Although many studies show that immigration has a positive effect on economic growth, the Orbán government is dead set against allowing foreigners to settle in Hungary. It is not just against the immigration of refugees from the Middle East and Africa but against any immigration coming from outside of the European Union, including some of the most developed nations in the world. Back in May the Ministry of Economy reduced its immigrant quota, which is now calculated on the basis of the perceived need for workers in the private sector in a given year. That figure divided by twelve will determine the monthly quota. Previously, the calculation was based on all employment opportunities, both private and public. If we consider that doctors, who are in short supply, are public sector employees, we can begin to see the concerted effort on the part of the government to reduce labor opportunities for anyone coming from outside the EU.
As for those refugees who have decided to stay in Hungary, the Orbán government isn’t making their integration easy. In fact, the little earlier governments provided, like free Hungarian lessons, has been discontinued. After these people get permission to stay, it is the few civic groups that try to help the newcomers. These groups’ survival depends entirely on EU grants. The leaders of these organizations complain bitterly that the government’s “integration strategy” can be summarized as “you solve it!” According to one of the organizers, what they are able to do can be compared to “throwing rose petals on war-torn cities.”
Three major civic groups are trying to take care of these newcomers, but they are unable to handle more than about 100 individuals at a time. They are being financed by the Norwegian Civic Fund and the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF) of the European Union. One of the groups, Artemisszió, concentrates on bridging cultural differences. Jövőkerék’s focus is on employment. Menedék’s work mostly involves improving the newcomers’ language skills. Of course, taking care of the needs of 100 individuals is a drop in the bucket even in the small foreign community of Hungary.
Learning the language is of paramount importance, and since there are no more free government-sponsored Hungarian lessons, most organizations involved with immigrants began offering language courses of their own. Since professional language instructors don’t come cheap, volunteers must take their place. And there are problems even with school-age children since the Hungarian school system is not at all prepared to handle foreign students. Apparently the problem is not with the children but with some of the principals and teachers. If a teacher is open and accepting, the foreign student’s integration into her new community is a great deal easier. But considering the xenophobia prevalent in Hungarian society as a whole, there is a good possibility that the student will be taught by someone who wishes she had never set foot in Hungary and who is not about to encourage her to outshine any of her Hungarian classmates.
Interestingly enough, finding a job doesn’t seem to be as difficult as one would think. Some of the participants in these programs land a job even before the program ends. As one of the civic leaders pointed out, immigrants usually are more enterprising, confident, and daring. Ready to meet new challenges. The timid, the fearful would never dare to leave.
And indeed, I read an interesting article in Bloomberg with the title “What Hungary can teach Europe about absorbing immigrants.” Intriguing, isn’t it? According to the article, “in Hungary, foreign-born workers, far from living on the fringes of society, are more likely to be employed than native-born Hungarians. In 2013, the last for which statistics are available, 67.9 percent of the foreign-born aged 15 to 64 had jobs, vs. 58.2 percent of the native-born in that age range.” As the graph shows, Hungary’s performance is spectacular, especially compared to other European countries.
Of course, among the immigrant workers are many ethnic Hungarians from neighboring countries, mostly from Romania. But Hungary’s historical experience shows a fantastic ability to absorb and assimilate large groups of non-Magyar speakers with ease. I know, some of you will say “Yes, but they didn’t come from an entirely different culture.” But they did. I am specifically thinking of Orthodox Jews who arrived in large numbers from Polish Galician shtetls. They spoke Yiddish, and their culture bore no resemblance to the majority culture in Hungary. Yet most of them a generation later spoke the language and became ardent Hungarian patriots.
Although studies show that immigration is imperative for economic growth, the Orbán government seems to be adamant: Hungary is for Hungarians. Viktor Orbán is making a huge mistake. The economic consequences of this policy will be serious. Hungary’s economic growth will permanently lag that of other countries in the region.
I know that Angela Merkel is criticized at home and abroad for encouraging immigration into Germany. Those who oppose allowing large numbers of people coming from different cultures to settle in the country point to Germany’s past difficulties with Turkish immigrants. But Merkel stressed that Germany will handle these immigrants very differently from the way it dealt with the earlier guest workers. In the 1960s and 1970s the German government looked upon them as temporary laborers who some day will go back to their homeland. There was no attempt to integrate them into German society. Merkel vows that this time it will be different. Germany will do its part to make the immigrants an integral part of German society and, in turn, the new immigrants will be expected to conform to the norms of the majority society. Indeed, this is the right way. It will be good for Germany and good for the new immigrants. This is what Hungary should do. After long years of cultural isolation the country should open its doors to the new world that is inevitably coming.