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„I knew that it would be good for me here” – London in the eyes of Hungarian migrants

When landing in a new country, we are generally full with expectations. Our mind is filled with images of landmarks or fragments of a “typical” landscape. We have learnt bits and pieces about that country’s culture or have heart about rules of behaviour to respect. Nevertheless, when one arrives with the purpose to pursue studies or – as overwhelming majority of the respondents we talked with – to work, earn money or start a new life, such images and imaginations are challenged and enriched by every-day experiences. In this post we will share some notes and stories from the interviews which illustrates how Hungarian migrants perceive the United Kingdom in general and London in particular.

Most of the people we talked had landed in one of the airports of London (mainly Luton). Expect few of them, that was their first journey to the UK, or even the first time they sit on an airplane. When recalling their arrival, many burst out at laugh how they undervalued the size of an airport or a train station in London. Amanda arrived to London in February 2013 to become an au-pair. The host family could not pick her up at the airport, but sent her detailed information how to reach the Victoria Station, where they would wait for her in front of a certain exit. Amanda took it easy and believed that the hosts are too worried about how she could find orientation: “I behaved as there would be only ONE exit in the whole f*ing airport. I had no idea at all, that the airport is, well, f*ing big. But eventually, I just set off, like there would be no tomorrow. And then I left the [Victoria] Station exactly through that gate! I somehow ended up at the place we had agreed before, and she could pick me up there.”

In general, they are more than satisfied with the public transportation in London, but have limited experiences with travelling in the countryside. This is in part due to their sometimes extreme work overload (many work two jobs, 60 or more hours/week) and family duties, but they also mention the high price of train tickets as a burden to explore other parts of the UK.

Majority of the respondents live in London, which they like a lot for many reasons. We often hear about the well-organized public services and the friendliness of residents. As Mark, who arrived to London at the age of 21, remembers to his first day: “Everything was well signposted [in the city], people were ready to help, whatever I asked, they responded promptly where to find what.” Mark was born and raised in Budapest, the capital of Hungary, but London is the city which today he calls as home: “(…) by now [London] has become the home. When I return [to Budapest], I return to my homeland.” Living in central London opened the world for him: “[in UK] the ‘national culture’ is that you can be from anywhere and nobody cares about it.” By now he has friends from numerous countries around the globe, and learnt a lot about different religions, languages, cultures. This encourages him to travel to discover distant continents, as he will have friends to rely on wherever he goes. Moreover, his experiences changed his worldview and attitude. In his view Hungary “is a closed society, people don’t meet a wide variety of foreign cultures, hence they are afraid (…) and everything which is foreign culture or other culture mustn’t be good and must be locked out. (…) In the beginnings, I had in my mind, that never before I had been in a community where such amount of cultures, skin colors, religions blend, and in the first period I felt a bit awkward, worried. (…) Then I got used to it, I got to know my neighbours, the people, everybody was kind and I asked myself ‘for what reason do I feel awkward, why am I afraid to go back home in the dark…?’. I am more afraid in Deák Ferenc square in Budapest now, than at my home, I mean in London.”

Nóra works with a food delivery company, thus she travels a lot in and outside London. She has been living in London for more than a decade, but she is still amazed by various landscapes the United Kingdom offers. During the lockdown, when everybody must remain at home, she was driving the truck and shared her photos of the road with friends to hold their spirits up. What she likes the most about living in the UK can be encapsulated in the word freedom: “I feel absolute freedom. When I walk along the street nobody looks at me, as if I was not even there. (…) I can be myself, I can live in absolute freedom. There is no need to hide that I’m homosexual, I don’t need to hide.”

One of the well-known stereotypes about the UK is the unfriendly weather. Interestingly, we rarely heart any complain about the weather, on the opposite! The winter is milder than they expected and some said that they prefer the English summer than the hot Hungarian summer weeks.

All in all, the people who shared their stories with us have positive image about the UK and especially about London. For many it is a reliable, comfortable place to live, with wonderful landscapes and friendly people. In London it is easy to get by and if somebody wants it offers unlimited option dive into various cultures, whilst it grants anonymity and freedom.

