Hungary’s Roma: The case for affirmative action

Posted February 22, 2011

2010 was the European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion. And yet Europe’s estimated 8-10 million Roma found themselves poorer and more socially excluded than ever after the Italian and French governments demolished “illegal” Roma settlements and deported thousands of Roma in clear violation of their rights as citizens of European Union member states. A bill introduced recently in the Romanian parliament to change the official name of the Roma people to “Gypsy” so as not to confuse them with ordinary Romanians merely added insult to injury.

Mutual distrust

The attitudes on the part of individual Hungarians towards the Roma ranges from paternalistic condescension to vile contempt and even murderous hatred; in 2009 a number of Roma were randomly gunned down in their homes. Even educated Hungarians generally consider the Roma lazy, unreliable and dangerous. The Roma react to such attitudes on the part of their non-Roma neighbours with a mixture of fear, mistrust, and loathing.
Underlying racial stereotypes is a body of anecdotal evidence repeated ad nauseam. One hears of gangs of criminals stripping gardens of their vegetables, orchards of their fruit, workshops of their equipment, and transformers of their copper wiring; of Roma families illegally squatting in outbuildings; of chronic absenteeism from school and work; of Roma parents squandering their welfare money on cigarettes and alcohol while their children go hungry; of murderous knife-welding Roma gangs roaming the streets; and of local police too intimated to do anything about “gypsy crime.”

A wide brush

No doubt Roma are among those committing crimes of this nature. But ask any social worker or missionary working with Roma families and they will tell you that the entire Roma community is being unfairly blamed for the actions of a few of its members.
My personal experience dealing directly with some of the Roma community’s poorest families is that they are, on the whole, kind and considerate, grateful for whatever assistance they receive, willing to work with school and town authorities to ensure their children have access to proper education and healthcare, and eager to improve their plight, but that nobody will hire them.

Exclusion worsening

The economic disenfranchisement and physical segregation of the Roma has reached the point where Hungary’s Roma and non-Roma peoples no longer mix. Hungary’s upper and middle classes go to great lengths to ensure that neither they nor their children need ever come into contact with Roma. The absence of regular social interaction and meaningful dialogue merely serves to reinforce racial stereotypes and fuel prejudice on both sides of the divide.
I witnessed a truly shameful spectacle the summer before last. I was invited to attend an international Roma music festival hosted at a beautifully renovated castle on a hillside overlooking a village whose inhabitants today are nearly all Roma. In the hollow next to the castle hill a covered stage was erected. The area for the audience in front of the stage was cordoned off from the rest of the grounds by a two metre high circular fence. Those wishing to enter or exit had to pass through a metal detector. Security for the event was provided by a small army of skinheads dressed in commando-style uniforms. Being in the audience was exactly like being in a high-security prison yard. Looking around at the Roma concert goers, I could see I was not the only one uncomfortable with this arrangement. Nearby, well-meaning Knights of Malta, dressed in medieval outfits, banners waving, handed out bags of apples.
Only visitors with VIP passes were granted access to the castle grounds where they could watch the event from the relative “safety” of the castle gardens overlooking the stage. Virtually none of the VIPs were Roma.
I was stunned by the event’s non-Roma organisers’ failure to understand that it was wrong to treat their Roma guests like inmates in a concentration camp. According to the event’s organisers such security precautions were necessary to ensure their celebration of Roma culture and music went off without incident.

Apartheid, Hungarian style

State schools throughout Hungary are eager Roma school children not exceed 10 per cent of the student body for fear this will trigger an exodus of “white” students. The fact that one in three children born in Hungary today is Roma helps explain why a disproportionate number of Roma students are placed in special schools for children with slight learning disabilities. School administrators are terrified of their school being labeled a “gypsy” school, and all this implies.
To see what a typical “gypsy” school looks like visit the Attila József Primary School for Arts in Budapest’s District IX. A plaque by the main entrance commemorates the fact that the school’s namesake attended the school as a child. One doubts the great 20th-century Hungarian poet would recognise it today. The roof has been badly leaking for so many years that classes can no longer be held on the top floor. Huge patches of plaster are pealing off the walls and ceilings, none of which have been painted in the past 20 years. The building reeks of mold and mildew, the result of improperly installed drainpipes. The walls of the sports hall are covered with mold. Window panes are missing. Modern ceiling lamps and the occasional interactive whiteboard stand in stark contrast to the dilapidated state of the building and furnishings.
The neglected state of “gypsy schools” mirrors the poor physical condition of many of the students. In neighbouring District VIII (home to one of Europe’s largest concentration of Roma) one third of the children attending the Menyhért Lakatos primary school receive little, if anything, to eat outside of school. One wonders how they survived to the age of five by which time all Hungarian children are required to attend kindergarten providing they meet the minimum weight requirement. Many Roma children do not.
The situation in the countryside is even worse.
In December, on the eve of Hungary’s assumption of the EU presidency, the United States and Norwegian embassies sponsored a day-long symposium at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences with the stated objective of compiling a specific set of proposals for improving the plight of Hungary’s and, by extension, Europe’s Roma. The conference was attended by a number of government representatives as well as various NGOs. While there was general agreement that the Roma faced enormous challenges, there was little agreement as to what should be done. And despite the organisers’ best intentions, the conference mainly consisted of representatives of the government criticising the policies of the previous government while trying to explain the current government’s policies which had been formulated and were being implemented without consulting any of the NGOs attending the symposium.
Although providing a useful forum for discussion and debate, the day long conference failed to yield any specific proposals. This was not the organisers’ fault. There is little consensus among the various stakeholders as to how to go about addressing what is not one problem, but a complex series of interrelated problems.

