Hungary’s Roma people have their own particular problems compared with others of that community elsewhere in central and eastern Europe. A big factor is the country’s relatively low economic growth in relation to other former communist countries. The social and economic troubles that Hungary has been unable to shrug off in the past two years have generated tensions between ethnic Magyars and Roma.
The two groups are, in fact, competing with each other in the job market. But the 700,000 Roma (out of a Hungarian population of 10 millions) are at a huge disadvantage, being less well educated and, consequently, less skilled. These social tensions have fed a fear of minorities in some quarters. It’s one of the main factors in the rise of the far-right Jobbik party.
The success of Jobbik has, in turn, caused the ruling conservative Fidesz party to take a more hardline approach to the Roma. One of Jobbik’s main proposals is to revise programmes drawn up by previous governments to integrate the Roma into Hungarian society. The far-fight blames the minority community for surging crime across the country, particularly in the under-developed north-east. This part of Hungary has been lagging behind the rest of the country since the collapse of communism twenty years ago.
As a result many Roma say they miss the relative security and stability socialism offered, and I have heard some of them refer fondly to the “good times” of the hammer and sickle era — a time, they say, when everyone had a job and a house. Many believe there is a real danger that growing hostility to the Roma could lead to segregation becoming a real option in the eyes of some Hungarians. It could push some within the political class to search for a consensus on dismantling the few social benefits (like positive action) enjoyed by the Roma.
But the poor level of education of the Roma is the main cause of the widening gulf between the two communities. Many of of the minority don’t trust the education system because of its historic lack of tolerance of their culture. So they miss out on one of the easiest ways to fast integration.
However on our trip we met two interesting exceptions. The first is a talented young woman, Vivien, who is successfully studying law and the history of art. Her dream is to work one day in the civil rights sector. The second case is represented by a school in the 8th district of Budapest, the Gipsy district. Classes contain both Roma and Magyar children, who attain equal standards. These are two examples of how the communities can co-exist when the authorities are tolerant of minorities and when minorities accept the integration challenges of society, like going to school.