Down and out in Budapest: Somali refugees face winter struggle

Telling the Human Story, 27 January 2010

© UNHCR/B.Szandelszky
An African refugee drinks a cup of coffee in a Budapest homeless shelter while pondering his future.

BUDAPEST, Hungary, January 27 (UNHCR) Abdurrahman* has dodged bullets in his native Mogadishu and endured tremendous hardship to reach Europe, but he says nothing has been as bad as his experiences in the Hungarian capital.

"This has been the worst week of my life," the young Somali refugee, clutching a cup of coffee in his freezing hands, told UNHCR visitors who ran into him sitting on a bench in a downtown Budapest square and took him to a nearby café.

Like many other Somalis granted asylum status in Hungary, Abdurrahman did not realize that European Union regulations allowed him to visit other states for up to 30 days but not to settle there. He joined relatives in Britain, but was detained and sent back to Budapest last December under the so-called Dublin II regulation. This requires asylum seekers to remain in the country where they apply for asylum, which is normally their first point of entry into Europe.

Those sent back to Budapest often find that they face difficulties finding housing and have lost some benefits, including an integration grant equivalent to about 620 euros. They can apply for social security benefit of 100 euros per month, but it takes time to process the request.

With winter upon us, time is something that many of them can't afford. UNHCR believes that up to 50 Somalis are living in a precarious situation, either forced to sleep rough or in shelters for the homeless. Many must resort to begging.

With the onset of winter, their welfare has become a matter of serious concern to UNHCR, which last month called on the Hungarian government and the city authorities to take emergency measures to help the homeless refugees.

"We need an immediate solution for the refugees in Hungary as temperatures are dropping below zero [degrees Centigrade]," warned Gottfried Köfner, UNHCR's Budapest-based regional representative. "The government has to look at the structural shortcomings of an integration system that leaves refugees in such distress, with no effective opportunity to find a job, a house or live in dignity in Hungary," he added.

Abdurrahman's experience in Europe mirrors that of many of his compatriots. After first arriving in Hungary and getting recognition as refugees, they are usually transferred to a special centre in Bicske, west of Budapest, which provides them with lessons in Hungarian and other integration support.

They spend up to six months in Bicske and then they are more or less on their own. It is at this stage that many decide to move to other countries, especially the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries and the United Kingdom.

A number of Somalis told UNHCR that the lack of employment and vocational training opportunities, difficulty in finding housing, language problems, fear of racist attacks and the virtual impossibility of reuniting with their families in Hungary were key reasons for leaving.

Omar,* aged 21, said he decided to go to Finland a few months after getting asylum because he did not think he could survive in Hungary. He had started a computer course in Helsinki before he was sent home after trying, in his ignorance about the rules, to apply for asylum again.

When UNHCR caught up with him in mid-December, Omar was staying at a homeless shelter in Budapest. He was worried about surviving the winter because the shelter was due to close for renovation.

Abdurrahman went straight to Manchester in the UK after he was granted asylum in early 2008. "I had everything. I was in Manchester with my uncle and his family. They took good care of me. I was taking language classes and preparing to go to school," he revealed, adding bitterly: "Now I have nothing."

The young man, who fled from Mogadishu to escape rampant violence, claimed he was left at Budapest Airport. "I had no money, no warm clothes and knew nobody in Hungary," recalled Abdurrahman, who ended up spending three nights sleeping rough in central Budapest's Blaha Lujza Square.

Cold, hungry, dirty, and scared of skinheads, he made his way to the only place he knew the Bicske centre. Fellow Somalis looked after him before he was discovered by security guards and told to leave. "They put my photo up at the entrance as though I were a criminal. But I just had no other place to go."

When UNHCR talked to Abdurrahman, he could not even stay in a homeless shelter because he needs to show an ID card, an address card and a medical certificate showing that he is not suffering from any contagious disease. All he has is a boarding pass for the London-Budapest flight that wrecked his dream.

He can get all this documentation with the help of the Office for Immigration and Nationality, but it needs language skills and time. UNHCR hopes that its intervention, aimed at solving the housing crisis for refugees and helping to improve Hungary's integration policies including the right to work and live in dignified conditions will help people like Abdurrahman.

* Names changed for protection reasons

By Zoltan Toth and Melita H. Šunjić in Budapest, Hungary