The fall after communism

Under communism the Roma were forced to abandon their itinerant life-style and work either in factories or on collective farms. Many of them were settled in the new heavy industrial cities of northern Hungary. On the eve of the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 some 90 per cent of working-age Roma were gainfully employed, and had been for decades.
During the 1990s the agricultural cooperatives and heavy industry on which Roma livelihoods depended were either wound up or closed down. Former state-owned companies frequently emerged from the privatisation process having shed most of their Roma workforce. Most of the direct foreign investment in manufacturing during the 1990s took place in the western half of the country. The northern and eastern parts of the country, cut off from the rest of Hungary by a lack of highways, attracted little foreign investment, resulting in persistently high levels of unemployment.
Whereas their grandparents worked on factories and farms, most Roma children today are being raised by parents who have never held a regular job. In most of the smaller towns and villages near the Slovak and Ukrainian borders the local government is the largest and often only employer, providing temporary employment cleaning and maintaining public areas six hours a day for up to nine months. Inexplicably, the national government recently decided to limit this to four hours a day for three months. One wonders what Hungary’s leaders are thinking, or whether they think at all.

What extreme poverty looks like

The collapse of the cooperative farms and heavy industry was devastating for Hungary’s Roma communities. In the town of Forró just west of Encs one-third of its 120 Roma families live in “extreme poverty”. One encounters this term frequently when reading about the Roma, but what exactly does that mean?
It means living nine or ten people to a room in ramshackle houses without running water or sewerage. It means sleeping three or four to a bed with the kitchen table doubling as a bed for one or more children. It means children taking turns going to school because there is only one pair of shoes. It means subsisting largely on a diet of vakaró (literally scratch) – flour mixed with baking soda and water, kneaded into a dough and cooked on the top of a wood or coal burning stove. And when the flour runs out towards the end of the month, it means going hungry for days or even weeks at a time.
It means constantly having to forage for firewood, twigs, roots, fence ties, roof timbers, windows, doors: anything that can be chopped up and burnt in the stove. And for those caught illegally foraging for wood unable to pay the HUF 50,000 (EUR 185) fine, it means spending days, weeks or months in jail while their families freeze, not to mention the confiscation by the police of the offending bicycle or wagon used to transport the firewood. And according to the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ) documentary Without Rights (Jogtalanul) it means continually being harassed by the police.
If one-third of Hungary’s Roma population lives in extreme poverty then somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 Hungarian Roma live under continual threat of starvation and exposure. And because of the Roma penchant for large families, one can only conclude that between 120,0000 and 200,000 of them are children.

Whites only need apply

Clearly, no one symposium or article can begin to do the topic justice. But the crux of the problem can be seen in the following real-life example: After graduating from vocational high school, a young Roma adult male answered a work ad placed by a Budapest bakery by submitting his resume in person. The bakery continued to advertise the position for another month without contacting him. As the representative of the Polgár Foundation for Opportunity put it, “only in Hungary do people condemn the Roma for being too lazy to work but then refuse to hire them.” Unfortunately, this phenomenon is probably not limited to Hungary, as Roma throughout Europe find themselves competing for fewer and fewer jobs.
The case of the Roma baker is particularly discouraging because the individual in question was exceptional, both in terms of education and marketable job skills. Few Roma complete high school and even fewer go on to university. One reason is because most Roma are unable to meet the demanding academic requirements necessary to gain admission to pre-collegiate high schools (gimnázium). Those finishing the first eight years of primary school tend to be shunted into vocational schools where they usually end up learning trades for which there is little demand. With little prospect of finding a job after graduation there is little incentive to finish high school. Besides, one doesn’t need a high school diploma to work as a seasonal labourer or perform menial work on construction sites. (The collapse of Hungary’s agricultural and construction sectors has deprived tens of thousands of Roma of their livelihoods).
Potential employers justify the decision not to hire Roma on the grounds that they are “too unreliable”. While absenteeism may be a problem among new Roma employees, this attitude ignores the fact that tens of thousands of Roma work full-time jobs. I recently visited a large bakery and dairy in Encs and Abaujdevecser where a majority of the employees were Roma.

Weakness in numbers

One of the problems confronting well-meaning policy makers is the absence of reliable statistics. Many Roma are reluctant to declare themselves Roma for fear that this will be grounds for discrimination. According to the 2001 census only 190,046 or 1.8% of Hungarians identified themselves as Roma, whereas informed estimates of the number of Roma living in Hungary range from 550,000 to 800,000. One wonders whether the census scheduled to take place later this year will measure their numbers any more accurately, especially as few of the census takers are likely to be Roma and few of the advertisements encouraging individuals to participate in the census are likely to feature Roma individuals or families.

