calm, accept the necessity to be on the defensive and act whenever necessary. And we need to be wary of burning out under the pressure. What is more, if we shout “dictator” too often it might become part of the background, people will tune it out and stop hearing the meaning. The best defence is the good, reliable and high-quality work that these organisations carry out. Reaching out to ordinary people by talking about our work and showing them the results of our activities might be, in the end, an effective and constructive way to close the polarised gap.

Balint Josa is a human rights activist, trainer and project manager. He is a board member of Hungarian and international NGOs focused on empowering minorities and combatting hate-speech.

Anna Fedas is a social development co-ordinator with the Gdańsk-Gdynia-Sopot Metropolitan Area and co-creator of the Immigrants Integration Model and Equal Treatment Model in Gdańsk.

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