Pushed out by the Hungarian government, CEU relocated operations from Budapest to Vienna, a move that has been a tortuous bureaucratic ordeal for some non-European students.

More than 70 years ago, social theorist Max Weber declared bureaucracy to be “the most rational known means of carrying out imperative control over human beings.” Franz Kafka’s novels vividly convey the perverse, soul-crushing and farcical nature of the modern bureaucratic state.

For a number of those attending Central European University (CEU), Weber’s and Kafka’s ruminations couldn’t have been more appropriate following the institution’s exodus from Hungary to Austria.

Over the past year, CEU’s students and staff were tasked with relocating from Budapest to Vienna after the prestigious Hungarian school was effectively driven out by the Orban government.

One student, Ahmed Samir Santawy, initially welcomed the decision thinking Vienna would be more progressive than Budapest was. In the end, it turned out to be anything but.

“Hungary is notorious for its discrimination and racism against foreigners. But I would say Vienna is worse than Budapest,” Santawy, who hails from Egypt, told TRT World when comparing the two immigration systems.

“I never thought I would witness such ethical and moral dilemmas during this migration,”Mohammad Abu Hawash, a masters student in public administration and student rep, told TRT World. “Some of the things I witnessed really makes you think.”

Founded in 1991 by Hungarian-American billionaire financier and philanthropist George Soros, CEU has offered affordable English-language higher education in Budapest to students from more than 100 countries, while internationally ranked as the top university in the country.

However in 2017, under Hungary’s ultra-conservative government, CEU would get embroiled in an anti-Soros campaign led by right-wing nationalist prime minister Viktor Orban.

Viewed as a bastion of liberalism and a thorn in the side of Orban’s illiberal regime, the attack on its academic freedom spurred widespread protests domestically and abroad.

After a protracted legal battle, the government revoked the institution’s ability to issue US-accredited degrees in Hungary. By December 2018, CEU announced it would cease operations in Budapest and aim to relocate its activities to Vienna by 2019.

Demonstrators hold posters as they protest against the efforts to close Central European University, as part of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s plan to transform Hungary into an “illiberal state” in Budapest, Hungary, Sunday, Apr. 9, 2017.
Demonstrators hold posters as they protest against the efforts to close Central European University, as part of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s plan to transform Hungary into an “illiberal state” in Budapest, Hungary, Sunday, Apr. 9, 2017. (Janos Marjai / AP)

While the European Court of Justice ruled in October that legislation drawn up by the Hungarian government with the ostensible aim of forcing out CEU was incompatible with EU law, it was too little too late.

The story of CEU’s battle with Orban’s government saw a fair amount of international coverage, and rightfully so. Less focus though was paid on the laborious transition that was about to commence – and those caught in its muddled cross-hairs.

A nightmarish relocation

For over 1,200 enrolled students and 500 staff members, navigating the rigors of moving to a new city – amid a raging global pandemic no less – was never going to be an easy proposition. Nor would it be a walk in the park for the university’s administration either.

Operating in Vienna meant receiving Austrian accreditation, which CEU expected to receive by May last year. In preparation for the move, the administration circulated troubleshooters and information on Austria’s immigration requirements.

For those who already had a Hungarian permit were encouraged to apply for Austrian residency while in Vienna, as long their stay didn’t exceed 90 days.

Citing an agreement with the mayor of Vienna, CEU initially indicated that a block in the Austrian embassy in Budapest would be earmarked to help students submit their residency applications.

“None of that happened because we got our accreditation in July. No one booked anything at the embassy,” said Abu Hawash. “We were all left to figure out our own residence situation.”

Santawy believed CEU’s initial guidance to deal with Austrian immigration was inadequate.

“It was either too general at best, or misleading at worst.”

A procedural labyrinth would only intensify from there. Applying for Austrian residence permits proved much trickier for a sizable chunk of students – and in some cases, were riddled with elements of alleged bias.

“I personally blame the university’s leadership for this massive institutional failure. There was a lot of denial,” Abu Hawash laments.

He remembered informal conversations on how Austria was a more liberal country, and it was good to be leaving a problematic place like Hungary. When it came to MA35 – the Austrian immigration authorities – nothing could be further from the truth.

“I had a much easier time with Hungarian immigration!” he exclaims, before going on to discuss the institutional history of the Austrian immigration system, referencing its de-radicalisation programs post-World War II and absconded Nazis who shaped Austrian politics for generations.

“Austria never really got rid of extremists in their government, and now we are feeling their institutional legacy.”

MA35 wouldn’t respond to phone calls nor emails in English, and being able to speak German or having a German speaker assist you would improve the whole experience immensely, Santawy said.

Speaking with TRT World on the condition of anonymity, another student felt that neither CEU nor MA35 were helpful during her residence permit process.

“The MA35 officer that I was assigned was extremely unprofessional, non-responsive, and at times biased,” she said. “In the case of CEU, they were unresponsive to my needs until the last minute when I sent a very charged email urging them to act.”

