Solidarity powered via social media: Migrant solidarity grassroots groups in Hungary
Author: Anikó Bernát, TÁRKI Social Research Institute
Case study type: Local initiative
Keywords: migration, solidarity, grassroots, civil activity, social media, Facebook
Migrant solidarity grassroots groups emerged from scratch in some major Hungarian cities during the summer of 2015 as a response to the migration and refugee crises in a hostile political and public context. Hundreds and thousands of refugees and migrants were crossing and temporarily staying in Hungary at that time (as one section of the Western-Balkan migration route towards their target countries, Germany and Sweden) without sufficient provisions and aid reflecting to their immediate needs. State and municipality organizations as well as major NGOs and charities were not responding sufficiently to the unmet needs of migrants and refugees which became highly visible when hundreds of them started to “live” on central public spaces in downtown Budapest, mostly around major railway stations. Local civilian individuals with no organizational ties started to provide aid to migrants and refugees, mainly only due to express solidarity and provide immediate relief. Soon these independent actors contacted on Facebook and various types of Facebook groups started to connect individuals who wanted to help in some way.
Social media platforms, predominantly Facebook in Hungary used at an intensity and with an effectiveness never witnessed before in Hungary during humanitarian activities, both by asylum seekers and helpers, played an eminent role during the crisis, and this was one of the most relevant lessons that Hungarian civil society learnt. For the volunteers Facebook was the core platform for establishing their groups, and it had a central role in sharing information, developing contacts and groups, organizing activities, and collecting and distributing donations during the entire crisis. Moreover, Facebook, through the groups’ official pages, represented a way of communicating with a larger audience. For refugees and asylum seekers Facebook, Twitter and a number of new and old user-driven mobile phone applications were extremely helpful in their course of flight: call and chat software programs and other information applications directly targeted migrants, while electronic maps and other practical applications created radically different opportunities compared to those available during previous waves of migration. All in all: without Facebook, the other social media platforms, and mobile applications the whole story and its intensity would have been completely different.
As for social media activity of the volunteers, the number of members of the Facebook groups of grassroots organizations markedly increased in June and July 2015. Until the reduction in the significant presence of migrants in Hungary, the larger groups, Segítsünk Együtt a Menekülteknek – Let’s Help the Refugees Together (SEM), and Migration Aid (MA), based their operations in Budapest and had an online membership of 10,000 in closed Facebook groups that were established to help active members organize operational work. The open page of MA, which initiative was the easiest to join, and was designed to provide a floor for discussing pro-migrant opinions had amassed 35,000 ‘likes’ within a few months. The closed operative groups tied to specific aid locations usually had a few thousand members: the closed groups of Migration Aid dedicated to the three largest Budapest railway stations were MA Keleti (2,500 members), MA Nyugati (2,900 members) and MA Déli (1,200 members). One of the main MA bases outside Budapest was MA Debrecen (600 members). The largest grassroots group outside the capital, MigSzol Szeged, was founded at the end of June 2015 as the first such grassroots groups on Facebook during the Hungarian phase of refugee crisis in the summer of 2015 and had around 2,500 members. Membership of the individual groups rose remarkably fast until October 2016 (when the borders of Hungary have been ceased and the migration flow decreased significantly), despite the fact that there were overlaps between the groups.
The Hungarian migrant solidarity grassroots groups have been fast shrunken after the migration crisis bypassed Hungary and started to decrease or complete the migrant focused activity or shifted their attention towards local vulnerable groups, but except for Migration Aid, most groups finished or minimalized any other kinds of activity due to several reasons.
Key themes of this research case study include solidarity, grassroots groups, migration, migrants and refugees, social media, Facebook, and mobile applications practical for migrants and refugees. The research was undertaken from September 2015 to January 2018 in Hungary (in Budapest, Szeged, & Debrecen). Methods included interviews with leaders of grassroots groups, focus groups with volunteers, and a general population survey on attitudes.
In response to the research question – how new forms of solidarity and Hungarian solidarity grassroots groups emerged from scratch very rapidly and operated effectively by using social media (mainly Facebook) and various practical applications – the key finding is that social media platforms, predominantly Facebook, made the formulation and operation of volunteer grassroots groups with no organizational history of independent individuals extraordinary fast, effective and influential, at a level that has never experienced in a humanitarian crisis in Hungary before. The inevitable role of social media, especially Facebook, was among the most important tools in the evolution of the movement as the grassroots groups popped up on Facebook, as well as organized and promoted their daily activities using this site.
For full details, see:
Bernát, A. (2016): Hosts in Hostility: The new forms of solidarity and the role of volunteer and civilian organizations in the migration crisis in Hungary. In: Simonovits, B., Bernát, A. (ed).: The Social Aspects of the 2015 Migration Crisis in Hungary, TARKI Social Research Institute, Budapest. 2016, pp 72-100, http://old.tarki.hu/hu/news/2016/kitekint/20160330_refugees.pdf
Bernát A., Kertész, A., Tóth, F. M. (2016): Solidarity reloaded: Volunteer and civilian organizations during the migration crisis in Hungary, Review of Sociology of the Hungarian Sociological Association, vol. 26, (2016) 4. http://www.szociologia.hu/dynamic/29_52_veg.pdf