Tag Archives: integration

Immigrants in Hungary: The Dutch colony in Csemő

Today’s post was inspired by a fascinating report on Dutch families who in the last 10-15 years have settled in Hungary. To provide some context for this report, I did a little research on foreigners who settled on a more or less permanent basis in Hungary. The statistical literature distinguishes between people who arrived in Hungary from countries outside the European Union and those, like the Dutch immigrants in Csemő, a village on the Great Plains, who came from the EU.

Let’s look first at some data on those immigrants who came from so-called “third countries,” i.e. countries outside the European Union. In 2015 their number was estimated to be 60,000. Their arrival, according to the research conducted by the Central Statistical Office, “was beneficial for Hungary because these immigrants were younger, better educated, and economically more active than the Hungarian natives.” The largest group is the Chinese, but a lot of people came from Ukraine, Vietnam, and Russia. They can be counted as permanent residents since 60% of them have been living in the country for more than ten years. Two-thirds of them came either to work or to join other family members. Twenty-five percent came to study. In 2013 employment statistics for foreigners were higher than those of the local population:  67.9% as opposed to 58.2%. The educational attainment of the newcomers is also higher than that of the Hungarian-born population (48% v. 20%), most likely because many of the immigrants originally came to study in Hungary and then opted to stay. These statistics make Viktor Orbán’s hysterical anti-immigrant views even more ridiculous.

By the way, a few days ago someone asked about the size of the Chinese immigrant population in Hungary. If I recall properly, no one responded to the inquiry. I can now offer some information. The official, somewhat dated figure is 6,800, but, according to estimates, their number is closer to 20,000.  These people settled in Hungary on a more or less permanent basis and their children attend Hungarian schools. Very few of them, however, have become citizens so far.

Immigrants to Hungary quickly become part of the social fabric of the country. Two years ago an article appeared on napi.hu about a “surprising statistic” that proves that Hungary is in the forefront of countries where the integration of immigrants is rapid and rather painless. I must admit that I wasn’t as surprised by the findings of the Központi Statisztikai Hivatal/KSH (Central Statistical Office) as the journalist of napi.hu was. Historically speaking, immigrants who settled in Hungary, within a generation or two, especially in larger towns and cities, became completely integrated. Budapest and Pécs were excellent examples of that phenomenon during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Of course, there are quite a few immigrants who come from member states of the European Union, many of them still young and working, mostly in Budapest and larger cities, but others retired or semi-retired who come for various reasons, including cheaper accommodations, more living space, and a quieter life.

It is a subset of this second group that Magyar Nemzet’s report “Dutch ‘refugees’ on the Great Plains” describes. About 100-150 Dutch people settled in and around the village of Csemő, a place that didn’t exist until 1952. Unlike most Hungarian villages, which boast histories going back to the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries, Csemő’s Wikipedia entry lists under “Places of Interest” two town squares and a hunting lodge. To my great surprise I found an elementary school named after one of my classmates from ELTE, Mihály Ladányi, a poet who spent his last years in the village.

The way these ethnic mini-enclaves come into being is through word of mouth. One family discovers a picturesque village somewhere, and they then tell their friends about the place. This is how Jeroen and Jacqueline Bastiaensen found a run-down homestead (tanya) in Csemő, which they bought “for a tenth or twentieth the price of something comparable in the Netherlands.” This was five years ago, and they claim they do not regret their decision. Since then they have fixed up the place. The couple also operates two guesthouses that they rent out to Dutch and Belgian visitors. In addition, for some extra income they take care of the properties of those Dutch families who spend only a few weeks in Csemő. The reporter also talked to Lammi Luten, another Dutch settler whose family arrived in Hungary eight years ago. Her children attend the local elementary school and are naturally fluent in Hungarian.

The Lutens in front of their house / Source: Magyar Nemzet / Photo: László Végh

Of course, the Hungarian reporter was eager to find out what these people think of Hungary and the Hungarians. Jacqueline explained that certain things are very different in Hungary. As an example, she brought up the case of “Holnap Zsolti” (Tomorrow Zsolti), the local plumber. They call him “Holnap Zsolti” because every time he is phoned for a job he promises he will be there tomorrow, but he doesn’t show up. Jacqueline is surprisingly good-natured about Holnap Zsolti, but she admits that there are times when his attitude seriously interferes with her business. She also complained about someone she hired as a cleaning lady who often doesn’t come to work because “her grandmother is sick, or she overslept, or she simply had other things to attend to.” Obviously, Jacqueline has already learned enough Hungarian to explain to her that this is not the way to be a responsible employee.

Lammi Luten’s criticism of her Hungarian neighbors points to something that might be a more deep-seated and serious problem. As she sees it, Hungarians are not as hard-working as the Dutch. If a Dutchman has the opportunity, with a little extra work, to earn 200 euros a week instead of 100, he will jump at the opportunity. She believes that “Hungarians are satisfied with less; they work only as much as they have to.” She also complained about the unreliability of her fellow villagers. But she feels compensated by what she considers to be a stress-free living situation. Finally, by way of comparison between the Dutch and the Hungarians, she talked about the differences between their bicycling habits. “A Hungarian bicyclist pedals slowly and keeps looking around. It is a miracle that the bicycle remains upright. A Dutchman will pedal hard, having little goals in mind. For example, to pass the bicyclist ahead of him.” These are of course generalizations, but this kind of attitude must be prevalent enough to strike outsiders as typical.

