Europe’s Roma

Hungary’s plan for the Roma

Apr 8th 2011, 15:39 by A.L.B. | BUDAPEST

TODAY is International Roma Day. Roma and NGO activists, Hungarian
politicians, European Union and government officials are gathered at
Budapest’s Ethnographic Museum to launch a new EU Roma strategy. After
an unpromising beginning to its six-month presidency of the EU in
January, when it found itself embroiled in a row with Brussels over a
controversial media law, Hungary is making a priority of the Roma
issue, and has ambitious plans. The government has pledged to create
100,000 jobs for Roma through a massive public-works programme.

There is certainly much to be done. As Zoltán Balogh, minister for
social inclusion, says: “Twenty years after the change of system [in
Hungary], the majority of Roma are in a worse condition.” Roma suffer
higher levels of poverty, unemployment and social exclusion than
non-Roma. Prejudice and hatred is rising, especially as the economic
slump bites.

Roma activists gave today’s plan a mixed welcome. NGOs complain that
it does not adequately deal with anti-Roma prejudice, that monitoring
mechanisms are inadequate, and that some targets, such as school
attendance, are already statutory obligations. Some groups say they
were not properly consulted.

The experience of Roma in western Europe hit the headlines last year
when France began a high-profile expulsion of illegal Roma immigrants.
Italian authorities have declared a state of emergency to deal with
the problem. Across the continent Roma children are systematically
segregated in schools. On average life expectancy for Roma is ten to
12 years less than for non-Roma. It is a staggering waste of human
potential.

Violence against Roma is a major problem. A recent report from the
European Roma Rights Centre found that very few attacks against Roma
in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia result in convictions. In
Budapest four men are on trial on charges relating to the murders of
six Roma in 2008 and 2009, including a five-year-old child and his
father, who were shot dead as they fled their house after an arson
attack.

This week Ferenc Gyurcsány, a former Socialist prime minister, turned
up at court to express his support for the victims’ families.
Predictably, his appearance sparked outrage among politicians from the
ruling Fidesz party. It also drew attention to the Socialists’
responsibility for the situation. Socialists have been in office in
Hungary for most of the time since the overthrow of communism. None
made any sustained efforts to deal with the Roma problem.

During the last Socialist government, between 2002 and 2010, poverty,
corruption and social problems soared as a self-selected cadre of
communists-turned-capitalists enriched themselves at the expense of
the wider population. The poorest sections of society, such as the
Roma, were hit worst. Large sections of the country, especially in the
deprived east and north, were virtually abandoned by central
government. In some settlements Roma families lacked (and continue to
lack) electricity, running water or sewage systems. Some scavenged in
neighbours’ gardens for vegetables and livestock to feed their
families.

The lacklustre response of the police to such petty crimes creates a
fertile recruiting ground for Jobbik, a far-right party, which
campaigns against what it calls “gypsy crime”. The party won 16.7% of
the vote in last year’s general election, and now has 47 MPs in the
386-seat National Assembly. Many people who voted for Jobbik are
former Socialist supporters.

Jobbik has skilfully exploited rising social tensions. Its support
rose in 2006 after the horrific murder of Lajos Szögi. Mr Szögi, a
teacher, was driving through Olaszliszka, in northern Hungary, with
his two young daughters. His vehicle brushed against a 12-year-old
Roma girl. She was not badly hurt, but Mr Szögi was dragged from his
car by an angry Roma mob, including many of the girl’s relatives, and
beaten to death.

But Roma society needs to change as well. Some Roma families
discourage their children from attending school, partly so they can
escape bullying, and press them to marry early and have children, thus
fuelling the cycle of deprivation and welfare dependence. Roma (and
non-Roma) women cradling babies or young children and begging are a
common sight on Budapest’s boulevards.

Last month Jobbik activists, many wearing the black uniforms of
self-proclaimed civil-guard associations, “patrolled” Gyöngyöspata, a
small town, intimidating Roma families, for two weeks, tolerated by
the local police (see picture). Last Saturday several hundred marched
through Hejoszalonta, a village in eastern Hungary, accusing a
Romany of murdering a 50-year-old woman. This time riot police secured
the area and kept the marchers and a counter-demonstration apart.

Stung by criticism that it is permitting para-state organisations, the
government has set up a crisis-response mechanism to improve
co-ordination between municipalities, the police and central
government. “Lessons have been learned,” pledges Mr Balogh. “Coercive
measures are a monopoly of the state. I will not let anyone, any
paramilitary or civil organisation, replace the police.”