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Refugee crisis dominating Hungarian consul general’s work

By Sneh Duggal      

‘I don’t know how Canadians would react if every night at the port of Toronto, there was a ship to arrive with two, three, four—lately it’s 10,000—people.’

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The migrant and refugee crisis grabbing headlines in Europe is a “very complex situation” where finding a balance between humanitarian and security concerns can be tough, said Toronto-based Hungarian consul general Stefánia Szabó.

Hungary, a transit state for many fleeing Syria and other conflict zones, has at times been criticized for actions such as erecting a fence along its border with Serbia. A surge of people entering Hungary to seek asylum in Europe led Hungary’s right-wing government to clamp down, expelling those who cross the fence. Police have also used force against protesting migrants and refugees.

“Neither the border fence nor the tear gas use is…something we are happy about; it’s not for fun, it’s something what the Hungarian government feels inevitable to protect the sovereignty of the state,” said Ms. Szabó, who recently returned from Hungary where heads of mission met and were briefed by their prime minister and other officials on the situation.

“It completely took over public agenda in Hungary,” said Ms. Szabó. “I understand Canadians feel very strongly for refugees and we feel very strongly for refugees as well—we as a country and the people of Hungary.”

“Anyone who is coming [with goodwill] is welcome, but you need to follow the rule of law, you need to use the legitimate border crossings to enter the country,” said Ms. Szabó.

The United Nations refugee agency has said new Hungarian legislation includes some deterrence measures “contrary to international law” when applied to asylum seekers and refugees.

“It is not a crime to cross a border to seek asylum,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres in a Sept. 16 statement.

“I don’t know how Canadians would react if every night at the port of Toronto, there was a ship to arrive with two, three, four—lately it’s 10,000—people,” said Ms. Szabó.

“They would be walking on the 401 or QEW because they want to go to Michigan, but we don’t know who they are. You need to know who are the people who enter here, you want to know, register everyone; we want to know as well.”

Hungary tries to support them, she said, but it’s overwhelming.

“We never experienced that. Canada is an immigrant country and Canada receives 200,000 immigrants every year. We don’t receive immigrants…it is something new to us.”

Ms. Szabó and her government have been stressing that it’s not just the people showing up in Europe who need help, but also the millions who have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan and are in refugee camps.

The crisis has greatly affected Ms. Szabó’s work.

“At least half the time I’m dedicating to handle this,” she said.

The envoy, who feels that some news reports have had “a genuine bias against Hungary,” has been speaking with members of the news media and sought to respond to the few dozen emails the consulate has received on this matter.

Hungary was one of four European Union countries to oppose a plan to relocate 120,000 asylum seekers across the EU through a quota system.

Ms. Szabó said it’s difficult to talk about numbers without knowing the full picture.

“What is going to happen with the rest? Are they sent back to where they came from? Who is going to send them back—the first entry point, Hungary? What if a migrant decides he is not going to go to Latvia or where that family was designated?”

Not the original plan

Ms. Szabó came from a small town in southern Hungary and never planned to leave. She went to law school and wanted to be a judge. At the time she felt she was too emotional to handle some situations she might encounter as a judge and was afraid she would bring her experiences home. So she decided to work for an international trade company, eventually moving to Budapest and landing a job with Hungary’s industry and trade ministry.

She started working on the legal aspects of free trade talks with Israel, Turkey and Croatia along with accession talks with the EU.

In 2001, she was sent to Israel as a trade commissioner for four years.

“This is where my son was born, so it is always going to be a special place for us,” she said. After returning to Hungary, she stayed at home for a few years with her son and daughter, who was born the following year.

Ms. Szabó later became the first woman to serve as director of human resources at the foreign ministry. This role included training, overseeing ministry admissions and directing 2,000 people on where they would be posted.

She worked to boost the time people had to prepare for postings, made a deal with a large university to allow employees to take language, history, cultural or literature courses related to their new host country and set up a “mini mission” for training purposes.

Starting from scratch

Ms. Szabó arrived in Toronto in August 2013 with a mission: to reopen the Hungarian consulate that had been closed in 2009.

“It took up, well, nine months, like a baby, to create,” she said, with a chuckle, of the consulate located in a downtown highrise.

For the first four months, officials worked out of a Hungarian Presbyterian church. In January 2014, they moved to another space, less than half the size of her current office. During that time Ms. Szabó worked from home until they moved into their new office in May 2014.

“I was meeting with people in their offices and at cafés, so it was really challenging to build connections when you don’t have a base,” she said.

She spent many weekends at community events, trying to connect with the Hungarian diaspora.

The consulate, which is responsible for Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, covers a Hungarian-Canadian community of about 190,000.

Ms. Szabó is here with her husband, Greg, son Kristof, 10, and daughter Kinga, 8.

The consulate has nine staff members including four diplomats—one of whom is posted in Ottawa, but spends most of his time in Toronto since he is dealing with the diaspora—three administrative staff from Hungary and two locals.

They’ve been busy with consular work, dealing with about 700 passport applications and 1,100 other cases including certificates and drivers’ licences.

The consulate tries to collaborate with the University of Toronto each month. They are set to hold an event with the U of T’s Munk School of Global Affairs on Oct. 16 called Paprika, Pálinka, and Politics: Variations on Themes in Hungarian Studies.

Meanwhile, a new Hungarian cultural centre, for which the Hungarian government has provided some funding, is slated to open Oct. 24.

“It is important for us that this large Hungarian community…has a home where they can get together,” Ms. Szabó said.

The consulate has also partnered with the Hungarian Visual Artists of Canada to hold exhibitions in the consulate; the next one is scheduled for October. Artwork is featured throughout the mission with visitors having the chance to buy pieces.

Toronto-based journalist and former Embassy staff writer Sneh Duggal writes on foreign consulates in Canada.



Rapid fire with Hungary’s consul general


Favourite restaurant?

Tokaji in Vaughan. They make excellent Hungarian food, they have a wonderful selection of Hungarian wines and if you go on the weekends, [there is] live music. But if you ask my son…he loves Firkin pubs. We have a thing, every week we go for a pub night.


Favourite pastime?

I follow all the sports events. So if I can, I go to Leafs games, I go to Raptors games, now I watch on TV the baseball…and we go with my son to Toronto FC games.

I grew up following football with my father, who was president of the local football club, so every weekend we went together to matches. So it stayed with me and now I’m happy to do it with my son.

But otherwise my favourite pastime is [spending time with] my kids.


If you could have any other job?

I may be a judge. If I wasn’t working for a government organization, I may be working for an NGO.

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