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  • Writer's picture Kester Eddy

The Orbán government, Hungary's Roma and the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance

Updated: Mar 13, 2023

Photo: Not writing papers about it, not debating policy, but doing it - teaching Roma students. That's former MP Tibor Derdák (right), headmaster of the Dr Ambedekar School, and some of his staff and pupils. This photo was taken in 2014, in the school's former premises in the village of Sajókaza, near Kazincbarcika. north-east Hungary.

The Council of Europe published its latest report on the state of affairs regarding racism and intolerance in Hungary last Thursday.

Somewhat confusingly, it's entitled the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) – but, as I understand it, it's not THE European Commission – not the nasty one holding back the money it owes Hungary after questioning the rule of law in Budapest - it's merely the Council of Europe's own little 'commission'.

But never mind the bureaucratic details, what does it have to say?

Well, it's 50-pages all told, but if you take out the references and seven-pages of Hungarian government defence of what the report states/alleges, you have the essentials, 35 pages covering issues from hate speech to the ability (or not) of obtaining political asylum and “growing LGBTI stigmatisation” in the country.

It's enough to generate half a dozen blog posts, but perhaps the simplest summary of a good chunk of things is this sentence, taken from the press release that was sent to journalists on Wednesday.

"According to the report, political and other public discourse in Hungary has become “increasingly xenophobic” and has taken on “highly divisive and antagonistic overtones” in recent years, especially targeting refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, Muslims and LGBTI persons."

The report also covers efforts to combat discrimination against Hungary's Roma population, which it estimates to be 8% of the total - that's a wee bit under 800,000 folks - and it's the part that caught my eye.

This is from the press release: "ECRI lauds the adoption of a police hate crime protocol in 2019, which aimed at enhancing hate crime investigations, including through the appointment of ‘mentors’ at each local police unit. Furthermore, the authorities have made significant efforts to improve Roma inclusion through the National Social Inclusion Strategy, supplemented by further actions, such as the “Emerging Settlements” initiative."

So far, so good, but it continues:

"ECRI is also concerned that school drop-out rates for Roma remain high, segregation in education is still widespread, Roma occupy the most disadvantaged positions in the labour market and forced evictions of Roma continue, often without appropriate re-housing solutions."

Hmmm. That's beginning to sound a bit grim. So I looked up what the report actually says on these issues. It reads:

"The situation of many Roma is characterised by a vicious circle of poor education, leading to limited opportunities in the labour market, and frequent de-facto residential segregation, which also has a negative impact on access to health care and other social services. The inter- related problems of poverty, discrimination and stigmatisation also persist. According to a[n] FRA survey, the rate of household members at risk of poverty was 15% for non-Roma compared to 75% for Roma."

It also notes that the Covid-19 pandemic hit Roma communities particularly badly.

"Working often in already precarious sectors and with no savings to buffer the loss of income, many Roma faced increasing unemployment, which pushed them into deeper poverty. In this regard, ECRI takes positive note of measures taken by the authorities to mitigate the situation, including the delivery of food packages to the recipients of social aid benefits in 2020."

And most Roma kids, lacking laptops, found the transition to studying online fairly difficult, but at least it seems “the authorities” did something to help in the dark days of Covid. As well they might, given the millions that the European Union dished out at the time – although there are no details provided in the report.

However, the writers certainly give “the authorities” (for which I read the government), a fair crack of the whip. It continues:

Hungary has invested significant efforts into improving the inclusion of Roma through its National Social Inclusion Strategies (hereafter the Strategy),” and then goes on with an explanation of policies before noting changes in the administration which were “not welcomed symbolically, had neither been discussed with the representatives of the community nor its consequences assessed properly.”

Surely not a case of the government charging ahead, without any consultation because, of course, it knows best? Who'd have thunked it?

But unfortunately, it would seem so. Almost the next sentence goes:

"Several reports indicate that the problems experienced by Roma people are rarely and poorly channelled into the work of the local authorities."

(OK, it talks about “local authorities” here, but a fish rots from the head, right?)

However, it was the bit on education that I found really telling. As is its diplomatic style, the report tries to cite some positive moves in policy and action regarding the issue, but then we come face to face with the hard truth.