Despite that, she was ignored for the final four weeks up until she received a letter informing her that she had overstayed her visa and could no longer be approved.

CEU's Vienna campus is located in Favoriten, the Austrian capital's multicultural 10th district and one of the city's most diverse locales.
CEU's Vienna campus is located in Favoriten, the Austrian capital's multicultural 10th district and one of the city's most diverse locales. (Central European University)

In comparison, Hungarian immigration was far more communicative, Santawy observed. In Hungary, if your residency application is delayed after the 90-day visa-free stay has passed, you would receive a temporary permit.

But in Austria, your stay cannot exceed 90 days or face severe penalties, even if your application is being processed. Despite the expectation that it would be processed in 90 days, MA35 is under no legal obligation to issue one within that period and can take up to six months if they choose.

Both Santawy and Abu Hawash believed that CEU, having only dealt with Hungarian immigration authorities until this point, appeared to be just as in the dark as the students were when it came to the Austrian process.

Students weren’t informed beforehand about income requirements for the permit either, adding to the delay as many were forced to scramble and borrow money from parents or friends.

Having lost his job as a tour guide in Budapest after the pandemic started, Abu Hawash ran a fundraiser to make up for what he was short of. Those who didn’t have enough had to leave and go back to their domiciles.

CEU reimbursed a small sum to students in June to cover residency application costs, but it hardly covered notary and translation services, which would end up being €600 ($730) or more in some cases.

Abu Hawash’s family in Jordan had to chip in to help him in the middle of the pandemic. “It was quite the challenge,” he said. He has not yet attained his residence permit at the time of writing and is currently in Jordan.

When approached by TRT World for comment on the immigration issues faced by students, CEU responded with the following statement:

“It is important to note that throughout the application process, the Dean of Students Office has been supporting students with their residency permits; this includes issuing guidelines and instructions, conducting orientation sessions and targeted presentations, and providing regular updates and reminders. And in addition to general support, our students also receive individual help on a case-by-case basis.”

An architect's rendering of the cafe and study spaces inside CEU's new Vienna campus building.
An architect's rendering of the cafe and study spaces inside CEU's new Vienna campus building. (Central European University)

However, each of the students interviewed by TRT World felt that CEU was not as attentive of their needs early on and sprang into action only much later.

“When the [CEU] administration didn’t see this as a crisis, I felt like our lives didn’t matter,” Santawy said.

He mentioned a student whose stay exceeded 90 days and was asked by the authorities to leave with immediate effect. The student union then forwarded a petition signed by over 300 people demanding CEU offer legal assistance to the student facing deportation.

Santawy recalled the response to the petition from CEU’s president and rector, Michael Ignatieff, who highlighted the word “deportation” as being unhelpful.

After toiling back and forth over countless correspondences, Santawy finally received his permit just before the end of his free stay visa in mid-December. Being on a scholarship, he didn’t have to worry about covering his accommodation expenses in an expensive city like Vienna.

But others weren’t as lucky. Santawy recounted students who had organised accommodation for themselves after spending months in Vienna to secure an apartment, were then forced to leave because they never received a response from MA35 in time.

The anonymous student also had to endure a costly relocation situation. “I had to pay a €300 fine to return to the US and about $400 for a return ticket,” she said.

CEU reimbursed her for some of the incurred costs but she’s still waiting to receive further compensation.

Back in the US, she tries to juggle working during the day to pay her rent back in Austria and attend classes as early as 5am due to the time difference. 

Hidden bias of bureaucracy?

According to Abu Hawash, less than half of CEU’s enrolled students managed to relocate as of the end of 2020. He and Santawy estimate that at least 45-50 of them remain in immigration limbo.

For EU students or those well-connected with the financial resources at their disposal, the process is less grueling Abu Hawash and Santawy said, asserting that those most affected were disproportionately non-European students.

The anonymous student believes that her identity as a black woman may have factored into why she didn’t receive the same treatment as her other American colleagues, all of whom received their permits, some even after their 90-day visa free stay.

“I don’t think it's necessarily a coincidence at the beginning of students receiving letters that they must leave the country that most of us were women of colour,” she added.

While most of CEU’s students come from non-European countries, that might not be for long with the messy move to Vienna. With it becoming very expensive to attend, Abu Hawash believes the institution is slowly becoming “whitewashed”.

“We’ve been talking about how this move was going to negatively impact the university’s diversity. The number of people coming from outside Europe will significantly decline,” said a frustrated Abu Hawash.

“If they want to be true to their mission, they need to think about how the demographics of CEU are going to change and about how they are hurting communities that contribute to the university.”

Santawy ultimately felt there was a pattern of discrimination taking place behind the veil of opaque paperwork.

“The way that the immigration office and CEU framed it was that ‘this is bureaucracy’. But most of the people experiencing this were people of colour,” he said.

“CEU promotes itself as a diverse and multicultural student body. It’s a shame that we’re used in video promotions, but when it comes to our daily experiences and struggles we didn’t matter as much.”

Source: TRT World