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Promising Roma crackdown, far-right party gains ground in Hungary

September 21, 2014 at 12:00 AM EDT
Over ten million gypsy, or Roma, people live in Europe today. In the small EU nation of Hungary, a rising tide of right-wing politics has led to deepening tensions with the country’s Roma minority. NewsHour's Stephen Fee reports.

STEPHEN FEE: Just a two-hour drive east of the capital Budapest, Miskolc is Hungary’s third largest city with 160,000 residents. And on its outskirts this summer, we met 55-year-old Jozsefne Nagy in the courtyard of her former home.

Nagy, her daughter, and three grandchildren lived in this city-owned apartment for three years — until they were evicted this past August.

JOZSEFNE NAGY: “We didn’t know we’d have to leave. My daughter left in the morning to go for her job training program. She went to school and the kids were here, and I get a call from the neighbors that they’re moving my daughter out. Kids and all.”

STEPHEN FEE: Nagy rushed home to a chaotic scene. A newspaper photo from that day shows men hauling the family’s belongings outside.

JOZSEFNE NAGY: “There were so many policemen you couldn’t move. They just kept saying: Out! Out! I repeatedly told them we don’t have any debts, but they just kept repeating themselves.”

STEPHEN FEE: And she’s not the only one facing eviction. City officials plan to demolish this neighborhood of around a thousand people, whether the tenants have paid their rent or not.

GYULA SCHWEICKHARDT, DEPUTY MAYOR, MISKOLC: “The people who live there are poor, and users and drug dealers have appeared, which is something the city must deal with in some shape or form.”

STEPHEN FEE: But Nagy says she and her neighbors are being thrown out for a different reason.

JOZSEFNE NAGY: “The goal wasn’t to evict those who don’t pay, but to evict Gypsies.”

STEPHEN FEE: Here in what was once Hungary’s industrial heartland, the vast majority of Miskolc’s Gypsy — or Roma — population is unemployed. The evictions are the latest chapter in a history of strained relations with their non-Roma neighbors.

It’s a tension that’s hardly unique to Miskolc — or even Hungary.

Since their ancestors arrived in Europe from India some 600 years ago, Roma people have been enslaved, expelled, and ethnically cleansed. Hundreds of thousands were slaughtered during World War II.

More recently, France deported thousands of Roma who overstayed visa requirements in 2010 — the EU’s justice minister called the expulsions ‘a disgrace.’

Fears of crime have motivated anti-Roma feelings across Europe. And headlines about Roma criminal rings help drive those perceptions.

DOCUMENTARY NARRATOR: “Across Europe, thousands of children are being forced on to the streets to beg and steal.”

STEPHEN FEE: A 2009 BBC documentary called “Gypsy Child Thieves” focused on Roma pickpockets.

But unlike those cases, Roma in Hungary aren’t migrants — they’re citizens. And in Hungary, fears of Roma criminality have driven the popularity of a nationalist political party called Jobbik.

Founded just ten years ago, the party netted 20 percent of the vote in this year’s parliamentary elections. The group describes itself as a ‘principled, conservative, and radically patriotic Christian party.’

SZABOLCS POGONYI, CENTRAL EUROPEAN UNIVERSITY: “Through the presence of a very strong, openly anti-Roma far-right party, anti-Roma talk, rhetoric and even policies are becoming mainstream.”

STEPHEN FEE: That’s Szabolcs Pogonyi. He chairs the nationalism studies department at Budapest’s Central European University. A disclosure: I worked at the university for two years.

SZABOLCS POGONYI, CENTRAL EUROPEAN UNIVERSITY: “They were the first party which got into parliament and openly spoke about what they call as ‘gypsy criminality’ — that is openly linking crime and ethnic background.”

STEPHEN FEE: Three years ago in the Hungarian town of Gyongyospata, disputes between Roma and non-Roma over property crime erupted into a confrontation. As this video from the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union shows, Jobbik party members along with other groups marched in the streets. They railed against what they called “gypsy crime,” promising to protect the villagers. Critics say it was a campaign of intimidation against Roma.

