Refugees: How much is too much?

8660040329_713baf637d_kIn 1956, over 200.000 Hungarians fled to Austria as refugees in a relatively short timespan, after the Soviets had ended the Hungarian Revolution manu militari. Unlike what you might expect from looking at the political climate in Austria today, a mere 60 years later, those refugees were treated so well that one of them openly stated: “If I am ever required to be a refugee, I hope to make it to Austria.” (source: The Bridge At Andau, a book published in 1957 by James A. Michener, based on interviews with some of those Hungarian refugees). Oskar Helmer, the Austrian Minister of the Interior at that time, proclaimed as early as October 26,1956 that asylum would be granted to all Hungarian refugees, regardless of their reasons for leaving their home country. A “Wir schaffen das” avant la lettre, you might say. Another interesting fact (given some of the argumentation today): two-thirds of the refugees were male, with more than half under the age of 25.

As the Second World War had only ended a decade before, Austria was at that time obviously still very much recovering and therefore hardly comparable to the prosperous country it is today. After the initial chaos that was unavoidable because the total amount of refugees quickly rose to a level that was much higher than anyone had anticipated, the Austrian government (aided, also finacially, by the United Nations and non-profit organizations such as the Red Cross) got a slightly better grip on the situation by setting up a number of refugee camps. But as thousands of Hungarians kept crossing the border every day, Austria’s maximum capacity to feed and house them (no longer only in camps, but also in public buildings such as schools, empty hotels and even private housing) was soon reached.

The solution was quite clear, and undisputed: most of the Hungarian refugees needed to be transferred to other countries. When Austrian delegate Kurt Waldheim (who would later become Secretary-General of the UN) brought this up at the Plenary Assembly of the United Nations, quite a few countries declared to be willing to accept a number of refugees. In most cases they at first wanted to admit the refugees on specific terms (usually economically inspired: only willing to accept refugees that could make a meaningful economic contribution to the society, but that would of course create an even bigger financial burden for the Austrians), but in the end the Hungarian refugees were resettled in 37 countries. By mid 1959 only 11.000 or so of the 200.000 Hungarians were still living in Austria. To my knowlegde all 37 of those countries survived this without too much difficulty. And some of the refugees even ended up bringing considerable economic value to their new home country (like Andrew Grove, who was the third employee and later CEO of Intel).

So why is this not possible today? Why should exactly Austria, the country that succeeded in dealing with 200.000 refugees in 1956-1957, be the country to claim that its total capacity for accepting refugees for the entire year 2016 is a mere 37.500? Why should – of all countries – none other than Hungary, where not more than 2 generations ago 200.000 citizens fled to the neighbouring country, be the country that simply refuses to accept refugees alltogether in the current crisis? And, to take it one step further: why should that current crisis be a European-only problem? Why can’t the United Nations play the role that would suit a worldwide organization perfectly: to coordinate the global resettlement of refugees?

Finally, for those who want to use the argument “Hungary 1956 was just 200.000 people. Today we’re talking about millions.”, I would simply suggest: please google ‘Vietnamese boat people in the 1970’s’.


Should you want to read more on the Hungarian refugees: this post was partly inspired by the following article

Gémes, Andreas. 2009. Deconstruction of a Myth? Austria and the Hungarian Refugees of 1956-57. In: Time, Memory, and Cultural Change, ed. S. Dempsey and D. Nichols, Vienna: IWM Junior Visiting Fellows’ Conferences, Vol. 25.(

Picture by MaximilianV (

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