Poorly Planned Emergency Measures Wreak Havoc for Resident Expats and Border Police
Sandra Perkins left Budapest on March 11 for a short stay in her native United Kingdom. Bad timing: While there, she learned of new Hungarian entry restrictions imposed on foreigners to contain the coronavirus. Believing she held a permanent residence card, she was confident regarding re-entry, but cut short her trip. She could ill afford delay: lives were at stake.
Perkins raises poultry, ducks, geese, chickens and Guinea fowl, on her smallholding in rural Hungary, where she’s lived for 15 years. Any extended absence, and these would starve. She boarded a Wizz Air flight on March 19, reassured en route by the check-in clerk that all would be well.
It wasn’t. Three police officers, posted well before passport control, rejected her registration card, and ushered her, along with a British man proffering a Hungarian birth certificate, into a separate waiting area.
“Like me, Hungary was his only place of residence. If denied entry, neither of us had anywhere else to go,” Perkins says.
The pair joined a motley collection of nationalities, some in great distress. One elderly couple, a Hungarian lady with a Dutch husband living in Hungary for 21 years, were becoming frantic. He had been denied entry.
“They had to prove they were a married couple with their marriage certificate. Who on earth flies with their marriage certificate?” notes Perkins, who, though stressed herself, did her best to placate the pair.
At one point, a police officer asked everyone to write an email, attaching photographs of proof of residence in Hungary, to a given address.
“The officer told us that we might get a reply today, hopefully. By this point I was beginning to panic about how long it would take me to get home.... if ever,” she recalls.
After a few, very hot hours, during which Perkins’ asthma caused her additional distress, a passing policewoman noticed the Hungarian birth certificate of the British man detained with her.
“She asked him why he was waiting. He said he had no idea, only that he had been denied entry. The officer said this was wrong, and immediately escorted him through passport control into Hungary,” says Perkins. Clearly, what was deemed valid, and what not, depended on the officer involved.
Sometime later, Perkins was called, her body temperature checked, and she passed through passport control. Her ordeal lasted a mere three-and-a-half hours.
Many were less fortunate. Shaun Walker, a correspondent with the Guardian newspaper, had a 16-hour enforced sojourn, including a night of slumber with around 60 other detainees in a makeshift holding area.
EU embassies, overwhelmed with pleas for help from stranded citizens, were themselves unable to get definitive answers on entry conditions for several days. But with sensible preparation, much of this stress and chaos was avoidable.
Hungary spends massive sums promoting itself as an investment destination par excellence. True, Perkins herself is not the kind of foreign investor normally gracing the pages of the Budapest Business Journal: her cash injection into Hungary wouldn’t feature on the central bank’s current account radar.
At least, ranking as an EU/EEA citizen, she was eventually allowed in after the debacle at the airport. Yet as the decree stands, other aliens – including U.S. and Canadian citizens – regardless of the investments they may have made or the taxes they pay in Hungary, have been shut out, at less than 12-hours’ notice, despite holding valid residence documentation.
(The government communications office failed to respond meaningfully when asked for clarification on this issue for this article. The British Embassy has since clarified that British citizens can enter Hungary, but will need to self-isolate. UK in Hungary, the embassy twitter account posted on March 21: “British nationals residing in Hungary can enter only if holding a Permanent Residence Card or a Registration Certificate&Address Card. Mandatory self-isolation for 14 days upon return!”)
Nobody denies Hungary the right to restrict entry at times of emergency, but by taking this sudden, ill-thought out decision, without proper regard to its obligations to resident foreign nationals, it has severely damaged its credentials as a reliable, international business partner.
Note: Sandra Perkins is a pseudonym; the person concerned asked for anonymity. She emphasized that throughout her experience, the police officers involved were sympathetic to their charges, despite working long, stressful hours themselves.
The Bottom Line is a monthly column written by Kester Eddy, a long-standing and well respected Budapest-based business and economic journalist, who has written for the Financial Times and many regional publications. The opinions expressed in the column are not necessarily those of the Budapest Business Journal. To comment on this column, or on anything else in the BBJ, email the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org
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