‘Everyone here wants to help you’: International Co-operation, Refugee Rights, and the 1956 Hungarian Refugee Crisis

By Becky Taylor

Recent weeks have seen increasingly high-profile and desperate attempts by undocumented migrants trying to enter the Channel Tunnel or cross the razor wire borders into Turkey or Hungary. Media has also shown scenes of distressed Syrian families trying to gain entry to Budapest station after it was cordoned off by police, and has reported in grim detail the discovery of a lorry in eastern Austria containing the decomposing bodies of ‘between twenty and fifty’ migrants attempting to cross Europe. While thousands of migrants have been rescued from boats in the Mediterranean, from Libya to Greece and Italy border patrols and rescuers have also been picking up the bodies of those who drowned. The UNHCR reported that in the first six months of this year 1,867 people died attempting the crossing, with the toll rising weekly throughout the summer to hit over 2,600 by the beginning of September. The image of a rescue worker carrying the body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi –  who along with his five-year-old brother Galip and their mother, Rehan, was drowned in the family’s attempt to escape their embattled home city of Kobani – encapsulated for many the horrendous choices facing those fleeing conflict.


Hungarian Refugees in Austria, 1956 Photo Credit: UNHCR

Increasingly, Europeans are understanding that those who embark on the dangerous journey to Europe is one of necessity rather than choice, the reality is that ‘no one puts their children in a boat, unless the water is safer than the land. If there is anything welcome about these appalling scenarios which are rolling across our screens daily, it is that finally, it seems, ordinary European citizens have begun responding with compassion. Austria, not traditionally known for its open-hearted welcome of foreigners, saw a pro-migrant march attracting 20,000 people. Germany’s Flüchtlinge Willkommen (Refugees Welcome) has begun a scheme to match householders with recently arrived refugees, to ensure that they can find accommodation and are not ghettoised in over-crowded and isolated hostels and camps. At the end of August, football supporters in a number of stadiums across Germany unfurled banners declaring ‘Refugees Welcome’. Migrant Offshore Aid Station, a charity running search and rescue boats across the central Mediterranean reported donations of €180,000 in the twenty-four hours following reports of Aylan Kurdi’s death, while fifteen thousand Icelanders petitioned their government to increase its refugee quota. In Britain, after even the right-wing tabloid press, as represented by the Daily Mail and The Sun, led with sympathetic accounts of Aylan Kurdi’s drowning, the shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper called for Britain to accept ten thousand Syrian refugees. The Telegraph reported the Labour politician’s stance approvingly. While there are still those who are seemingly implacably opposed to the entry of undocumented migrants, Merkel’s call for an integrated European and international response seems to be gaining ground.

It is perhaps time to step back and indeed ask if there is another way of responding to refugee crises than building fences and ever-strengthening the borders of Fortress Europe. Recent history provides compelling examples. Next year will see the sixtieth anniversary of the Hungarian uprising, and the exodus of approximately 200,000 refugees who fled the Soviet invasion. It was the first refugee movement of Cold War Europe, and the first to be played out after the 1951 Refugee Convention and the creation of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Equally significantly, it was the first major crisis to be televised, and people across the world were shocked to see the scenes of fighting in Budapest and of people trudging through the darkness and snow to reach the Austrian border.

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Hungarian women and children flee Hungary, 1956 Photo Credit: UNHCR

In Britain, spurred on by these Pathé/ Movietone newsreels and graphically illustrated press accounts, the public’s response was manifest across class and political divides in multiple and diverse ways. Statements supporting the uprising and condemning the Soviet Union were issued by numerous national figures including the Prime Minister, prominent members of the Labour Party, the Archbishop of Canterbury and in debates in the House of Commons. Reactions in Britain, in common with the rest of Western Europe, included demonstrations in support of the Hungarians, protests across university campuses and mass resignations of British Communist Party members. Outrage was also expressed by trade unions with, for example, British dockers refusing to handle any Soviet ships.

When it became clear that the refugees would not be able to return to Hungary, nor could they stay in the over-crowded make-shift camps, it did not take long for public outrage and sympathy to be translated into offers of practical support. Very quickly the British government announced that it would be admitting 2,500 Hungarians ‘in the shortest possible time,’ with the Ministry of Labour declaring that it was ‘prepared to allow the refugees to work anywhere where employment was available’. However, the extent of the crisis meant that the British offer fell far short of what was needed. Wanting to learn from the mistakes of the end of the Second World War which had seen Displaced Persons still lingering in unsatisfactory camps for years, the UNHCR was determined to galvanise international effort to resettle the refugees as quickly as possible. The 1951 Convention was used as the basis for deciding that, as well as providing protection for individuals seeking asylum, it also covered a group arriving en masse, so that the Hungarians could be recognised ‘prima facie‘ as refugees, thus removing the need to assess each individual case.

