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Hungarian Ambassador Clarifies Hungary's Migrant Policy


And let's talk about this now with Reka Szemerkenyi. She is Hungary's ambassador to the United States - just arrived at that posting earlier this year. Welcome to the United States and to the program.

REKA SZEMERKENYI: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: So help us understand what Hungary's objective is then in taking migrants who arrive at one side of the country and just shipping them through the other.

SZEMERKENYI: Well, the migration wave that has been arriving in Europe since the beginning of this year is really a massive pressure and a big challenge for all of us. The commitment that Hungary has taken when joining the European Union, and especially when joining the Schengen zone, which is, you know, the passport-free...

INSKEEP: The borderless area, yeah.

SZEMERKENYI: ...The passport-free travel area of the European Union, is to protect for our common border and to protect the security of every member of the Schengen zone. So we have a responsibility for the rest of European Union countries as well. That is why border registration was taken very seriously. This is a major achievement of the European integration process - one that everybody likes in Hungary. And part of the registration process is, of course, the photos, the identification of those people who request asylum status, fingerprinting and making through the very detailed description of the Dublin agreement. We wanted to live up to this commitment that we took because this is in the interest of all the European Union countries.

INSKEEP: I understand that, but we just heard there the latest of quite a number of news stories that suggest that Hungarians are notably reluctant to take migrants in, that you'd rather keep them out or move them on. Is that an accurate impression?

SZEMERKENYI: I think there's a very large untold story of how the situation developed in Hungary. And what you can see is that, in reality, the camps that were established to provide food, shelter, medication and even schooling for the children of the migrant families for the duration of their stay in Hungary is totally untold in the international media. I think the empathy that was expressed was a large part of this - of the Hungarian society's reaction. However, what we could see is - was that empathy is not enough. A large majority of these people do not want to stay in Hungary. They have an intention to go forward and to go into Germany and Austria. And obviously they did not want to use those facilities that were provided for them. This did not mean that they were not provided shelter or food. The large number of volunteer organizations in cooperation with the government on the ground proved this.

INSKEEP: You are pointing out a reality that we've also heard from reporting on the ground that Hungarians may not be happy about the migrants coming, but the migrants were not eager to necessarily stop in Hungary either. They want to move on to other countries.

SZEMERKENYI: We have a major challenge in Europe and I think that is something we have to respond to in a collective way in the spirit of European solidarity and also in the spirit of common interest as well. What we have to see is that empathy alone is not enough. We have to develop a response to the root causes of the problem.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask a couple of questions about the migrants because they are arriving in Hungary and some of them are staying. The prime minister has been quoted - the prime minister of your country has been quoted saying that he was concerned about Europe's Christian character being changed by migrants who are Muslim. You're smiling as I say that. Is that an accurate reflection of what his concern is and is that actually a real concern that many Hungarians have?

SZEMERKENYI: The fact is that this is a massive number of migrants of Muslim background, but that does not mean that a massive number of - the same number coming from China would not pose a problem. Obviously, we have a cultural heritage that we very much treasure. But at the same time, what is a challenge is this massive number of people arriving in the continent. The prime minister also established very clearly his admiration and his support for the Muslim faith and Muslim culture. We have also Muslim community in Hungary with which we have lived in peace and cooperation for many decades. So I think it's not a question. What is at stake, however, is a common European security zone, which we are responsible for a part of the border of.

INSKEEP: And where you've put up fencing and so forth. I'm curious also - we've heard on this program from a writer from the Economist magazine who suggested that the migrants are actually an opportunity for Europe because there are many zones, including, by the way, large parts of Hungary, that have been depopulated and here's new population. Here are new people coming with new energy and some of them are middle class, certainly not all of them, but that there's an opportunity there. Do you see an opportunity for Hungary at all in this?

SZEMERKENYI: Just one sentence on the fencing issue because of course building a fence is not a labor of love. This is not something that we would like to see there for a long period of time. It is an immediate solution for being able to live up to the registration requirement that we established...

INSKEEP: Understood.

SZEMERKENYI: ...Which is - which means also that the border is open at those points.

INSKEEP: Understood. People - you want people to go to the specified places. In just a few seconds, though, do you see an opportunity here for Hungary and for Europe?

SZEMERKENYI: I think there - every country has a right to decide the level of absorption that they need for their own economies and their own societies. And that is very clear that we have to have our own decisions in Germany for the Germans, in Hungary for the Hungarians. It is an individual question for those countries. We have a common responsibility, however, for our common European zone.

INSKEEP: OK. Reka Szemerkenyi, the ambassador from Hungary to the United States, thanks for coming by this morning.

SZEMERKENYI: Thank you very much for the invitation.

INSKEEP: And you were listening to her on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.