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Gyorgy Kakuk: ‘In the Footsteps of Refugees’

Journalist-turned-politician Gyorgy Kakuk has become an important voice on migration in Hungarian politics. Having followed refugee routes through the Balkans and worked with U.N. Missions in Kosovo and East Timor, he calls for imagination and pragmatism from Europe.

Written by Alexandra Tohme and Preethi Nallu Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Photo credit and caption for the image: Gyorgy Kakuk at Lesvos Island, where refugees arrived in the hundreds and sometimes thousands on a daily basis over 2015 and into early 2016.Gyorgy Kakuk

From his journey on foot alongside refugees through the Balkans to his participation in U.N. peacekeeping missions in Kosovo, Gyorgy Kakuk has been on the front lines of refugee influxes to Europe since the early 1990s.

As a vocal proponent of pragmatic policies to deal with refugees across the European continent, he has become a voice of reason at home in Hungary amid what he calls “political pandemonium.”

Kakuk, an investigative journalist who unearthed under-reported stories and a former U.N. diplomat who observed the roots of displacement in former Yugoslavian states and conflict-ridden East Timor, has lent his understanding of forced migration to Hungarian politics. He is currently a member of the Democratic Coalition, an opposition party that has contested Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s anti-migration policies.

Kakuk spoke with Refugees Deeply about how Europe lacks imagination and insight in dealing with the current waves of migration. He urges a different perspective in moving forward, one that is both humane and solution-oriented.

To get a first-hand taste of the daily struggles of refugees seeking safe havens, Kakuk felt compelled to “follow in the footsteps” of large groups of people crossing from the Balkans to Greece. Given his experience along the same borders during the 1990s, he draws parallels between the European political landscape during the Yugoslavian refugee crisis and today’s so-called European refugee crisis. He also points to the irony of the same former Yugoslavian states that produced refugees now breaking away from “European solidarity” toward these newer arrivals.

Refugees Deeply: You have experienced first hand the border crossings both before and after the E.U.-Turkey deal. What has changed since the E.U.-Turkey deal?

Gyorgy Kakuk: The E.U.-Turkey deal basically shut down the entire Balkan route. Refugees are now trapped. Meanwhile, Hungary has been building a fence along its borders, but this doesn’t stop the refugee flow. It is simply a political act intended for the Hungarian electorate. It is not a solution. All it did was shift the route toward Croatia and Slovenia.

On the Hungarian–Serbian border there are so-called transit zones where refugees can apply for asylum and wait for judgment. Most of them are not getting asylum. The process is very slow. Hundreds of people are hiding in the bushes in no man’s land on the other side of the fence, with no shelter, food, water or medical treatment. Sometimes we are able to bring them assistance, other times not. It’s very circumstantial and ad hoc and there is no system in place.

Refugees Deeply: How is this refugee crisis changing or affecting European politics?

Kakuk: It changes the entire European political landscape dramatically, because the European center in any country – whether they are center-right or center-left – are suffering losses, because the far-right populist rhetoric and the xenophobia that it represents are becoming more popular. Why? European political elites have not been able to explain to their electorate what is really happening with the numbers. If you look at the numbers, we are talking about a European Union that has 500 million people and in 2015 received 1 million refugees. They need to put that into perspective with Jordan or Lebanon. Lebanon, for example, is a country of 4.4 million people that received 1.4 million new refugees.

The problem in Europe is that the entire public and political sphere is so hysterical that you cannot start real discussions on real issues. For example, we need to talk about the needs of the European labor market in an aging European society. If it wants to sustain the economic growth, it needs new people, because Europe is aging, especially the former welfare states like Germany, Holland or those of Scandinavia.

Let’s look at the case of Hungary. Over the past six years Hungary lost 500,000 people who left to work in another E.U. country. Land Rover brought a new factory to Europe, and Hungary applied for it to be in the country. But Land Rover didn’t bring it to Hungary because it didn’t see a secure labor force for that factory. Yet, you cannot talk about these issues because the public in Europe is so hysterical since the political rhetoric raised hatred and fear among the population. And now we are arriving at a very dangerous stage in which European governments are adopting new laws to curtail civic rights.

