Budapest retracts fraternal welcome

December 21, 2000

Hungary's education ministry wants to reduce the number of ethnic Hungarian students from neighbouring countries studying at its universities, according to a foreign office minister.

During the past ten years, successive governments have expressed strong concern for the ethnic Hungarian communities who live where their ancestors have lived for centuries, but who, since frontier changes after the first world war, have found themselves outside the country's borders.

Hungary has constantly pressed for Hungarian-taught higher education to be provided for ethnic Hungarian students in neighbouring countries. Until now, however, there has been the tacit assumption that, in case of need, such students would always be welcome in Hungary itself.

The U-turn came about because of the problem of paying these students' health insurance contributions. Although many Hungarians from neighbouring countries receive grants from the Hungarian government, a considerable number do not. As foreign citizens, they are not automatically entitled to free medical treatment and they have to pay health insurance contributions. The education ministry pays the contributions for students on grants - but not for those outside the framework of the grant system.

Sandor Lezsak, a Hungarian MP, has been pressing the ministry of education to pay part, if not all, of the insurance contributions of students from Vojvodina in the northern province of Serbia, where the situation is particularly grim. There are an estimated 320,000 ethnic Hungarians among its population. The students come predominantly from poor families who can barely afford to finance their studies - let alone pay for medical treatment in Hungary. Nor can they afford to pay the insurance contributions.

The ministry has refused to pay and has said that the state health insurance fund should bear the cost. The finance ministry, however, said that this would be impossible at present, so Mr Lezsak turned to the foreign ministry.

Zsolt Nemeth, secretary of state at the foreign ministry, told parliament that new legislation should make it possible to solve the problem. However, he asked the education ministry what was being done about the problem and was told that the only solution was to cut the number of diaspora students.

In the meantime, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban has indicated that Hungary is planning a family support system for ethnic Hungarians in neighbouring countries. This aid, he suggested, would be targeted at those families who send their children to Hungarian-language schools.

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