Pope Francis’ Hungary Visit Should Stress Need for Empathy Towards Refugees

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Pope Francis unveils a sculpture on the theme of refugees and migration titled, ‘Angels Unawares’, by Canadian sculptor Timothy P. Schmalz, on Migrant and Refugee World Day, in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, September 29, 2019.
© 2019 Andrew Medichini/AP Images

On September 12, Budapest will welcome the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, a Pope whose message constantly called for welcoming migrants and refugees. But Hungary’s treatment of people seeking protection is a far cry from Pope Francis’ calls for protection of those fleeing violence and persecution.

With 60 percent of Hungarians identifying as Catholic, the Pope’s visit will be a cause for celebration. It should also be an opportunity to reflect on how Prime Minister Orban’s government has engaged in unwelcoming, hostile, and hateful policies against those seeking protection. Those policies have been described by some religious leaders in Hungary as “un-Christian.”

Hungary engages in violent pushbacks at its border with Serbia, forcing those seeking safety out of the country. Restrictions in the past meant that only a handful of people can claim asylum at the border per week. Now, nominally due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the border is closed. The few that make the cut face lengthy detention while their claims are processed. In detention, children are denied education. Some people acquire mental health conditions as a result of being unjustly locked up behind bars. Orban’s government also gained infamy for denying food to asylum seekers trapped at its border with Serbia to deter others from coming.

The Hungarian government, under Orban’s leadership, has for years shown cynicism and indifference to the plight of those fleeing war and persecution. Instead of helping people, it has stirred up xenophobia through public campaigns, defied international refugee law by blocking access to protection, often violently, hampered groups trying to help refugees, and dismantled aid to those few granted protection in Hungary.

Recently, Pope Francis called on countries to welcome and protect Afghans fleeing the Taliban in Afghanistan. Orban, initially on the fence about joining international efforts to evacuate at-risk Afghans, finally did authorize a military airlift of 240 people out of Afghanistan. But instead of processing rescued Afghans as asylum seekers, authorities are reportedly treating them as illegal migrants.

Pope Francis will see little of his messages on refugees reflected in government policies in Hungary. Pope Francis should use his time in the country to remind all Hungarians to call on their government to show respect and humanity for those in need of support and protection.

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