The overwhelming numbers of refugees entering Austria – 55,00 by the 21st November, 60,000 by the 23rd and 92,000 by the 28th November – created a forceful context in which the UNHCR was able to apply strong moral pressure on Western governments to engage in the principle of ‘burden sharing’. The momentum of international outrage and action combined in Britain with the debacle of the Suez crisis (which spanned the same short weeks and had seriously tarnished the international reputations of both Britain and France) to push the government into accepting 20,000 refugees. This needs to be understood as simply one small part of a global operation which saw Hungarian refugees being accepted by 37 different nations on all five continents. The United States and Canada each took in around 40,000, Germany and Australia some 15,000 each, with two African and twelve Latin American countries also accepting the Hungarians. Overall the UNHCR co-ordinated the settlement of 100,000 people within the first ten weeks of the crisis, with most of the rest of the refugees finding a third country to accept them by the spring of 1957. Such immediate and active response from governments and individuals alike stood in stark contrast to the reception of Jewish refugees in the 1930s. And, indeed, to the crisis we currently find ourselves facing.

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Hungarian refugees receiving food aid, 1956 Photo Credit: UNHRC

Responses from the British public to the arrival of these refugees indicated that they were firmly behind the international operation. The British Council for Aid to Refugees received ten thousand letters in the first two weeks of the crisis from households and organisations offering accommodation for the incoming refugees. Clothing worth £650,000 (approximately £14 million in today’s money), bedding and household goods were donated at collection depots across the country while the Lord Mayor’s Appeal collected £2.5 million in a matter of weeks. The Women’s Voluntary Service collected, sorted and distributed clothing, opening extra collection centres and sorting sessions right across the country. In the first fortnight of its opening, the central sorting depot in London had an average of forty people working daily sorting nearly 100,000 garments, and sent reports of people arriving with sacks of clothes and leaving having also donated the coats off their backs.

For householders opening their homes to individual refugees and families there was various forms of support: the possibility of receiving National Assistance Board payments, regular visits from WVS volunteers and advice and language guides to help smooth over difficulties. These covered everything from the different styles of bed making of the two countries, to how to make goulash and how to register with the local doctor. The British hosts were not above self-congratulation. The special Anglo-Hungarian phrase list issued by The Times Educational Supplement aimed to ‘give a few useful phrases and hints to English hosts who are unable to communicate with their guests.’ Alongside basic words and expressions the list provided the Hungarian for phrases such as ‘you do not need papers to walk around,’ ‘we have no secret police,’ and ‘everybody here wants to help you. The English people are giving much money to help the Hungarians.’

All this is not to suggest that accepting 20,000 Hungarians into Britain in a few short weeks was without its problems. British people became upset when they realised that many Hungarians in fact did not want to come to Britain, but saw themselves as being in transit for North America. There were tensions at the local level when young Hungarian men, used to being feted at ‘freedom fighters’, courted local women, behaved chaotically, got drunk and started fights, or when trade unions saw them as competing locally for work. Yet, beneath the superficial tensions, the reality was that 200,000 refugees were found new countries, homes and jobs in a matter of months, the majority of whom doing their best to make the transition as quickly as possible.

In 1956 it was a combination of a sympathetic media, keen to portray the vulnerability of the refugees in the face of the Soviet oppressor, genuine public empathy, and concerted pressure from the United Nations which facilitated the unprecedented and rapid resettlement of the refugees. Recent media and public opinion have shown similar levels of empathy for those fleeing Islamic State or the terrors of civil war. If, as Cameron has now suggested, Britain will accept some Syrian refugees direct from the Syrian border, then perhaps this is a signal that the tide is turning. It is time for the UNHCR and national governments to re-visit some of the characteristics of the Hungarian relief operation, and to re-engage with the principle of burden sharing, international co-operation and refugee rights.


becky-276x300Becky Taylor is an interdisciplinary historian specializing in 20th century social history. Becky is particularly interested in the relationship between the state and minorities, migration and discourses of inclusion on marginal groups. She is the author of Another Darkness, Another Dawn: A History of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers (London, 2014)