When Britain's arms and pockets were wide open: Oliver Gillie looks back 36 years to the arrival of another group of eastern European refugees

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THE REFUGEES who fled to Britain from Hungary in 1956 were welcomed as heroes. They were given money, housing, scholarships and jobs - virtually every facility the state could provide.

'We could not have had a better reception,' Dr Lorant Czigany, 57, an expert in eastern European literature, said. 'A committee of the vice-chancellors and principals of British universities sent representatives to Vienna to make a selection of students. And there was a big collection, the Lord Mayor's Fund, which was used to give us scholarships.'

Of the 200,000 Hungarians who left their country in 1956, about 11,000 settled in Britain. Dr Czigany was selected for Oxford where, along with other Hungarians, he was lionised. 'They were great days, I can tell you. I only had to say I was a Hungarian student and doors opened everywhere. I was invited to many parties at Oxford but ordinary people were also very friendly. When I first arrived in London I could speak hardly any English. I took a 52 bus and the conductor would not let me pay the fare. He halted the bus between stops to show me where to go.'

Many of his countrymen were welcomed by the great and the good. Peter Meisner, 57, a consultant physician, spent his first week in England staying with Dick Hare, professor of moral philosophy at Oxford. He was then accommodated at the expense of the British Council in a pleasant hotel in Lancaster Gate, central London.

'There was a great sympathy for the Hungarian revolution and many British people had a tremendous feeling of guilt about the Suez campaign . . . they felt that the Russians would never have dared to invade Hungary if Britain had not invaded Egypt. They felt that Britain had made it easy for the Russians and they wanted to put it right.'

Dr Meisner, who went to Newcastle University, was one of 500 Hungarians given university scholarships. Many of them are now professors or readers.

'The situation was different from today because we faced the possibility of the firing squad or long prison sentences if we were sent back. And it seemed at that time that Hungary would be a communist country forever. Now there is no polarisation, no enemy. People see it more as a nuisance that these Yugoslavs cannot get on well together. Nevertheless, those who have escaped harassment at home should be given the same rights that other refugees have traditionally been given in Britain,' he said.

In 1956, Peter Falush, 57, a consultant economist, was in Vienna for only a few days before getting free passage to Britain. 'The machinery was very slick. I just had to apply to come to England and then I was on a plane,' he said.

'The British have always seemed a tolerant, hospitable and compassionate lot up to now. It is a great pity that this capital seems to have been used up. There is a fatigue because there are so many of these international crises. Now, there is Somalia as well. People think that there is only so much they can do.'

The only Hungarian refugees not unconditionally welcomed in 1956 were the miners. At home they had been an elite, but they found that British miners, whose jobs were beginning to be threatened by the development of nuclear power, did not want to work with them. So they were found other jobs. The British Council published a Hungarian language newspaper that helped them to keep in touch and to find employment.

Mr Falush said: 'The situation in 1956 was very different because there was generally full employment in Britain then . . . there was a need for trained labour. Now the economic situation is difficult and the Government is doing everything it can to save candle-ends. Nevertheless, a few millions spent on refugees is peanuts compared with overspending on other things.

'The Hungarians who came here were of all social classes and they were all welcomed. They have integrated. I know of very few who have returned. The fact that some of the Yugoslavs who want to come here are Muslims should have nothing to do with it. There are 2 million Muslims in this country. The only solution is for the European Community to take these people and share them out on a quota basis,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)