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A short note about the Hungarian supplementary/weekend schools in the UK

In contrast to what we had planned, due to the pandemic this research has been conducted exclusively online so far, when both our interview partners and us stayed at home in lockdown. Often this resulted in unexpected situations when a bunch of kids run into the room during the interview and asked for all sorts of things from mum/dad/aunt/uncle etc.: a piece of biscuit, the exact date of the collapse of the Roman Empire or which colour to pick for their princess doll’s dress. In such cases the interview diverted towards child raising and decisions about education. Depending on the age of their children, parents faced different challenges, but what seemed common in the interviews is that parents wanted their kids to keep using the Hungarian language and get familiar with the Hungarian culture even after kids enter primary education in the UK. Therefore many talked about their experiences with Hungarian supplementary schools or weekend schools as they refer to those (we will use this term). In the followings we provide a brief overview of supplementary schools operated by the Hungarians and some reflections from teachers who work in these schools.

The number of available researches on supplementary schools in the Hungarian diaspora is very limited and rather case studies of certain institutions or communities. Therefore we were happy to discover an excellent recent study written by Attila Papp Z., Eszter Kovács and András Kováts (in Hungarian) about the Hungarian weekend schools in the United Kingdom.

The study is based on their field work interviews and observations executed in eleven schools in the UK in 2018-2019. These institutions can be analysed in the frame of diaspora building and also as part of education and ethnic socialisation. They refer to the definition by Archer and Francis (2016) and describe weekend schools as supplementary education, which is run by an ethnic community and its aim is to teach one subject and/or the mother tongue, and cultural habits and rituals. In the UK the number of such supplementary schools is estimated between 3000 and 5000, among which 19 is listed as Hungarian. Most of this we can find in London and its vicinity, whereas others are located in other major cities (Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh). However the first Hungarian weekend school was established in 1948, the first stable one was established in 1978 in London (Londoni Magyar Iskola/Hungarian School in London). Importantly, overwhelming majority of the schools exist today were established between 2010 and 2016, which clearly resonates with the post 2008 migration trends of Hungarians arriving to the UK . According to Papp Z., Kovács and Kováts, three major arguments can be traced among parents who enrol their kids into such schools. One is personal, namely that parents want their kids to use Hungarian language outside of the family, and weekend schools are ideal and safe social spaces to do so. As second they mention rationality, which derives from the often mention shocking costs of childcare. Some of the weekend schools provide services which can be a more affordable alternative of the very expensive kindergarten/nursery/babysitter. Third, some parents were unsatisfied with other schools thus they decided to open a new one. Importantly, in the UK supplementary schools can apply for funds from authorities and local governments as well, which many did so. However in the cases we heard about the survival of the schools was dependent on the parents mainly. 

This is how our interviewee Rebeka, who is in her 40s and lives in London since 2010, remembers to her experiences as a teacher and member of the board of trustees in one of the Hungarian weekend schools. According to her experiences pupils are arriving from three main circles to Hungarian schools: 1) from Hungarian families, where both parents are from Hungary; 2) from families where both parents or one of them is from a transborder Hungarian minority community (from Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia); 3. from mixed couples, where one member of the family is of Hungarian descent. She speaks about committed parents with great respect, however she also points to the fragility of such schools. When parents find employments some other part of London, or decide to move to the countryside where housing is a bit more affordable than in London, the schools always need to figure out ways how to keep balance in budget. Interestingly, she observed that among teenagers, who enrolled into traditional British schools where boys and girls study separately, the coeducated (mixed-sex) Hungarian weekend school might remain popular.

In another interview Péter, who was a teacher at the Hungarian School in London from 2015 to 2017, confirmed that the motivation of Hungarian parents is to preserve Hungarian language, culture and customs. According to Péter, most of the pupils in the Hungarian School in London came from families which migrated recently. They are more connected to Hungary, so they consider it important for their child to learn how to read and write in Hungarian, to get acquainted with Hungarian history, literature, etc.

He also noted that the teaching methods, the overall atmosphere in these weekend schools are looser, more easy-going than in an average school in Hungary. This was unacceptable to him, thus he resigned. 

“Here’s what the kid wants…she/he goes out because she’s/he’s hungry or she/he wants to drink, she/he wants to play football, and you can’t tell her/him anything. I do not want this.”

The Hungarian School in London is an important place for Hungarian community life in England, which we will talk about in more details in our next post.

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Brief overview of the migration from Hungary to the United Kingdom since the EU accession

The first blog post about Hungary aims to offer a very brief overview of the estimated volume and main features of migration from Hungary to the UK. The post is based on academic articles and on-line press sources. In the compilation of datasets, we rely on the results of Gábor Csontos, who spent three months in the Geographical Institute RCAES as an intern. He graduated as geographer of Cambridge University and currently studies at London School of Economics. His internship was financed by the NKFIH 2020-1.2.1-GYAK programme.

