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On the front lines of the refugee crisis, Hungarians worry about accepting newcomers

In Hungary, the constant flow of images of refugees on the news -- with some media reports playing it up for the scariest possible impact -- have caused many to worry about the arrival of newcomers from the Middle East. William Brangham reports on how that country is grappling with concern for national identity and stability, and conflicting feelings of sympathy.

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    European Union Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced new plans today to address the continent's massive influx of migrants and refugees. They would require countries to absorb a share of 160,000 asylum seekers now flocking to Italy, Greece and Hungary, with mandatory quotas.

    Juncker also pushed for strengthening Europe's border and Coast Guard, and he encouraged countries to allow asylum seekers to work. We will be talking to the E.U.'s ambassador to Washington in a few moments, but first we take a look at the people on the front lines of the crisis.

    We begin with a report from our own William Brangham near the Serbia-Hungary border.


    The steady flow of Syrian and other refugees and migrants coming across Hungary's borders is the constant focus of Hungarian press.

    These are local news reports. The word on screen there calls this a — quote — "siege." Here, the words say — quote — "Extremists could be coming."

    As Hungarians see this constant stream of images of refugees, many of them played up for their scariest possible impact, it's understandable why some locals in nearby towns are growing concerned.

    In Szeged, the largest town near Hungary's border with Serbia — that's the border where most of the migrants here are crossing — we heard several worries about the arrival of newcomers from the Middle East.

  • MAN:

    It's a different culture. These people will never be an inherent part of our communities.

    GABOR MALINA, Szeged resident: A lot of Hungarians are angry because of the migrants, because they think, oh, my God, we have to pay so much money to take care of these people. We have to give them food, accommodation.

  • WOMAN:

    It's a bit hard to handle them because there are so many people. And I think that is a problem, that there are so many people and we don't really have a solution to deal with this many people.

    OLIVER MADANI, Szeged resident: The Syrians themselves should come because they are in trouble. But the refugees that are looking for a better life, maybe they should start making better lives in their country, rather than look for a better one in another place.


    But Lenard Lowy, who owns Sun City tattoo shop in Szeged, says, yes, his country is overburdened right now, but if other nations help out, this crisis can be solved.

    LENARD LOWY, Owner, "Sun City" tattoo shop: (through interpreter): We can't speak only about Hungary here. We are in the European Union, so I would welcome a unified solution. They should use funds to establish refugee camps and reception centers. Police should also receive more support. Europe can tackle this crisis.

    But even Europe is not able to take in millions more refugees, so a line should be drawn somewhere. But the Hungarian government has behaved very ineffectively. The fact that all these migrants are stuck in Roszke is absurd.


    Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orban, doesn't seem to share that same belief, warning repeatedly that his nation must defend its Christian traditions against this coming wave of Muslims, the implication being, refugees will inevitably change the fabric of Hungary for the worse.

    Opinion polls have shown very strong support for the prime minister's position, but it's not a universal belief. In Szeged today, I sat down with these two Hungarian men. Gyorgy Zimoni is torn over the plight of the refugees, as well as the European nations who now have to grapple with them.

    GYORGY ZIMONI, Szeged resident (through interpreter): My opinion has two levels. On the one hand, I feel sorry for the migrants, as the conditions they're in are very hard. But I also feel sorry for the whole country. They were not prepared for this, just as all of Europe wasn't prepared for this wave. We can see no end of this.


    George's friend of 20 years, Abdul Latif-Zanda, is originally from Libya, but he is now a Hungarian citizen. He's says he's living proof that practicing Muslims can integrate into European society.

  • ABDUL LATIF-ZANDA, Hungary (through interpreter):

    I have lived here for 30 years now. I have never had a problem with anyone, neither for political nor religious reasons. Islam teaches that you should lead a decent life, and you should treat others fairly. There are many others, however, who use religion, money, or whatever else to convince poor Muslims to do stupid things. In Europe, you can lead a normal life. And if you are normal, you will be accepted.


    Many of the refugees and migrants we met this week in Hungary agreed. Said Halabi, who fled Syria with his wife and three children, said that their arrival shouldn't be the cause for alarm.

    SAID HALABI, Syrian refugee: We hope that the European people understand that diversity — diversity is good for them. We are looking just for a new life for our children, where they can access schools, where I can get a job, support my family.


    Another Syrian refugee, Basel Esa, who we found practicing his rap outside a migrant processing center, says those who think all refugees will simply drain Europe's public services are wrong.

    BASEL ESA, Syrian refugee: For me, I don't want the luxury life. I just want to live in a peaceful place, just normal life, peaceful place, like a good job. That's it. I don't want anything else. I don't want to cause any problem for anyone. I don't want — because nobody causes a problem for us.


    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm William Brangham in Szeged, Hungary.

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