Billboards, bureaucracy, Budapest. Foreign students in the Hungarian capital
Prejudice against foreigners runs deep in Hungarian society and this will require complex, large scale changes in order to solve. This includes bureaucratic reform, civil campaigns and better language and cultural education.
Xenophobic voices are nothing new in Hungarian media. However, since the failure of the European immigration system and the resulting crisis that began in 2014, these voices have been amplified to a radical degree. Billboards and posters depicting masses of immigrants gathering around Hungary’s controversial border fence were erected all over the country. Regular government broadcasts, complete with dramatic music, called for action against asylum seekers and those western political figures seen as responsible for the European Union’s refugee quota system. Hungarian media has now been saturated with anti-immigrant messages for many years. As new crises appeared, the xenophobic voices seemingly settled down but did not disappear completely from the country. Although the makeshift refugee camps are long gone from the underpass near Keleti Station, this large and vocal campaign has left its mark on society. This is especially true among those Hungarians who rarely encounter the Other on a daily basis.
Safe but not welcome
Much like many other social and political problems in Hungary, the issue of xenophobia in Budapest is different from the rest of the nation. According to statistics from 2020, 45 per cent of foreign nationals in Hungary reside in the capital. Even when accounting for the fact that Budapest’s residents make up about one-fifth of the country’s entire population, this is an impressive figure. This large, cosmopolitan city also boasts more than half of the country’s higher education institutes and attracts students from all over the world.
Between 2018 and 2020 I took part in a master’s programme at one of Hungary’s largest universities. The programme was in English, with the overwhelming majority of students being foreign. Most of them were visiting Hungary for the first time in order to study for their master’s degree. During these years I had a chance to meet and work with many wonderful people from different cultural backgrounds. Even though the accepting academic environment sheltered us somewhat from reality, I could not help but wonder how these foreign students are treated by my fellow countrymen outside the university. To learn more about their experiences in Budapest, as well as the current state of xenophobia in Hungarian society, I decided to reach out to some of my former classmates. Although each of them comes from a different national, cultural and ethnic background, the shared themes that run through their stories paint an unflattering image of present-day Hungary.
“I feel safe here, but I do not feel so welcome. People are not friendly, but they mean no harm,” says Dogu, a 26-year-old Turkish student. This sentiment seems to be shared among the group. Nelly, a Kenyan student, told me that “People will look at you differently, or move away from you on public transport, while supermarket attendants will follow you around in the shop.” She added, “It made me cautious, because when someone is so observant in what you are doing, you cannot help but become aware of your actions”.
While each of them reported being stared at in public places by locals, the general attitude of the public was described as a “cautious distancing”, rather than anything malicious or hostile. This was best explained by Jane, a worldly traveller from Korea who has lived in Hungary multiple times since 2014. She told me, “I thought that this behaviour is similar to the concepts of negative reinforcement and punishment. When I zap you with a buzzer, that’s punishment, but when I take away rewards from you, that’s negative reinforcement. I feel like there’s not much punishment here, but a lot of negative reinforcement, taking away accomplishment and opportunities from foreigners.”
The extent of this negative reinforcement by the wider society seems to vary according to the person’s ability to blend in. This is strongly connected to the individual’s ethnicity, gender and language. Francisca is from Brazil and has characteristically Caucasian features. She has noticed a clear difference in how people treat her and other, visibly foreign students. According to her, “If I don’t speak English or Portuguese on the tram or in the supermarket, I’m just someone else. It has protected me in a way.” However, as she continues to share her story, it becomes clear to me that whilst punishment is not as common, it is still definitely an issue. On one occasion she was having a conversation in Portuguese with a friend on the metro, when she was pushed by an older person exiting the carriage. This attack was accompanied by furious words, which resulted in visible discomfort on the faces of the surrounding native speakers. When Francisca asked one of them what the perpetrator had said, she did not receive a translation. However, the xenophobic motivation was clear.
A similar situation happened to Nelly on the tram, as well as Jin P, a Thai girl who was given an unwanted lecture in a shop: “I was exiting a small corner store near our campus, and slightly touched the duffel bag of a guy who was paying. I quickly said sorry, and went on, because I was in a hurry. But he came after me, yelling: Here in Hungary, you are supposed to apologise, we are a great, civilised nation! I was so shocked, I couldn’t speak. I thought it was a joke”.
“A great, civilised nation” – these are the sort of buzzwords that I associate with the talking heads of the media. While foreign students experience such clashes with strangers perhaps once or twice during their three year stay, the number and intensity of these incidents only grows when faced with institutions or those who work for such entities.
Barriers of bureaucracy
Bureaucracy in Hungary is often viewed as a sort of Kafkaesque horror show. The lack of communication between institutions leads to you being sent from one government office to another by generally overworked and underpaid clerks on the verge of total burnout. These experiences dissuade even native Hungarians from seeking solutions to their problems. As a result, it is really no wonder that adding a language barrier to the equation only creates utter chaos and neglect.
