Humanitarian assistance to refugees in Hungary

Principal investigator: Margit Feischmidt

Participants: Márton HunyadiIldikó Zakariás

Funding agency, grant: HAS CSS Incubator Programme

Period: 2015 - 2016

Research questions and objectives:

The research looked at humanitarian assistance provided for refugees transiting Hungary in 2015, its individual motivations, biographical and institutional background of this transnational form of solidarity.

One of the main focuses of the research was the relationship between voluntary assistance to refugees and politics. We inquired on the extent of voluntary humanitarian support having been restricted to reduce suffering, and on publicly expressed causal interpretations that go beyond the actual, immediate resolution of these suffering, targeting a more profound transformation of the social fabric. Within this we examined the categories and groups as targets of these actions, the assignment of helping responsibilities, as well as concepts and ideologies these are embedded into. Moreover, we also asked about the relationship between humanitarian voluntary support and politics: How beliefs about public responsibilities and about public actors become grounds for voluntary support for refugees; and conversely, how these helping practices and actions lead to new concepts on society and on the desirable directions of social change.

Research methods:

The analysis was carried out with mixed methodology. First, semi structured qualitative interviews were conducted among volunteers working in the field in the respective period. With these interviews we aimed to unearth major narrative strategies that reflect how reasoning and interpretations about help-giving to refugees are intertwined with thinking about public actors and their responsibilities. Second, we rely on population-level data from a nationally representative survey intended to unravel forms of associations between attitudes towards public actors and attitudes towards civic help for refugees.

Regarding the 32 interviews conducted between October 2015 and January 2016, a snowball sampling approach was applied based on pre-existing personal contacts within the field, as well as by approaching online social media groups. We aimed to achieve saturation by capturing the variability of respondents according to various socio-economic variables (gender, age, education, and occupation). As is usual in qualitative interviewing, obtaining statistical representativeness was not attempted; instead we aimed to grasp the institutional and ideological variability in the background of respondents’ activities. The analysis of the data was carried out using Atlas.Ti software, in line with the theoretical considerations of the rounded Theory.

The population survey was conducted in October 2015.The target population was persons aged 18 or older, residents of Hungary, not living in an institution. 1003 individuals were interviewed and the weighted sample was representative of the target population according to gender, age (group), education and settlement type. Our questions inquired about actual participation in the humanitarian initiatives, as well as about attitudes concerning the civic helping of refugees.

Research results in 2019:

There is a general concern in the study of charity and volunteering that direct forms of help for people in need that are driven by emotions like compassion or pity privatize responsibilities and disregard structural causes of suffering. Our research presents evidence that only partially confirms this general statement, thereby emphasizing the political potential of charity.

Furthermore, our findings point to a possible dynamic relationship between the two realms of benevolent civic action and politics. We found that consideration of the suffering and neediness of others may increase awareness of political responsibilities, and thus stimulate the birth of political critique. This is what we call the politicization of charity. Beyond this claim, we also find the reverse dynamic. Certain political positions (in the present case, rejection of the government in general, as well as rejection of the securitization discourses endorsed by the Hungarian government) may result in civic helping. Thus, charity may become a modality of revolt and a means of acting against politics, thus an alternative form of public responsibility. This is what we call the charitization of politics.

The strong interconnections between charity involvement (actual practices and attitudes) and politics (concern for political actors and public causes) have been demonstrated using multiple methods. Interviews revealed that interpretations of charity activities targeted at refugees are significantly intertwined with political narratives, and accommodate a specific critique of public actors and causes. Quantitative data, on the other hand, demonstrated the strong association between (attitudinal) charity support and political positions among the wider population and on a structural level: instead of self-reflected accounts of such processes, the specificities of reflection on politics and public issues are shown through quantifiable associations.


Feischmidt, Margit ; Zakariás, Ildikó: Jótékonyság és politika. A menekülteknek nyújtott közvetlen segítség közéleti hatásai, POLITIKATUDOMÁNYI SZEMLE 27 : 2 pp. 55-83. , 29 p. (2018) 

Feischmidt, Margit ; Zakariás, Ildikó: Politics of Care and Compassion: Civic Help for Refugees and Its Political Implications in Hungary—A Mixed-Methods Approach In: Feischmidt, Margit; Pries, Ludger; Cantat, Celine (szerk.) Refugee Protection and Civil Society in Europe, CHAM : Palgrave Macmillan, (2019) pp. 59-99. Paper: Chapter 3 , 40 p. 

Zakariás, Ildikó: A menekültek civil segítése: attitűdök és morális érvek, REGIO 24 : 4 pp. 61-84. , 24 p. (2016) 

Feischmidt Margit: Szolidaritás és társadalmi reflexió a menekültek önkéntes segítőinek elbeszéléseiben (2018)