Page last updated at 10:33 GMT, Saturday, 29 August 2009 11:33 UK

Growing marginalisation of Hungary's Roma

Dominic Hughes investigates the rise of the far right anti-Roma Jobbik party in Hungary and finds parallels between the Roma and another impoverished community, Australia's Aboriginals.

Relatives mourn the death of Gypsy woman Maria Balogh
Relatives mourn the death of a Gypsy woman shot during attacks in Hungary

On the far side of railway tracks, on the outskirts of the city of Ozd, in northern Hungary, is what must be one of the most deprived villages in Europe.

Home to around 400 Roma or Gypsy people, corralled on the edge of town, is what is essentially a slum.

They live in buildings that once provided homes for workers from the nearby steelworks, but conditions are truly dreadful.

Many windows have no glass; tiles are missing from the roofs; some buildings have collapsed altogether.

Just a handful of communal toilets and taps serve the whole community.

Under the hot summer sun children play barefoot in the dust, but it does not really lighten up the grim, and if I am honest, slightly threatening, atmosphere.

Perhaps that is not surprising given over recent months there have been a series of attacks on Roma communities - homes burnt, a father and son shot and killed, another man shot dead as he walked out of his house.

Many Roma fear they are being targeted by extremists.

Difficult questions

But we are with Barna Budai, a local Roma man who grew up here, and so we are safe.

It could have been very different. Earlier in the day we met the mayor of Ozd, Benedek Mihaly.

Jobbick party supporters
Support for the anti-Roma Jobbik party appears to be getting stronger

I was asking him about the rise of Jobbik, the far-right party that campaigns on a platform targeting what its leaders call Gypsy crime.

He was no fan of the party, or the Hungarian Guard, the civilian militia closely associated with them.

But he did say he thought the Roma were abusing their rights, living outside the rules of Hungarian society.

The mayor came across as a very reasonable man, trying to find solutions to difficult questions.

But when we stepped outside his office, things took a strange turn.

Waiting for us there was Lajos Berki, a Roma member of the local council.

White haired and smartly dressed, he stood up as we approached.

As he did so, the mayor started addressing him in Hungarian - not quite shouting, but clearly telling him to go away while he talked to us some more.

He sort of punched him on the arm and then cuffed him over the head - not aggressively, but as you might do with an irritating younger brother. Only Mr Berki looked some years older than the Mayor.

Mr Berki though did not seem bothered. He smiled meekly and retreated down the corridor.

Internal divisions

The mayor then turned to us and said: "I'm very proud of this one. He has worked for 40 years!"

Later, as we were interviewing Mr Berki, our guide to the Roma village, Barna Budai, turned up. Relations between the two Roma men were clearly frosty.

Some of the old bigotries - racism, anti-Semitism - have resurfaced. The Roma in Hungary are not even regarded by many as true Hungarians

Barna Budai told us if we had arrived at his village in the company of his fellow Roma Lajos Berki, we probably would not have left in one piece.

Given the angry response of some residents when we tried to film them, I believed him. Why would we have had trouble I asked - isn't Mr Berki a respected member of the community?

Barna Budai laughed. Mr Berki was hated by the Roma villagers, we were told - he was believed to have said some very uncomplimentary things about his fellow Roma to other reporters.

Who knows where the truth lies? But the bitter internal divisions within the Roma community, the abject poverty they lived in, their apparent dislocation from mainstream life - it all reminded me of another story.

A story I covered nearly a decade ago - that of the Aboriginal community in Australia.

For four years I was the BBC's correspondent in Sydney - and this was the one story that really left me feeling it was all a bit hopeless.

Convenient scapegoat

Problems of institutional and individual racism, compounded by a divided and weak leadership from within the community.

A seemingly unbridgeable cultural gulf. Generations left neglected, with high rates of unemployment and imprisonment.

A lower life expectancy and educational achievement, more crime and substance abuse.

Roma family in Hungary
Roma make up more than 10% of the population in Eastern Europe

These are all problems shared by Australian Aboriginal people and Hungarian Roma.

The big difference is in modern day Australia Aboriginal people are generally regarded very much as true Australians.

Aspects of their identity have been adopted into the broader Australian culture.

And even though reporting the story often left me feeling dispirited, at least the Australian government seems determined to try and help.

You do not get that feeling in Hungary. The smothering blanket of communism has been stripped away, exposing ugly fault lines in central and Eastern Europe.

Some of the old bigotries - racism, anti-Semitism - have resurfaced.

The Roma in Hungary are not even regarded by many as true Hungarians.

And as we drove away in a cloud of dust from the crumbling Roma village on the outskirts of Ozd, it struck me that as Hungary struggles with the impact of economic downturn, the Roma seem to have become a convenient scapegoat.

And even though there are no easy answers to this complex story, precious few in Hungary seem to be looking for them.

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SEE ALSO
Hungary country profile
14 Feb 12 |  Country profiles


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