Pogonyi says levels of anti-Roma feelings in Hungary have been consistent since the early 1990s. But the Jobbik party, he says, is the first political bloc to capitalize on those feelings.

SZABOLCS POGONYI, CENTRAL EUROPEAN UNIVERSITY: “People living particularly in rural areas, poor rural areas have the sense of being abandoned by the government. I mean, they face petty crime, and they realize that the government — the authorities do and can do nothing. And at that point some people appear and they say, we will protect you.”

STEPHEN FEE: Jobbik leaders declined our interview requests, but on their website, they defend the term ‘gypsy crime,’ calling it ‘a unique form of delinquency, different from the crimes of the majority in nature and force.’

I asked Roma journalist and advocate Erno Kadet if there was validity in using a term like ‘gypsy crime,’ especially when crime rates are higher in some Roma-majority communities.

ERNO KADET, ROMA PRESS CENTRE: “The way I see it the problem is –- and they are perfectly aware of this, the Jobbik party -– that by using the word Gypsy and the word crime in the same sentence, it brands everyone. I don’t think there is a single Roma, a single credible Roma leader, who says there are no criminals among the Roma population, just as there are a substantial number of criminals among the non-Roma population. But they say it’s because of poverty, not because of belonging to a certain ethnic group.”

STEPHEN FEE: In Hungary today, 70 percent of Roma live below the poverty line and 85 percent are unemployed.

Government spokesman and former social inclusion secretary Zoltan Kovacs says the country is working to improve conditions for Roma — but those plans will take time.

ZOLTAN KOVACS, GOVERNMENT SPOKESMAN: “It’s impossible to have a breakthrough. I mean, there’s a complete agreement in professional circles as well as in politics that you have to be very consistent actually on applying these measures on the long run. That means at least ten years. The Roma issue has been with us not only for the past couple of years or decades — it’s a six hundred years old issue. We’ve been living together with the Roma communities for the past couple of centuries.”

STEPHEN FEE: “You know, someone might say if they listen to this interview, that the rhetoric that we’ve been living with the Roma — with us — that you’re already separating yourself from people who are Hungarian citizens, right?”

ZOLTAN KOVACS, GOVERNMENT SPOKESMAN: “It’s an ongoing debate actually, even with the Roma themselves. They also use this terminology, that us and them, so you like it or not, this differentiation on both sides is present.”

STEPHEN FEE: Back in Miskolc, deputy mayor Gyula Schweickhardt designed the plan to eradicate the city’s Roma majority neighborhoods.

GYULA SCHWEICKHARDT, DEPUTY MAYOR, MISKOLC: “We don’t think the question is whether someone is Roma or not; city leadership is not approaching this as an ethnic or racial issue. It is in fact sad that the issue has been raised as one at all. We approach it as an endeavor to eradicate an impoverished slum.”

STEPHEN FEE: The city isn’t replacing the housing, but will pay evicted tenants up to $8,500 to find a new home. But on the condition they buy homes outside the city and not return for five years. Already, surrounding communities have signed petitions saying they won’t welcome Miskolc’s displaced residents.

Local Roma leader Gabor Varadi concedes the Roma neighborhoods have their social problems. But that destroying them will only lead to conflict.

GABOR VARADI, ROMA COMMUNITY LEADER: “I think the solution is not to evict people and relocate the problem to another settlement, or to throw families out into the street. If we do that the problem gets bigger and creates more tension.”

STEPHEN FEE: After facing so much difficulty, I asked Jozsefne Nagy — evicted this August from her neighborhood on the fringes of Miskolc — if she wants to stay here in the city.

JOZSEFNE NAGY: “Yes, definitely. Definitely. We were born here and we’d like to die here. We went to school here, we spent our life working in the factory here, at the waste plant. I don’t want to leave. The children go to preschool here and to school. They are heartsick. All of them. We’re terrified, like everyone else who lives here.”

STEPHEN FEE: Since the eviction, she’s moved in with another one of her daughters, also in the same neighborhood. But with the city planning to build a parking lot here once demolition is complete, Nagy’s days here are almost certainly numbered.