TAXES imposed by the right-wing nationalist government of Hungary on activities supporting refugees have forced the suspension of an education programme helping immigrants to make a fresh start in Europe.
Observers said that the decision by the Central European University, based in the capital, Budapest, to put on hold its Open Learning Initiative just days after a 25-per-cent tax was introduced, was the first casualty of government anti-immigrant measures.
The initiative offered a free, academic, non-degree course to support asylum-seekers and refugees in connecting their previous professional and academic experience to their new lives in Europe. The university is seeking clarification of its tax status. The special tax follows recent legislation that targeted NGOs working with migrants and asylum-seekers, criminalising some actions.
The Vicar of St John the Evangelist, Wallsend, the Revd Alexander Faludy, who is half Hungarian and has close links to the country, said: “The effect on CEU is bad, but it is only the most visible aspect of assault on organisations working with lawful refugees granted status, and with asylum applicants.
“A number of faith-based NGOs, including Caritas, Hungarian Baptist Aid, and Diakonia, the international German-Lutheran aid agency, are finding their work significantly hampered.”
He also understood that the work of the Cordelia Foundation, a Budapest-based group which works with torture and trauma survivors, had been made “near impossible” by the withdrawal of public funds.
He said: “It is not just about the combined effect of the tax and withdrawal of often ultimately EU-derived government funding, it is also about the public stigma — especially the label that civil rights NGOs and educational institutions have to endure since the government made it obligatory for all their publicity to bear stickers identifying them as ‘foreign-funded organisations’, and the listing of their staff by name as ‘Soros agents’ in pro-government publications.”
George Soros is the US billionaire political activist who funds the CEU. “It is intended to have a chilling effect on domestic fundraising and recruitment of volunteers and staff,” Mr Faludy said.
New laws regulating NGOs, he said, made it illegal to assist illegal migration by commissioning, publishing, or distributing literature critical of the government’s immigration policy; assisting an asylum applicant to lodge a claim that the Ministry of the Interior subsequently rejected; or monitoring the Hungarian police or army within eight kilometres of the border. The border zone was also closed to anyone who had not lived there for at least five years, unless they had an interior ministry permit.
“Apparently, all these draconian measures are needed to ‘protect Europe’s Christian identity’ from external threat,” Mr Faludy said. “Personally, I’d say it was evidence of that identity’s corrosion from within. All this is happening in an EU state three hours from London; hardly anyone knows, and fewer people care.”
In an online statement, a researcher with the group Human Rights Watch, Lydia Gall, said: “These moves threaten academic freedom, and the work of NGOs that receive funds for assistance programmes for asylum-seekers, migrants, and refugees.”
The specialist tax, she said, could have been “intentionally drafted in vague terms to have a chilling effect on academic institutions, donors, and local organisations. Exactly what activities are subject to the tax is so unclear that just about any statement, seminars, flyer, or even this piece of writing, could potentially be covered.
The government has been able to rely on broad and vaguely worded legislation to curtail legitimate activities that run contrary to its xenophobic anti-migration policies, without having to actively enforce the law.
“Unless EU institutions make it clear to the Hungarian government that taxing and criminalising work with asylum-seekers, migrants, and refugees is unacceptable, and an affront to EU laws and values, we may see more valuable programmes and projects fold.”