The European Union is lacking vision in how to handle this crisis. The best they were able to do is this dubious E.U.-Turkey deal, which is basically just outsourcing human rights violations from the European Union to Turkey.

Refugees Deeply: Can you talk more about the E.U.-Turkey deal and what you have seen on the ground?

Kakuk: It has an unbelievable effect. Recently, I visited the major spots along the Turkish shore where the refugees used to leave to head to the Greek islands. One thing you cannot find in this area is police. It seemed that closing down the refugee flow from Turkey to Europe was not a law-enforcement operation. It was like someone picked up the phone and said, “OK, guys, as of tomorrow stop it.” And now, you cannot see a single Turkish police officer on the shores. They’re not there. The refugee flow was basically turned off overnight, like a tap in your kitchen. One day you have 4,000 refugees arriving at the Greek islands and the next day you have close to zero. What is this? Is it real?

Refugees Deeply: What are the implications of the E.U.-Turkey deal?

Kakuk: It gives huge blackmailing potential to Turkey because if they were able to turn this off, it means they are able to turn this on whenever they want, and of course there are conditions. If conditions are met, Turkey is going to be rewarded through the 3 billion euro “plus” aid deal [in exchange for a commitment to stem the flow of refugees into Europe], including visa-free travel to the E.U. and the renewal of the accession talks between Turkey and the E.U.

If any part of this deal is not met for Turkey, Turkey has a potential to open this flow up.

We all know that more than 50 percent of the refugees are Syrian war refugees. Nobody – not the E.U., not the U.S. – is adequately dealing with the Syrian war. There needs to be more foreign policy impetus to resolving this conflict and addressing the cause of the refugee outflow, such as implementing a no-fly zone or safe havens for Syrians to have protection.

Refugees Deeply: How would you compare the Yugoslavian refugee crisis with what is happening today? Was the E.U. more generous in taking in refugees then compared to now?

Kakuk: When the war in Yugoslavia started we were just a year and a half after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The E.U. was completely different. Those countries who are right now on the forefront of breaking away from European solidarity were not in the system. The entire landscape of European politics was different. It was dominated by the moderate-center, left or right. The far-right was not able to come into the mainstream, and xenophobic rhetoric was not tolerated to this level. Just remember in 1999 when the far-right Austrian Freedom Party became a member of the governing coalition – Austria was banned from the E.U.’s events as punishment.

Today, the far-right’s rhetoric has broken into the mainstream. At the end I believe that it is the result of the neoliberal policies that made the rich richer and the poor poorer, as the inequality between social classes is growing to an unbearable level. It is not surprising that in such a situation the far-right agenda is becoming popular, since the most important balancing power of any modern democracy – the middle class – is shrinking.

This agenda is trying to narrow what we call humanitarianism. I don’t want to live in a Europe that no longer respects the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is the starting point for all humanitarian legislation after the Second World War. So these issues are seriously affecting the future of Europe.

Refugees Deeply: What does that future look like to you?

Kakuk: Today’s policies have dehumanized people. I don’t want to talk about dead bodies washing up on the shores of Lesbos, because that would be very cheap. But within our borders, for example, I’ve witnessed before my eyes the tearing apart of families. Authorities are ripping away every single piece of their dignity.

Look, this crisis is going to be over at some point. Syria will get peace, and some people will return. But all of the nasty things that we’ve done to these people will remain, and then what happens to us? If we treat these people like animals, we become animals and that’s the worst possible outcome. We cannot allow this to happen to us. It’s about us as well, it’s not only about them.

Refugees Deeply: What kind of role can journalism play in helping ameliorate the situation?

Kakuk: When this whole refugee flow started to arrive in Hungary, we were ignorant. Europeans were surprised that Syrians have iPhones, smart phones or iPads. That shows we knew nothing about what kind of country Syria was, we knew nothing about what kind of country Iraq was. This is why I believe that our role in objective journalism is to bring us closer to these people and their stories. It gives a little bit more understanding, eases the fear and the hatred.

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