As we can see, the newcomers manage to interact with the local folks. But, according to the mayor, the local inhabitants “don’t learn much from the practical, well-disciplined, correct Dutch.” He claims that the language barrier prevents closer interaction. Still, the mayor of the village, Dr. Roland Lakos, who in addition to Hungarian speaks only Russian and therefore doesn’t have much interaction with the Dutch inhabitants of the village, included a Dutch translation of the description of Csemő on its website. It claims to be “one of the most flowery villages” of Hungary. From the video I must say it looks like a very pleasant place.

September 16, 2017

Germany and the Syrian refugees

A Hungarian-language article on Angela Merkel’s current political problems stemming from the refugee crisis was titled “Merkel is either stupid or she knows something.” The quotation is from a German source. I don’t think too many people view Merkel as a stupid, naive politician carried away by emotions. But then, people ask, why does she insist on an increasingly unpopular immigration policy?

One can only guess at her motives, but I believe her decision to stick with her original pro-immigration policy is motivated by moral as well as pragmatic considerations. Only a few days ago she harshly criticized the eastern European governments for not having learned anything from their history. “The eastern Europeans–and I’m counting myself as an eastern European–we have experience that isolation doesn’t help… It makes me a bit sad that precisely those who can consider themselves lucky that they have lived to see the end of the Cold War now think that one can completely stay out of certain developments of globalization…. A rejection [of taking refugees in] as a matter of principle, that is–excuse me for being that blunt–that’s a danger for Europe.” A few hours later in the European Parliament she was outspoken about the Christian Europe that must be defended when she declared: “When someone says: ‘This is not my Europe, I won’t accept Muslims…’ Then I have to say this is not negotiable.”

There is also a pragmatic side to the issue: Germany’s need for a demographic injection. A country’s fertility rate must be at least 2.2 to maintain the size of the population. In Germany ever since 1972 the fertility rate has been lower than that. It hovers around 1.2-1.3. If Germany were only for the native-born, its population would shrink precipitously. Germany already has a large immigrant population. Out of a population of approximately 80 million 16 million people are first- or second-generation immigrants. And their numbers are steadily growing. So, immigration is a fact of life in Germany. It is only the size of the present wave that comes as a shock to the Germans.

It is true that Angela Merkel was critical of what in Germany and some other European countries is called “multi-culturalism,” which in practice means parallel communities living side by side. In Germany this was especially true of the Turkish guest workers because the understanding in those days was that their stay was temporary, and therefore there was no attempt to integrate them into German society. In the last few years, however, the attitude toward immigrants in Germany has changed dramatically. The new arrivals are already hard at work learning the language, and children are enrolled in special classes. The challenge is enormous but Merkel is optimistic. A Hungarian immigrant in Germany who teaches math somewhere in Westphalia phoned György Bolgár yesterday and related her experiences. Some of the children have been in Germany for three months and know a little German, others have just arrived. One teen-aged girl in her class had only three years of schooling. But children learn fast. She enjoys the challenge.

Abcúg.hu published a fascinating piece on how Berliners are coping with the refugee crisis and how Germans are integrating the new immigrants. The refugees spend a few months in hostels until they receive asylum. One of the hostel workers is a Hungarian immigrant herself. The lodging where she works has 400 beds, and soon enough it will have accommodations for 100 more. It is like a dormitory but occupied mostly by families. Syrians receive 400 euros for housing and 400 for living expenses, and a 660 to 960-hour “integration course,” 600 hours of which is set aside for German lessons. The German course tries to prepare the refugee to pass the B1 language test. If he fails the test, he gets another 300 hours of language training. Sixty hours remain for German history and culture as well as for the study of the principles of equal rights and toleration, ideas essential for integration into European culture.

Refugee hostel in Berling

Refugee hostel in Berlin

Civic organizations try to link up immigrants with employers running small companies. One organizer was afraid that it would be difficult to convince German businessmen to hire foreigners, but the experiment has worked. The employers are happy with their new employees, especially since some young Germans wouldn’t accept the kinds of jobs they can offer.

Another Hungarian immigrant who taught German in Hungary now teaches German to children and adults in Berlin. She is convinced that the Syrians will learn German and will be gainfully employed. “With that much help it will be achieved. The great dilemma is whether they will understand everyday cultural differences. For example, that if their child is slapped by a German classmate it is not because he is a Muslim but because this was the way they settled their argument. Or, that the obstetrician is not anti-Muslim when he tells a seven-month pregnant woman that she shouldn’t observe Ramadan.” The teacher continues, “the Syrians are very determined.” They don’t understand how it is possible that some Turks living in Germany still cannot speak the language. They don’t want to find themselves in a similar situation.

Many followers of Viktor Orbán’s anti-migrant policy argue that it is easy for Germany to be generous because “they are rich.” But as one of the aid-workers told the reporter of abcúg.hu, “the money by itself wouldn’t be enough, you need the volunteers and the right attitude.”

The people who are helping the refugees are optimistic, so are the refugees. As am I. Eventually the exodus will slow. As for Angela Merkel, once the initial problems are solved, there will be fewer critics.

The Orbán government’s anti-immigrant stance

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.

immigrant workersOf 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.