Refugee Crises, Refugee Hypocrisy, and Public Opinion in Hungary

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was a watershed moment in European politics. Among the many shocking visuals of the early weeks of the war was the sight of millions of Ukrainian refugees fleeing their home country into neighboring countries like Poland, Hungary, and Romania—as well as to other countries throughout Europe. As of this week, more than 7 million Ukrainian refugees had fled the conflict, with more than half of them having received temporary status in a European country.

It did not take long for observers—in Europe and around the world—to notice the dramatic difference between how refugees from Ukraine were treated relative to refugees from the rest of the world. Europe has long been a desirable destination for refugees fleeing conflict in places like Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere, yet their reception in Europe has been contentious and politically divisive. Indeed, the 2015 refugee crisis was also a watershed moment in European politics, with anti-immigrant and anti-refugee movements capitalizing on the perceived threat of migrants and refugee to build support for exclusionary and far-right populist parties like Fidesz in Hungary, Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, and others. Recent research shows that refugee crises and migration crises have big implications for democratic citizenship more generally, and in the United States as well.

What’s more, European national governments’ responses to the crisis exposed deep challenges to European integration and supranational governance. And yet the Ukrainian refugee crisis does not seem to have done anything similar to strengthen anti-refugee sentiments in Europe, even though the scale of the crisis is far larger than the 2015 crisis. This is, in the words of one commenter, a sign of Europe’s refugee hypocrisy.*

What are the political implications of this new refugee crisis for European politics? Unfolding events mean that a lot can change in a short amount of time, but it has been plain to see that European countries have welcomed Ukrainian refugees with more open and accommodative policies than those afforded to previous refugee waves, but what of the consequences of this new crisis on public opinion or on domestic politics? In a new paper, Krisztina Szabo, Ádám Reiff, and I provide some of the first systematic evidence on how the 2022 Ukrainian refugee crisis has affected public opinion.

Our focus is on Hungary, a country which has received over 2 million refugees from Ukraine since February.** We introduce new survey data collected in April 2022 that we carefully designed so as to be comparable with historical surveys in Hungary from two different data sources, but which also delves more deeply into the factors that might explain views on refugees in the current moment. Here is the abstract, which summarizes the research questions and our main findings.

The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine is a watershed moment in European politics. An immediate consequence of the invasion was a massive influx of refugees into Central Europe, a region in which immigration has proven highly contentious and politically salient over the past thirty years. We study public opinion towards refugees in Hungary, a highly exclusionary political environment in which anti-migrant and anti-refugee sentiments are commonly invoked by the ruling government. Combining historical public opinion data from the past decade with original survey data collected in April 2022, we demonstrate that the Ukrainian refugee crisis was accompanied by a large increase in tolerance for refugees, reversing what had previously been one of the most anti-refugee public opinion environments in Europe. To explain this reversal, we use a series of survey experiments to investigate how conflict proximity and racial, religious, and national identity (three manifestations of what we term civilizational characteristics) shape openness to refugees. We find that the distinguishing feature of the 2022 refugee crisis was that refugees were mostly white European Christians driven from their home country by conflict. We discuss the implications of our argument for Hungary, for European politics in times of crisis, and for the politics of public opinion in competitive authoritarian regimes.

There is a lot more in the paper, which is rich with new data and empirical analyses, including over-time comparisons of Fidesz voters’ views on immigrants and refugees from before the onset of the 2015 refugee crisis until now. It also catalogues the blatantly religious and racial features of government policy discourse on refugees by translating into English a number of speeches by Viktor Orbán which are either unavailable in English, or which have been poorly and incompletely translated previously. We encourage you to read the full draft for more.


* And this isn’t just a European phenomenon; as Arwa Dawon argues, hypocrisy towards refugees in the context of the Ukrainian refugee crisis is a generally Western problem.

** This is roughly twice the number of refugees as entered Europe as a whole during the 2015 refugee crisis.