The exclusion from the system sometimes reaches extreme levels, beyond the awkward fumbling with Google Translate. Francisca recalls: “I went to the bank one time and selected the English option on the automated menu for the numbered tickets. The security guy saw this, and came up to me, repeating ‘No English, no English’. Then he grabbed me, and escorted me to the door. It was very embarrassing.” Although she showed the guard Hungarian papers from her employer that she needed for the banking procedure, she was denied service. She subsequently had to go to another bank. Of course, financial institutions have never been pinnacles of human virtue. However, similar stories from other parts of the public sphere suggest that there are deep rooted discriminatory tendencies. When Dogu lost his wallet, his girlfriend Lisa tried to report it at the district police station. However, when the help desk attendee noticed that she only spoke English, she turned away from her and acted like she could not hear Lisa’s desperate attempts to explain the matter. Lisa then phoned a Hungarian friend to help with translation but the clerk refused to take the phone from her.
Neglect and denial of service are not the only ways that Hungarians make foreigners feel unwanted. Unfortunately, they sometimes say it directly to their face. Jane successfully applied to work as a tutor at a prestigious Budapest private school. Despite this, her Korean nationality meant that the employment process involved some extra administrative work. When discussing the situation with the employer at the immigration office, the school’s office manager made an offhand remark to Jane: “I wish they could’ve chosen a European candidate instead, but my boss really insisted on you.” She ended up reporting this incident to the head of operations. In many cases there is no one to report such issues to at all.
Foreigners have a generally harder time exercising their rights because of language difficulties. This puts them in a vulnerable position right from the start. As Dogu puts it, “They take advantage of you, everyone and everywhere. They know that you cannot complain, you don’t know where to go, and it’s going to be extra problematic in the end. I think bureaucratic things go really slow here, even for Hungarians. For us, it’s even worse. You call a place, they tell you to press nine for the English operator. You press nine, wait for literal hours, get tired and give up”.
Landlords preying on foreign tenants is a prime example of such exploitation. The list of ways in which this exploitation occurs goes on and on. For example, landlords may claim that certain household items have been broken or stolen and demand that the tenant pay the cost of the repair. At the same time, they may also charge unreasonably high electricity and water bills to tenants during months when the apartment was unoccupied for weeks. In some cases, landlords have even stolen from tenants. Many students have no choice but to put up with such injustices if they want to avoid going through the painful process of finding new housing. Finding a place to stay is especially hard for African students, who often face various forms of discrimination. In these circumstances, apartment owners have often avoided personal meetings or simply not replied to the inquiries of potential tenants. In one case, Dogu’s friends contacted a man about his apartment and the owner asked for their nationalities. A member of the group happened to be Egyptian. Upon receiving their answer, the owner replied with a short text: “I don’t rent to Arabs.”
This is supposed to be you
When it comes to media campaigns, the impressions of foreign students are mixed. Since these campaigns are in Hungarian, it can be hard to notice for non-native speakers. When Jane’s parents visited from Korea, they stopped to take a picture in a park. Only after she showed the photo to Hungarian friends did she learn that the picture was taken in front of an anti-immigrant billboard.
“There are certain times when I’m glad I don’t speak Hungarian,” Jane told me. There are cases when the message is more on the nose. Dogu explains that as a Turkish national, he is not unfamiliar with propaganda: “I saw these billboards the first time I came here, a picture of some immigrants in front of fences with a stop sign over it. Like a group of zombies. I really felt uncomfortable, it was very unwelcoming. Choosing the people as an enemy instead of the system, the laws or the politics that led to this is dangerous.” He mentions the similar concerns of his friends and others about the campaign: “A friend of mine once showed me this billboard, saying ‘This is supposed to be you’ and that he feels sorry about it. There are also many Hungarians I talked with that feel ashamed of their government’s politics.”
To hold such feelings, a degree of empathy is required and implied here on the part of Hungarians. This seems to reflect the impressions of other interviewees, namely that despite all the loud campaigns and slogans, the young generation seems to be more approachable and even helpful at times. Of course, this can be explained by the improved language skills of young Hungarians compared to the older generations. The ability to communicate with each other can serve as a basis for building bridges that can withstand the storms of hateful speech. This is exemplified by a phenomenon reported by interviewees, or as Dogu put it, a “bug in the code”.
“If I only speak English, people are more careful. But if I start with a Hungarian greeting like szia, even if I continue in English after that, their whole attitude changes. People become more accepting, as if they were thinking, oh, you accept my language and are using it with me? Then you are welcome,” Dogu says.
Prejudice against foreigners runs deep in Hungarian society and this will require complex, large scale changes in order to solve. This includes bureaucratic reform, civil campaigns and better language and cultural education. Overall, the fact that a gesture as small as one word can change people’s attitudes to such a degree shows that whilst the road towards accepting the Other may be a long one, it is well worth the journey. This is true even in the country of billboards.
Márton Munding is a short story writer, MC and cognitive scientist living in Budapest, Hungary. His scientific research focuses on the semantic processing of metaphors.