Some of the first arrivals at Traiskirchen Camp, near Vienna. Within three months, 200,000 Hungarians had escaped to Austria and Yugoslavia.
On October 23, 1956, a student demonstration in the Hungarian capital Budapest triggered one of the tensest periods of the Cold War, as well as a remarkable response to the ensuing refugee crisis which brought substantial benefits to future generations of refugees all across the world.
I remember the Hungarian uprising – I was 14 years old.
“As October 23 progressed, tens of thousands of people poured on to the streets – and the initial demonstration in support of the restive population of Poland quickly turned into a full-scale revolt against the regime and its Soviet masters, which for a few heady days seemed to have succeeded.
However, the Soviet tanks rolled back into Budapest on November 4, and the revolution was soon crushed. The city endured days of heavy shelling and street battles, and people started to flee to neighbouring Austria.”
During the weekend of November 4-6, some 10,000 Hungarians entered Austria. Entire classes – even entire schools – began crossing the loosely guarded border. Students, teachers, doctors, famous athletes and footballers, farmers, architects and laborers all started streaming in to Austria.
It was the first major crisis to appear on television, as well as in newspapers and on cinema newsreels, and people across the world were shocked to see the scenes from Budapest and the snow-covered border.
By November 16, the number of refugees had risen to 36,000 and as of the end of November, it stood at 113,000. By the time the borders were sealed, a total of 200,000 had fled (180,000 to Austria and 20,000 to Yugoslavia).
How quickly the Hungarians have forgotten.
Within days of the exodus starting, an extraordinary operation sprang up in Austria, not only to care for the refugees, but to move them out of the country almost as fast as they arrived. In the end, 180,000 were resettled from Austria and Yugoslavia to 37 countries. The performance of the Austrians, the aid agencies and the resettlement countries has rarely, if ever, been matched since.
“Within a few days of the first refugees arriving, a massive effort was launched to resettle the Hungarians. Over the following months, they were transferred by bus, train, boat and plane to 37 different nations on five continents. The United States and Canada each took in around 40,000, while the United Kingdom accepted 20,000 and Germany and Australia some 15,000 each. Two African and 12 Latin American countries also took in Hungarians.”
Many of the Hungarians crossed the borders with the help of smugglers, and many arrived without ID papers – but it did not tarnish their image or impede their acceptance as refugees. In some ways little has changed in the world of refugees, except perhaps that 60 years later the world seems much less inclined to respond with such spontaneous hospitality.
Today Hungary builds a wall – a la Donald Trump – and threatens to put troops on its borders with Serbia. Refugees carrying children walk across Hungary, wanting only to leave it as quickly as possible, harassed by Police and kicked by photographers.
“There is no fundamental right to a better life” – Hungarian Prime Minster Viktor Orban. Send them back where they came from – those camps in Turkey and Jordan were fine.
Now Hungary prepares trains, telling refugees first that the train would take them to Vienna – only to take them to a “camp” – where guards throw food through the barbed wire fence for men, women and children to fight over.
Shades of the Arrow Cross.
Shame on Hungary.