Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The 2011 census recorded 315,583 Roma, although unofficial estimates variously put their number at between 250,000 and 800,000. Hungarian Roma are divided between Romungros or Gypsies who speak Hungarian, the Roms who speak both Hungarian and Romani (Lovari) and the Beash who speak an archaic version of Romanian and Hungarian. Much of Hungary’s Roma population has been linguistically assimilated and speak Hungarian. Half of the Roma population reside in urban areas. Regional distribution of the Roma population shows that a large proportion of Roma live in the counties of Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén and Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg, where they number more than 13.5 per cent of the total population.
Roma originated from South Asia many centuries ago. They first came in the 14th century to the Balkans, where they worked mainly in agriculture and industry in the Middle Ages. The earliest source relating to Roma in the territory of Hungary is a document dating from 1416. Evidence shows that they were subsequently persecuted and many were banished as they became increasingly stigmatized as a group.
In the 18th century, Hapsburg rulers Maria Theresa and Joseph II issued laws that banned the nomadic lifestyle of Roma within the country. While those Roma who were able to assimilate within these new restrictions stayed in Hungary and adopted Hungarian as their first language, others moved to elsewhere in Europe.
During the 19th century, many Roma became relatively well integrated in society and their culture flourished. However, with the introduction of mass production in the 20th century, many suffered unemployment as their traditional crafts became superfluous. This contributed further to stigmatization and discrimination by non-Roma Hungarians. This intolerance culminated tragically during World War II in the mass killing of tens of thousands of Hungarian Roma in Nazi concentration camps, from where only a very few returned.
After 1945 the socialist government saw Roma primarily as a social issue. Socialist industrialization and full employment ensured work for many Roma, but the majority of Roma were employed in areas of a temporary seasonal nature, offering job opportunities for those with limited skills and qualifications.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the communist authorities in Hungary embarked upon a policy of supporting Roma activities and culture which was quite exceptional at the time in Central and Eastern Europe.
Once the socialist economy started to decline in the 1980s and major state investments and construction projects were halted, factories started dismissing workers. Roma were hardest hit by this recession.
Despite the transformation into a multi-party democratic state after 1989, the marginalization of the Roma population increased. Roma were among those most affected by Hungary’s difficult transition from socialism to a market-based economy, and many lost their employment following economic decline and privatization of state industries.
The importance of addressing the situation of the Roma was emphasized during the accession process leading to Hungary’s membership in the EU in 2004. Following the accession criteria defined at a meeting of the EU Council in Copenhagen in 1993, Hungary was required to ‘improve the integration of the Roma minority […] through more efficient implementation and impact assessment of the medium-term Roma action programme, with particular emphasis on promoting access to mainstream education, fighting discrimination in society (including within the police services), fostering employment, and improving the housing situation’.
An international initiative called the Decade of Roma Inclusion, running from 2005 to 2015, was launched in nine Central, Eastern and South-Eastern European countries, including Hungary, with the financial support of, among others, the World Bank and the UN Development Programme. Its aim was to improve the economic status and social integration of the Roma population by developing appropriate policies to achieve these objectives and by monitoring performance. In Hungary, a working group was set up at prime ministerial level under the leadership of the Hungarian Prime Minister with the aim of coordinating Roma integration activities and combating discrimination during the decade.
The new Fidesz government adopted the National Social Inclusion Strategy (2011-2020), the revised version of which was adopted in 2014 and deals with Roma issues mainly concerning education, healthcare, housing, inclusion, child welfare and combating discrimination in general. Another important integration policy was also adopted in 2011 – the Framework Agreement between the Government and the National Roma Self-Government – in order to promote the social inclusion of the Roma population, with an emphasis on job creation and education.
Unfortunately the period after 2010,when the conservative Fidesz party won two-thirds of the majority in the Hungarian National Assembly, has been marked not only by the adoption of key integration policies, but also by growing nationalism. This environment has led to Roma being scapegoated and demonized in right-wing discourse, with anti-Roma rhetoric widely deployed by the ultra-nationalist Jobbik party during their campaigns.
In the 2010 parliamentary elections the radical nationalist and openly anti-Roma and anti-Semitic Jobbik or ‘Movement for a Better Hungary’ party entered the parliament for the first time. The Hungarian news agency MTI reported on Jobbik’s attempts to fulfil their campaign pledges addressing ‘Hungary’s biggest domestic problem’, which Jobbik allege is ‘the coexistence of Roma and Hungarians no political force was ready to face in earnest’, and ‘Gypsy criminality’.
The Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), the EU agency mandated to monitor racism and xenophobia across the Member States of the EU, has acknowledged that as a result of political populism minorities, migrants and other vulnerable groups have increasingly become targets of organized racist violence, which is also the case in Hungary, where a right-wing radical paramilitary group was created with openly anti-Semitic and anti-Romani aims. As an example, the extremist group ‘Civil Guard for a Better Future’ together with other xenophobic groups started marching in the town of Gyöngyöspata in 2011 creating a fearful atmosphere among the Roma community.
These and other incidents of anti-Roma hate crimes were overlooked by police. Official resistance to considering bias motivation and effectively investigating crimes reported by Roma victims was illustrated by the inadequate official response to the 2011 ethnically motivated ‘patrols’ in Gyöngyöspata, where the local Roma community was subjected to weeks of abuse and intimidation by armed vigilante gangs. In one of the reported cases, for example, a woman carrying her two-year-old daughter in her arms was threatened with an axe by an extremist. Although the perpetrator was a well-known far-right activist who even boasted of his anti-Roma activities in Gyöngyöspata on the internet, the police refused to investigate racist motivation and terminated the investigation shortly afterwards without reasonable grounds.
Living conditions for Roma communities continue to be significantly worse than for the general population and they suffer profound social and economic marginalization, limited access to services and lower life expectancy. Discriminatory and xenophobic attitudes remain widespread and Roma children in particular suffer from stigmatization, exclusion and socio-economic disparities.
Roma face significantly lower life expectancy and higher levels of poverty, reflected in markedly lower educational attainment. A recent study by the Hungarian Central Statistical Office revealed that among Roma aged between 15 and 64, 80 per cent had not achieved 8 or more years of schooling (four times the proportion among the general population). This included 16 per cent who had not finished primary school and another 63 per cent who did not complete secondary education – compared to 1 per cent and 9 per cent among non-Roma. Only 1 per cent had gone on to complete higher education. A separate problem is the high degree of segregation in Hungary’s education system: according to the FRA, 61 per cent of Roma children attend schools in which all or most of the children are Roma. Human rights monitoring groups have highlighted that, though many of these schools provide a lower quality of education, addressing this segregation does not appear to be a priority for the government.
Poor living conditions and inadequate housing also reflect their marginalization: for instance, 29 per cent of Roma live without tap water inside their dwellings and 43 per cent have no access to indoor toilets, showers or bathrooms. Civil society organizations monitoring the implementation of the Decade of Roma Inclusion strategy have argued that very little concrete improvements have been made to improve Roma access to social housing by the government and that the limited funds allocated to housing-related developments were funded by the EU, not from national funds.
Racist violence against Roma remains one of the most pressing issues in the country. Between January 2009 and September 2013 there were more than 100 cases of alleged hate-motivated violence targeting Roma and/or their property. Roma are often also subjected to hate speech. Although according to the data protection law it is illegal to record data on ethnic origin or religion, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) has reported that more than 60 per cent of hate speech incidents are directed against Roma. Many cases of hate speech are committed by ‘ordinary’ civilians, but extremist, xenophobic groups have become very visible in recent years. Cyberhate poses a particular challenge and Hungary has still not ratified the Additional Protocol to the Convention on Cybercrime.
These problems have been sustained by the continued hostility Roma face from police forces and officials, reflected in persistent discriminatory practices including ethnic profiling and fines for even the most minor infractions. This also extends to a failure to protect when Roma community members from attack: the Hungarian courts have ruled, for example, that the police directly discriminated against Roma during a major incident in Gyöngyöspata in 2011 when they neglected to protect Roma from far-right paramilitary groups who marched repeatedly through the community, intimidating and harassing its Roma residents.
Other problems Roma in Hungary have to face include the placement of Roma children in schools for the mentally disabled, underreporting of racially motivated crimes, trafficking of Roma women and children – around 40 per cent of trafficked persons in Hungary are Roma – and gender-based domestic violence. Despite the passing of a law in July 2013 specifically criminalizing domestic violence for the first time, human rights groups have highlighted the ongoing protection gaps for women in Hungary, particularly Roma women, who are especially at risk not only as a result of poverty and the patriarchal values of their community, but also due to their exclusion and mistrust of police and the judiciary.
Updated January 2018