Racist Crime Wave: Hungary's Roma Bear Brunt of Downturn

By Siobhán Dowling in Berlin

With Hungary in the depths of economic despair, its Roma minority has become an easy target for many people's resentments. The murder of a Roma man and his five-year-old son on Monday is the latest incident in a spiral of fear and hate.

The economic crisis in Hungary was bad enough. Now, rising ethnic tensions threaten to plunge the country into a social crisis as well. In the aftermath of what appears to be the racist-motivated murder of a Roma man and his five-year-old son, the country's ombudsman for minority affairs is calling on the political class to come up with an "ethnic peace plan."

Members of the far-right Hungarian Guard at a rally against "Roma crime" in Budapest earlier this month.
REUTERS

Members of the far-right Hungarian Guard at a rally against "Roma crime" in Budapest earlier this month.

A brutal arson attack in the early hours of Monday morning provided the most recent trigger for concern. In the village of Tatárszentgyörgy, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the capital Budapest, a Roma man and his five-year-old son were shot dead as they tried to escape their burning house. Two other children were left with serious burns.

The attack, though, was no exception. A series of violent crimes in Hungary have targeted Roma in recent months, including fire bombings of Roma homes. Furthermore, the escalation of ethnic tensions comes as the extreme right seeks to exploit Hungary's economic pain for its political gain.

'An Alarming Rate'

Heading up the racist rhetoric is the far-right Jobbik party. The group, along with its paramilitary organization called the Hungarian Guard, has launched a campaign against what it refers to as "Roma crime."

Worryingly, the center-right Fidesz party has also jumped on the bandwagon, urging the minority Socialist government to clamp down on crime. "We must say that the number of serious crimes committed by Roma people is rising at an alarming rate," Fidesz said in a statement released earlier in February.

Such finger pointing is hardly a new phenomenon. Roma and Sinti people, often referred to as Gypsies, have long been forced to the fringes of Eastern European society. Prejudice against them is high and many of them live in deep, long-term poverty. Hungary is home to one of the world's largest Roma minorities, where they make up between 5 and 7 percent of a population of 10 million.

With Hungary now hit particularly hard by the economic crisis -- having been forced to take an emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund -- the Roma are providing a convenient scapegoat for many of the country's ills.

Stoking tensions even further, the police chief in the town of Miskolc said earlier this month that all of the muggings in a council estate in the city had been perpetrated by Roma people. Although he was initially suspended, he was reinstated after 1,000 people turned up for a rally to support him.

Then on Feb. 8 three handball stars from Romania, Croatia and Serbia were stabbed in a nightclub. The Romanian, Marian Cozma, ultimately died from his injuries, resulting in cries of "death to Gypsies!" at a memorial for him -- even before police announced that two of the suspects were indeed Roma. The incident was followed by numerous anti-Gypsy demonstrations across the country.

Turning the Majority

Hardly surprising, says Dr. Michael Stewart, an anthropologist at University College London who specializes in Hungary's Roma communities. "We have been saying for years that there will be a pretty horrible explosion of violence," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. He argues that with no immigrants and no longstanding conflicts with neighbors, the Gypsies are an obvious target for any resentment present in Hungarian society. "Many of them are poor and live on social security, so it's easy to turn the majority against them."

One of the reasons that they are so easy to scapegoat, he argues, is that there is no ethnic monitoring in the country. "We don't have the numbers," he said. "If you had voluntary ethnic monitoring you might find that street robberies are carried out by young Gypsy men, though not by women and not by middle aged people. But you could also find that Gypsies are stopped by the police and asked for their papers nine times more than other Hungarians."

Robert Kushen, the director of the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), says that there is no evidence to suggest there has been any increase in crime committed by Roma. "The paradox is that the police don't keep data about ethnic origin and yet there are then these broad announcements about increases in Gypsy crime -- without any evidence," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

Stewart points out that Roma people are increasingly seen as a burden on the general population. "People accuse the Gypsies of living off the system," he says. In good economic times, that leads to resentment. With the economy going south, it has led to rising tensions.

Much of that tension comes from racist myths about Roma people prevalent in Hungary and other Eastern European countries -- that they don't want to work, for example. "It's totally untrue," he says. "Whenever they get the opportunity to work, people jump at it. They are not lazy."

'Virulent and Widespread'

Finding work, though, has become more difficult of late. The unemployment rate in Hungary is soaring, with the rate hitting 8 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008. Most expect joblessness to continue its climb. With many Roma working as unskilled laborers, particularly in construction, Roma will likely be disproportionately hit by the economic turmoil. Many have already lost their jobs in recent months. Add to that the discrimination they frequently suffer when looking for work and things are particularly bleak for their communities.

On Tuesday a committee of the Council of Europe -- a human rights watchdog not connected to the European Union -- released a report on racism in Hungary in which it noted that Roma people "continue to face both a disproportionately high rate of unemployment and discrimination in access to employment." It also said that "anti-Roma discourse appears to be becoming increasingly virulent and widespread."

ERRC director Kushen says that while the Hungarian government has made some efforts to address the issues of the social marginalization suffered by the Roma, not enough has been done and whatever programs are in place are not sufficiently funded. "It is a failure of political will to introduce programs that require a higher level of investment," he says, adding that officials are often unwilling to take the heat for supporting unpopular measures.

On Tuesday Hungary's ombudsman on minority affairs, Erno Kallai, took the unprecedented step of addressing the national parliament about the spate of attacks on Roma families. "I strongly urge you to come up with an ethnic peace plan," he said. "Not hollow statements but concrete measures that can be implemented immediately and understood by the whole of society." He also criticized the police for failing to catch the perpetrators of Monday's murders.

According to Kushen, one of the biggest problems in dealing with violence directed at Roma people is that there is a huge reluctance to take into account the ethnic factor when investigating crimes. He says the government has to be "much more forthright in recognizing that this is a hate crime."

"An effort has to be made to show that this will not be tolerated," he says. "Otherwise the impression is created that people can kill Roma and get away with it."

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