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February 23rd, 2009
Hard Times, Hate Crimes in Hungary

At dawn today in a village outside Budapest, an arson attack against a Roma home ended with a father and his 5-year-old son shot dead as they tried to escape their burning house. The incident resembles a series of firebombings of Roma houses across the country which have killed several people in recent months.

Racial tensions have intensified since October, when Hungary and its Eastern European neighbors were hit particularly hard by the economic downturn. Unemployment rose to its highest rate in at least 10 years, with big losses in sectors such as construction, where unskilled Roma have often found work. With few immigrants to blame, Roma have become the scapegoat for resentment about mounting unemployment, street robberies, and other crime.

Roma, also known as gypsies, make up about 7 percent of the Hungarian population. Roma communities have long faced prejudice and persecution, often living on the fringes of society, with lack of access to jobs and proper education.

Anti-Roma sentiment was aggravated earlier this month by the deadly stabbing of Romanian handball star Marian Cozma at a Hungarian nightclub. At his memorial service, some in the crowd cried “Death to the gypsies!” even before police made it clear that the murder suspects were in fact Roma, and anti-Roma demonstrations erupted throughout the country.

The right-wing opposition party, Fidesz, used the stabbing as an opportunity to call on the governing socialist government to clamp down on Roma communities. A police chief who blamed Roma for “all the muggings” in his city, adding that “Hungarian and gypsy culture can’t live together,” was fired by the government, but reinstated within 24 hours after more than 1,000 people protested in a rally well attended by skinheads.

Janos Ladanyi, the director for the Center of Social, Regional and Ethnic Conflicts in Budapest warns, “This is a time bomb. I hope the alarming events of the past few weeks will make the sensible majority and especially the political elite recognize that we can’t go down this road. This road is a dead end. It leads to the Balkans.”

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