"However, in spite of these efforts, a FRA survey shows that the share of early school leavers out of all persons aged 18-24 years in Roma households remains at 68 % …"

So, after "investing significant efforts" into improving the lot of the Roma, plus receiving billions of euros courtesy of European taxpayers, supposedly spent on the same cause (and most particularly in education), we are left, at least in percentage terms, simply treading water?

Perhaps one reason, the writers of the report perceptively note, is education policy.

"Reportedly, the lowering from 18 to 16 of the compulsory school age has further aggravated the situation."

Well, fancy that? The government (that's the government of Viktor Orbán, just to be clear) lowered the school leaving age, and “reportedly” kids left school earlier. Astonishing.

Photo: The Roma settlement of Sajókaza - January 2014.

By now, you might just be wondering whether the Fidesz government is really taking the issues affecting Roma very seriously.

Equally, I suppose, you might be thinking I'm a tad too cynical. Well, let me state now that I don't think it's an easy matter, reversing centuries of social deprivation. And it certainly isn't a simple issue to help a kid, Roma or otherwise, raised in poverty, to get a PhD.

But am I cynical?

Well, by coincidence, on the very morning the report was released, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was addressing a big pow-wow hosted by that august, and certainly well funded body, the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

In his address (which he intimated would be short, but …) he spoke at length about the need to find 500,000 new workers for his industrialisation policy. Now Mr Orbán frequently has, shall we say, highly optimistic plans, but even he knows he can't conjure 500,000 people out of thin air. So he spoke about where they might come from.

Naturally, even though Hungary's unemployment rate is at 3.9% (a figure many countries in western Europe would envy), these still represent some 200,000 people without jobs. Mr Orbán didn't actually mention these souls, though he did refer to the 70,000 or so on “public works schemes”, that is, they report for duty to the local municipality every day and work according to the mayoral orders for something below the minimum wage. (I don't know what this sum is any more, but I'd guess it's around HUF 90,000 – 100,000 per month by now.)

How about these people then, many of whom, as is common knowledge, are Roma?

This is what the PM had to say, according to the official government translation (which is, almost invariably, of high quality).

... it must be made very clear that when we talk about these 500,000 new jobs, the focus must first of all be on mobilising internal reserves. The internal reserves aren’t in public works. We started in public works with maybe 200,000 people, and now we’re at around 70,000. That pool is probably not where we’ll find the type of skills and knowledge that the economy could use under market conditions. It’s not a reserve, but quite simply a matter of giving people jobs instead of welfare benefits, so that they can support themselves and their families with a reasonable degree of self-respect. This is extremely important! They should be honoured and thanked for their willingness to take part in meaningful work instead of protesting for benefits, and to provide work in return for the money they receive there in wages for public works. So it’s not a reserve.

Oh, that sounds rather like the brutal end of that then.

Now, as it stands, Mr Orbán is probably correct in his assessment, but in large part that is because, as the ECRI report puts it:

"Research indicates that while this scheme helps to lower the rate of long-term unemployment, it creates a permanent unskilled workforce, offering no prospects to gain skills nor to join the active labour market."

That's right, they are typically put on mostly miserable, mind-numbing jobs, from which they learn nothing, or next to it.

But you'd think that as the leader of a European, Christian government (as the prime minister is wont to describe his administration) he might at least refer to the need to provide education for some of these 70,000, to help them drag themselves into the labour market proper?

I'm afraid there's not a word of that in last week's address - and that's not me being a cynic, that's just stating the fact.

You can check for yourself here:

Meanwhile, the ECRI report is here:

And if you have an interest in the Jai Bhim network and its Dr Ambedekar School, now located out there in Miskolc, try:

Have a good week.

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1 Comment

Mar 12, 2023

This is an important topic, so thank you Kester for your thoughtful coverage.

I think a more honest wording in the press release should read as follows: “In the past 13 years, the Hungarian government has sponsored a vast amount of media outlets, influencers and opinion formers to make political and other public discourse in Hungary “increasingly xenophobic” and include “highly divisive and antagonistic overtones”.

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