Population time bomb

One thing is clear. Despite their poverty (and perhaps because of it) the Roma are having more children at a younger age than the Hungarians. A lot more. At a time when a typical Hungarian family has one or two children, a typical Roma family has between three and five and often as many as seven or eight. And whereas Hungarian women typically put off childbirth until their 30s, Roma women usually start reproducing in their middle to late teens. Hungary’s exploding Roma population is one of the main drivers of radical right-wing politics. At a recent demonstration by the New Hungarian Guard (successor organisation to the banned Magyar Gárda), its leader, Jobbik chairman Gábor Vona, publicly called on Roma to have fewer children.
Cultural factors aside, most Roma women have large families at a young age because this represents the highest and best use of their time and energy thanks to Hungary’s generous system of state-financed maternity leave and child support. All Hungarian citizens residing in Hungary are entitled to three years paid maternity leave, receiving a large percentage of their average salary the first two years and a percentage of minimum wage the third year. In addition, the State pays HUF 16,000 (EUR 59) a month after each child. Furthermore, by law all children from families having three or more children eat at school for free.
For a university-educated woman speaking one or more foreign languages earning a Western salary these are not strong inducements to start a family. And when she finally gets around to having one or two children she has a strong financial incentive to return to work as soon as possible.
For Roma women the minimum maternity allowance of HUF 28,000 (EUR 119) a month combined with child support is a strong financial inducement to have children. The day the government pays unemployed Roma women HUF 50,000 a month not to reproduce they will start having fewer children.

Programmes have not worked

It is neither desirable nor politically feasible for the state to pay members of a national minority not to have children. Instead, the government needs to do more to ensure that at the end of 12 years of public education there are enough decent paying jobs to go around, and that at least 10 per cent of these go to Roma.
Unfortunately, Hungarian governments tend to throw money at problems without achieving any meaningful or lasting results. At the December symposium Roma politician Flórián Farkas declared facetiously that the previous government had spent so much money on skills training that by now every Roma living in Hungary of working age should have mastered at least two trades. One suspects much of this money allocated for this purpose was misappropriated. Farkas is one of a mere handful of Roma leaders attempting to define and advance a national Roma agenda. Their work is hampered by the fact that the Roma community is divided into rival castes and clans and therefore incapable of acting in a concerted and unified manner.
The past six decades have witnessed extensive intermarriage between the Roma and non-Roma, especially in the smaller towns and villages. However, unlike their mulatto counterparts in the US who consider themselves members of the African-American community with a vested interest in the advancement of the African-American people, as a general rule the product of Hungarian-Roma marriages do not consider themselves Roma, even though they often find themselves the victims of discrimination at school and at work.

A call to affirmative action

So what is to be done? The government should start by enforcing anti-discrimination legislation already on the books and fining firms for refusing to hire qualified Roma applicants. And it should vigorously implement EU directives to desegregate its public schools.
Ultimately, however, affirmative action is required if Hungary’s Roma are to be (re)integrated economically and socially. If Roma make up 10 per cent of the Hungarian work-age population then at least 10 per cent of Hungary’s 800,000 government and public sector jobs should go to qualified Roma applicants. To the extent there aren’t enough qualified Roma applicants, governments and publicly owned companies should be required to recruit and train Roma for future job openings. Private companies over a certain size should be required to do the same.
With regard to education, if 15 per cent of school- age children are Roma, then at least 15 per cent of academic high school and university slots should be filled by Roma students regardless of test scores. Whatever the merits of the “Harlem Children’s Zone” model of minority public education, Hungary must integrate its state schools if Roma and non-Roma children are to learn to accept one another. Finally, far greater resources must be devoted to identifying and nurturing Roma youth with academic potential and natural leadership skills. Only by excelling in professions traditionally reserved for non-Roma and interacting in a socially meaningful way with non-Roma can the Roma successfully challenge the racial stereotypes too often used to justify depriving them of education, jobs, and civil rights.
Many experts on both sides of the issue do not believe in desegregation, arguing the Roma should have their own classes and their own schools where Roma language and culture is taught in addition to the usual academic subjects. Certainly, there is a place for Roma national minority schools in Hungary just as there is a place for Serbian, Slovak, Croatian and Romanian national minority schools (Hungary is far more ethnically and culturally diverse than certain right-wing politicians care to admit). But the fact remains that if Roma and non-Roma are denied the opportunity to interact as children, then it is difficult to see how they will choose to do so as adults. And the only way to ensure they interact as children is through the desegregation of public schools.
If the Roma are ever to acquire the education and skills necessary to lift themselves out of poverty and establish their own set of professionals, businessmen, politicians and community leaders, they must be granted access to elite public schools, universities and government jobs in proportion to their numbers.
Europe needs to break down the fence encircling the Roma and admit them to the castle grounds.

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