The population of Hungary is considered relatively immobile in European comparison. Based on the data of the Hungarian Central Statistical Office, since 1989 approximately 350 000 Hungarians moved abroad. Importantly, neither the economic collapse after 1989, nor the country’s EU accession in 2004 induced significant out-migration. It was the 2008 global economic crisis and its local consequences which was followed by increasing out-migration.[1]

The availability of reliable data about emigration from Hungary is limited, the mirror statistics of destination countries provide a basis for a realistic estimation.[2] The published estimations about the number of Hungarian emigrants oscillate between 195 000 and 335 000 in the 18-49 age group.[3] Among the main factors of out-migration from Hungary the multiplied household debts[4], unemployment, and low salaries were mentioned, however in the surveys conducted after 2010 the unfavorable career perspectives and the general political atmosphere were also mentioned.[5]

In the post-2008 period a significant change can be observed in the destination countries as well. Traditionally, the main destination countries for Hungarian nationals have been Germany and Austria, due to historical links and geographical vicinity. Prior to 2008, the United Kingdom was not among the favored destinations, which is reflected in the Eurostat statistics: in 2004 54 714 Hungarian national lived in Germany, in contrast to the 6021 registered in the United Kingdom.[6]

Hungarian grocery in the UK. Source: http://wemagazin.com/lifestyle/erdekesseg/bevallalosabbak-a-londoni-magyarok.html

Based on the calculations of Chris Moreh (2014), both the stock and flow numbers of Hungarians increased between 2002-2014.[7] He estimates the number of Hungarians in 2014 at around 80,000 and approximately 110,000 in the last few years.[8] According to the data of United Kingdom’s Office for National Statistics the number of Hungarian residing in the UK has reached its peak in 2017 (98 000) and drop to 77 000 in 2018.[9] In their analysis Gellér-Lukács, Töttös and Illés estimated the number of Hungarians in the United Kingdom between 80 000 and 150 000.[10] The online magazine Portfolio estimated the number of Hungarians in the United Kingdom both in 2017 and in 2018 at around 250,000, based on an analysis of EU statistics and bank transfers.[11]

The Annual Population Survey (APS) estimated the number of people born in Hungary and residing in the UK at around 100,000 in 2019 (many experts and observers found this number underestimated).

However, taking into consideration various UK databases, it seems probable that the number of Hungarians permanently residing in the UK was around 100,000 in 2020. Nevertheless, we assume that additionally there was a sizeable group of Hungarian citizens, who remained undocumented, worked seasonally and circulated between Hungary and the UK, – and simply did not appear or remained invisible in the statistics. This might explain the huge discrepancies in data reported by different estimates.

Stock of Hungarian migrants to the UK (thousands), Source: Office For National Statistics. Edited by Katalin Kovály

Regarding the geographical distribution, more than half of the Hungarian population was concentrated in London (16 000), South East (17 000) and East England (11 000) in 2018.[12]

Relatively few research investigated the Hungarians living in the UK, mainly analysing on-line surveys[13] and/or interviews.[14] These studies found that the majority of Hungarians landed in the UK to seek employment, however the number of university students show a significant increase in the last couple of years.

We are excited to share more details about the Hungarians living in the UK with you in the upcoming months!

Notes


[1] http://www.iom.hu/migration-issues-hungary

[2] Gödri, Irén – Soltész, Béla – Bodacz-Nagy, Boróka (2014): Immigration or emigration country? Migration trends and their socio-economic background in Hungary: A longer-term historical perspective. Working Papers on Population, Family and Welfare, no. 19. Hungarian Demographic Research Institute, Budapest.

[3] See Moreh, Ch, 2014, citing: Blaskó and Jamalia 2014, Kapitány, Rohr 2013.

[4] Moreh, Ch. 2014: 85.

[5] Kováts, A. 2014

[6] Moreh, Ch. 2014: 80.

[7] Moreh, Ch. 2014:87.

[8] Moreh, Ch. 2014.

[9] Office for National Statistics, 2019

[10] Gellér-Lukács, É. Töttős, Á., and Illés, S. (2016)

[11] https://www.portfolio.hu/gazdasag/20180527/nem-hogy-megoldodik-tovabb-no-az-angliai-magyarok-rejtelye-286742

[12] Office for National Statistics, 2019

[13] Kováts, A. – Papp. Z. 2016

[14] Michalkó, G. and Irimiás, A. 2018