“Hungary and the Migrants: Groundhog Day” by Steven Koltai, CEME Senior Fellow

by Steven Koltai, CEME Senior Fellow

I couldn’t help but cringe when I saw the video of the Hungarian TV camerawoman deliberately tripping a fleeing refugee carrying his two-year-old-ish child across the Serbian/Hungarian border. Almost exactly 60 years ago, I was a two-year-old-ish child being carried by my father fleeing across the Hungarian/Austrian border during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. That picture told a thousand stories.

Like any people, there are wonderful, kind, moral, and ethical Hungarians. There are also deeply bigoted, xenophobic, irredentist, “un-Christian” Hungarians. Hungary has been on the wrong side of history for centuries. This is largely the explanation for why it is one-third of its “normal” geographic size and probably about the same for what would have been its “normal” population. What is especially tragic – besides being the poster child for history repeating itself – is that the refugees pouring in to “Old Europe” are actually precisely the sort of new energy and lifeblood that waning countries like Hungary need to revitalize their economies and their cultures.

Hungary, like many other Eastern European countries – including those most opposed to accepting migrants – has a declining population, fragile economy, and weak entrepreneurship ecosystem. Much of Europe needs a demographic shot in the arm to counter an aging population that demands both services and productive workers to pay for retirement services. In fact, as noted by Yves Pascouau, a migration expert at the Brussels-based European Policy Centre, the need to address Germany’s declining birth rates is an explicit factor in German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s desire to welcome and integrate Syrian refugees.

Yet, behold, many of the millions fleeing Syria are well educated, have some means, and own smartphones. Some reports are even suggesting that significant numbers come from upper-middle class backgrounds. We now know that the father cut down by the Hungarian camerawoman is a professional soccer coach and has lined up a coaching opportunity in Spain. These migrants also, clearly, have the wherewithal and determination to get up and go. In short, they are exactly the sorts of people Hungarians and Europeans should be welcoming in order to invigorate their economies.

Countries in Hungary’s position must realize two things. First, startups and young firms are responsible for creating the great majority of new jobs in any economy. Economists have shown that over the past several decades it is firms less than five years old that are responsible for net job creation in rich countries, and the same is true in poor countries and emerging markets, where small and medium enterprises predominate. Secondly, and crucially, migrants – with their new energy and boundary-crossing disposition – are very often responsible for launching these economically invigorating companies and organizations.

The migration stories of the U.S., Syria, and Hungary themselves attest to these truths. In recent years, a quarter of new American engineering and technology companies have boasted at least one founder who was an immigrant. The figure is over 50 percent in Silicon Valley. And more than 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by an immigrant or a child of an immigrant. The most famous of these we all know: Steve Jobs, son of a Syrian father.

Hungary, for its part, should be well aware of the power of migrants to contribute to societies. Its own diaspora have contributed enormously to the US, for example, in fields as diverse as semiconductors (Andy Grove of Intel), publishing (Joseph Pulitzer), business and philanthropy (George Soros), nuclear physics (Leó Szilárd, Edward Teller, John von Neuman, and the other Hungarian-American “fathers of the atomic bomb”), and entertainment (Harry Houdini and Peter Lorre).

Today, sadly, Hungary is looking a gift horse in the mouth. Rather than building fences and kicking children, countries from Hungary to Greece and across Eastern Europe should be trying to help the best and brightest of the Middle East’s migrants to settle in their lands. They should be helping the most talented migrants to take root and, possibly, sprout some of their next generation of great innovators. Instead, as seems to be the case, it is Groundhog Day for Hungary, once again shooting itself in the foot as it plays its usual role on the wrong side of history.


Steven R. Koltai is a CEME Senior Fellow at The Fletcher School. He is also a Guest Scholar at the Brookings Institution and the Managing Director of Koltai & Company LLC, an entrepreneurship ecosystem development consultancy. He is the founder of several companies and from 2009 to 2011 created and ran the Global Entrepreneurship Program at the U.S. Department of State.

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