Most of New Zealand’s Hungarians came as refugees after the 1956 uprising against Communism. New Zealand reacted rapidly to the Hungarian refugee crisis and offered to accept 1,000 of the 200,000 seeking refuge. The response demonstrated the country’s alignment with the West against Communism in the Cold War. A total of 1,117 refugees actually arrived between 1956 and 1959. They were carefully selected to ensure they would be assets to New Zealand.
A lucky escape
On 4 November 1956, 10 days before the Russians sealed the border between Hungary and Austria, Louis Tóth and his wife took the train from Budapest to the border and walked across. They were among the 1,117 refugees accepted by New Zealand. When he arrived, Louis knew little English and his knowledge of his adopted country was minimal: ‘I knew as much about New Zealand as New Zealanders probably know about Hungary.’ He started work in a sawmill in Southland, then moved to Wellington, did a library course and became a university librarian.
When the first 66 Hungarians landed at Auckland’s airport in December 1956, Department of Labour officials reported that, ‘A weary, bewildered and white faced group of people disembarked, facing the ordeal of landing, unknown, in a new country with strange customs, different laws, and above all a foreign language’. 1
Temporary reception centres were set up at Māngere, Trentham and Woburn. Although the government intended to disperse the refugees throughout New Zealand, most ended up in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Voluntary agencies worked with Department of Labour officers to help the new arrivals find accommodation and employment, and to learn English.
Adapting to New Zealand life
Most of the Hungarian refugees were male (about 700 men to 400 women). Many were single and in their 20s. They included professionals, skilled tradesmen and unskilled workers. There were also some family groups with young children.
Some of the refugees, particularly young men who were without family in New Zealand, experienced difficulties settling in. There was a report of drunkenness and fighting among Hungarians in 1957. A few encountered problems with New Zealand neighbours who had some difficulty adjusting to foreigners. New Zealanders helping the refugees were advised how best to respond to a new arrival whose ‘conduct may depart from the established norms of the society in which he is placed’. 2
This extract comes from the report of a welfare officer, who writes of the feelings of political mistrust among new refugees:
‘From a political point of view these Hungarians are harmless, I consider, even if some of them do happen to be, or have been, members of the Communist Party. I have been told that rumours have been spread according to which I am not in fact a Hungarian Welfare Officer but merely a paid agent of the Government to spy on their political beliefs. Some of the refugees do not approach me with confidence’. 3
Fitting into their new country was above all assisted by the plentiful employment opportunities in the 1950s. It is likely that by 1958 most of the new Hungarians of working age had found suitable employment.
Later 20th-century arrivals
Around 300 Hungarians arrived between the early 1960s and 1970s, some as refugees fleeing from Communism in Eastern Europe. After that time, an irregular stream of migrants continued to come from Hungary. Since 2000 the flow has increased, though the number is still very small.