Full stop. I turn back, realising that they were talking about a man that was sleeping on a bench next to the supermarket down the road. I had also noticed him, in fact, I know him. I approached the couple, apologized for intervening, and told them that the man is homeless in Budapest since several years, is a refugee from Sierra Leone, has some health issues and is unfortunately not even allowed to work in Hungary as he has basically fallen out of the system. The woman, clearly happy to receive more information on the topic, double checked what I had just said. So he was a refugee? How unfortunate. Was there no help available for him? Were there more homeless refugees? Unfortunately, I was still in a hurry, and still late, so I quickly told them that the condition of homelessness is very common among refugees in Hungary, that there is some help but it is very limited, and that they could check out Migszol Csoport on Facebook. I left them to discuss the matter among themselves and continued running towards Blaha.
Homelessness and precariousness are by far amongst the most visible and most grievous issues affecting Hungarian society today. For more information and background, especially our non-Hungarian speaking readers, see these informative and concise posts by AVM on the topic, and the note on how to represent homelessness in the media. While all of these issues similarly affect refugees who are homeless, their experience of it is still very different.
1. While in the camp
Homelessness is a direct result of the policy of housing refugees either in camps or detention centres during their asylum procedure. In brief, it makes integration extremely difficult. How come? First, let’s keep in mind that the refugee camps in Hungary are situated far away from Budapest (although Budapest, as the metropolis of the country, offers the best chances of integration). Well, should an asylum seeker be lucky enough to have proper legal aid and thereafter also be granted the status of a refugee, s/he has two months to pack her bags in Debrecen/Bicske/Békéscsaba/etc. and leave the camp. Often, police evict them. Don’t get me wrong - nobody wants to stay in the camps any more. It’s just that camp, even with horrid conditions, is still better than sleeping on the streets. Understandably, most want to come to Budapest, as they know people in the big city. In fact, most of them want to come to Blaha Lujza tér- refugees do not receive any information on housing opportunities when they get their status, and often the only info they have of the city is “Blaha”, of which they have heard from friends. What happens, then? You pack your bags, get a train to Budapest, you go to Blaha (meeting point: in front of the McDonalds), meet people you know, stay with them until you find something.
2. The integration contract
When we heard last year that such a thing as an integration contract would be introduced, we were curiously cautious. The system, according to which refugees would be granted 90 000 HUF (300€) during the first six months, seemed too good to be true. That would even cover housing and would prevent homelessness! Unfortunately, we were right. It was too good to be true. In many cases, a simple Catch 22 presents our desperate flat-hunter: it is practically impossible to have an integration contract before you have an address. And you don’t have an address before you have the income from the integration contract. Not to mention the fact that as most folks from camps pretty much land in front of the McDonalds on Blaha, the 8th district has long queues for refugees, whereas other districts don’t. But how is our puzzled refugee, with no knowledge of Hungarian, supposed to know his or her rights? That in theory s/he should receive some money for the flat deposit even before you leave from the camp?
3. The flat hunt
Our puzzled refugee, let’s call her Naomi, turned out to be lucky: she has found a friend who can borrow her 200 000 HUF in order for Naomi to cover the deposit and first month’s rent for a small apartment that Naomi will share with her friend who also has been evicted from a camp. Or, then the system has actually worked, and she has received some money from the Immigration Office. So: let the hunt begin. Oh no! No knowledge of Hungarian and search for apartment... all the expat students in Hungary know how difficult this can prove to be even if you are from a well off Western country and speak good English. And if you don’t speak English, either? Trouble ahead. Sparing my words, check out the recent, rather tragicomic video clip that we made at Migszol on this issue.
4. The deported
Given all the above (and other things such as the fact that refugees are not entitled to Hungarian classes nor free healthcare) it is quite understandable that Naomi, who did not manage to find an apartment, decides to move to her cousin’s place in Berlin and either re-apply for asylum, or alternatively hide and work in the black market. Things don’t go as planned, though, as Naomi soon finds herself in an aeroplane, being deported back to Hungary. (Sidenote: refugees do not have work permit in a country other than the one they have the status from). Naomi’s friends are all gone, she doesn’t know what to do, so she walks into a homeless shelter asking for a place to sleep - with no luck. She is told that the shelter is full. There might be some free places in a few weeks time. Naomi ends up sleeping on the street.
These cases are not, unfortunately, exceptional. They are rather the rule. Neither is it a surprise for a single Hungarian person, that policies which should in theory work instead result in bureaucratic dead ends with actual, real human casualties for whom the explanations of policy makers offer little help. There is some help, though - Menedék Association helps refugees and migrants in all sorts of social matters, and the Reformed Church and Baptist Help alike run much-needed housing programs for refugees. Unfortunately, given the number of refugees in need of housing and the limited capacity of these organizations, they cannot help each and everybody. Neither should they - right to decent housing should be a job of the state. And no, that does not mean we go back to communism and discourage people from working - I can readily point to my home country, Finland, as a positive example. But wait, Finland is a rich country, they have money for this, whereas Hungary is poor! Well, from the journeys of János Lázár and his “translator” we would already cover quite a few spots for social housing. For more on the matter of feasibility of solutions please consult these suggestions of AVM, they have done a very good job in arguing why social housing for all - not only refugees - is, in fact, in the interest of the state and society.
Annastiina / Migszol