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Hungarian refugee crisis presented Ireland with a new challenge

News Stories, 6 November 2006

© UNHCR/S.O'Brien
Former Hungarian refugee Anna Lehota returns to visit the Knocklisheen camp with a Catholic nun who used to teach there.

DUBLIN, Ireland, November 6 (UNHCR) The Hungarian refugee crisis of 1956 was the first major test for the UN refugee agency as some 200,000 people fled the central European nation. It also provided a tough new challenge for Ireland, one of the 37 nations to accept Hungarians for resettlement.

When Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest to crush the Hungarian uprising against the country's communist regime and its Kremlin masters, Ireland was an economically deprived country on the fringes of Europe. Its people had been heading overseas in droves for decades, seeking a better future in countries like Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States.

But the relatively young republic was quick to answer the call when UNHCR and its partners sought help in resettling the tens of thousands of Hungarians who had fled overseas to escape the Soviet advance. In its first foray into the resettlement of refugees, Ireland accepted 541 Hungarians amid widespread domestic support.

On their arrival in Ireland, the refugees were accommodated by the Irish Red Cross in a disused army barracks at Knocklisheen in the west of the country. Despite all the good intentions, problems soon arose and in the end most of the refugees left for Canada in 1957 and 1958 with the help of UNHCR.

Language proved to be a major barrier, and few supports for integration existed. In 1957, some refugees went on hunger strike in protest at a lack of work and their poor living conditions. But while it was a difficult learning curve for the Irish authorities, some refugees made a go of things in Ireland.

"Knocklisheen was a milestone in our lives; it was an end and a beginning. The end of our dreams, a dream of freedom, democracy, a healthy life in our own country, terminated by Soviet guns and tanks. A new beginning, the beginning of an emigrants life, living in a strange country, homeless, jobless, not speaking the language, and wondering what will happen next," recalled former camp resident Anna Letoha.

"Thank God Ireland and the Irish people welcomed us with open arms," the 75-year-old added during a recent ceremony at Knocklisheen to mark the 50th anniversary of the refugees' arrival in Ireland following the October 23, 1956 uprising in Budapest.

Letoha decided to settle in Ireland with her husband and four-year-old daughter, finding a job and acquiring Irish citizenship. She has returned to Hungary several times since the fall of communism more than a decade ago, but feels Ireland is now home.

While Letoha is among the few that stayed in Ireland, other Hungarians who migrated to North America feel a debt of gratitude to Ireland, which has advanced economically and socially in leaps and bounds since 1956 and is now seen as a highly attractive resettlement destination by refugees.

"In Austria, we were desperate. Rumours were flying around that the Soviets would cross the border and haul us all back.... In the Austrian camp, several countries maintained offices, but said they would not take any more refugees," said Ted Vanya, who lives in the Canadian city of Toronto.

Then his father-in-law spotted a notice pinned to a tree saying that Ireland would admit refugees. . "It said that they preferred Catholic families, promised work and promised assistance to leave Ireland for other countries if desired," he added in a an e-mail message from Canada.

Elation at resettlement soon turned to disillusion. The Knocklisheen camp was not suitable for families and Vanya said that "very shortly it became obvious that the Irish economy could not supply work and a permanent home for us."

He and his family moved to Canada in August 1957 and Vanya carved out a successful career as a papermill chemist and also lectured at the University of Toronto. But the former refugee remains impressed by Irish hospitality and said he would never forget the kindness and generosity he received, without which he believes he could never have succeeded.

Knocklisheen has also moved on; today it is a state-of-the-art reception centre with a playground, crèche, computer room, clinic and large modern kitchen staffed by professional caterers. It can house up to 450 asylum seekers.

Ireland is one of only 17 countries round the world with a resettlement programme and last year raised its resettlement quota from about 40 individuals per year to 200. And it all began with the 541 Hungarian refugees welcomed to Irish shores half-a-century ago.




UNHCR country pages

Looking Back: When Hungary's Borders with Austria Opened for East Germans

It's not often that a single sentence can send a photographer rushing into action, but Hungarian photographer Barnabas Szabo did not have to hear more than that of then-Hungarian Foreign Minister Guyla Horn's televised announcement 25 years ago - September 10, 1989 - that at midnight Hungary would open its border with Austria and let East German refugees leave the country. "After the very first sentence I jumped up, took my camera, ran to my old Trabant and set off for the border," he recalled. The effect of Hungary's momentous decision was freedom for tens of thousands of East Germans who had been streaming into Hungary since May. At first they found refuge in the West German embassy, but as numbers grew, refugee camps were set up in Budapest and on the shores of Lake Balaton. The collapse of the Berlin Wall followed less than two months later. Communism was swept from Eastern Europe by the end of 1989. Another Hungarian photographer, Tamas Szigeti, who visited the abandoned refugee camp at Csilleberc the following day, recorded the haste in which people departed, leaving clothes, toys and even half-cooked dinners. No matter how uncertain the new life beckoning to them, the East Germans were clearly ready to leave fear and the Communist dictatorship behind forever.

Looking Back: When Hungary's Borders with Austria Opened for East Germans

Hungarian Crisis - 50th Anniversary

The spontaneous Hungarian uprising began on 23 October 1956. Two weeks later, the revolution was crushed by a Soviet military intervention, and by early 1957, 200,000 people had fled as refugees - 180,000 to Austria and 20,000 to Yugoslavia.

Hundreds of volunteers worked alongside international and local aid organizations to provide shelter and food, as the Austrians and the international community provided the refugees with an unprecedented level of support.

UNHCR was made 'Lead Agency' and, along with the Red Cross and ICEM, helped coordinate protection, assistance and a quite extraordinary resettlement programme.

Within two years, more than 180,000 Hungarians were resettled to 37 countries spanning five continents. The US, Canada, the UK, West Germany, Australia, Switzerland, France, Sweden and Belgium each accepted more than 5,000 refugees. Italy, the Netherlands, Israel, Brazil, Norway, Denmark, South Africa, New Zealand and Argentina all took over 1,000. The rest were spread around a further 19 countries ranging from the Dominican Republic to Turkey. Some Hungarians were integrated in Austria (8,000) and Yugoslavia (700), while 11,000 returned home voluntarily.

More in Refugees Magazine Issue N° 144: Where Are They Now? The Hungarian Refugees, 50 Years On (published October 2006) here

Hungarian Crisis - 50th Anniversary

Hungary: Beginning to HelpPlay video

Hungary: Beginning to Help

Refugees and migrants continue to arrive from Serbia into Hungary in by the thousands. But now, thanks to requests from the Hungarian government,UNHCR is helping in bringing order and more speed to dealing with the newcomers.
Hungary: Stranded in BudapestPlay video

Hungary: Stranded in Budapest

Outside the Keleti train station in Budapest, over 3,000 refugees wait to continue their journey. For two days now, they have been stuck here after Hungarian authorities closed off the station, preventing all refugees from taking trains bound for Austria and Germany.