Gypsies first appeared in Hungary at the end of the Middle Ages. Their skills as musicians, horse-copers (a dealer, not necessarily an honest one), makers of mud bricks and wooden troughs, basket-weavers and tinkers were in demand almost up to the present day. Since the time of Maria Theresa and Joseph II repeated attempts have been made to assimilate or (latterly) integrate them into the mainstream. In the course of Communist forced industrialisation after the Second World War, Gypsies were recruited to work in factories and on building sites. Many unskilled Gypsies found jobs too; even if this was often akin to being on artificial life support. Others stayed in villages and worked for local cooperatives.
Guns, fire and ditches
Most of the Roma commuted and many got used to regular work; quite a few got qualifications and their families were able to step up the social ladder a rung or two. Jobs linked to their traditions and skills dried up in parallel with Hungary’s transition to democracy and its adoption of a market economy. Fashions changed, too. Whether it was Gypsy music in restaurants, wicker tables or knick-knacks, demand simply evaporated. And the state’s long arm of command and control withdrew. The Roma, comprising around 7 per cent of the country’s total population, were largely left high and dry.
Successive governments have thrown money at the problem. The trouble is many well-meaning but badly designed government policies which aim to lift the Roma out of poverty have tended to have the perverse impact of reinforcing difficulties associated with them: segregation in schools, squalid living conditions – often in shanties on the outskirts of villages – petty crime, jobless fathers upping and leaving the family. An apt illustration concerns subsidies for schools which promise to abolish classroom segregation: schools chase after funding whatever its stated purpose, some only paying lip-service to fulfilling the strings attached – with impunity. Others dutifully abide by the rules before giving up when non-Roma families withdraw their children from the newly desegregated school.
Weeding out ghettos, poverty and ignorance requires long-term action which rises above government cycles. Training programmes which seek to lift Roma out of unemployment may cut joblessness among trainers but have few benefits otherwise. One fifty-year-old former factory worker I got to know has learned a roster of skills – including shorthand! He is still without a job, naturally.
Poverty and poor education are highly correlated. Squeezed out of the legitimate labour market and for want of a better education the Roma have had little chance of living on the edge let alone climbing back on board. Today children of 25 per cent of Roma families fail to complete eight years of primary education.
In our competitive society, villagers vying for job frown at subsidies or benefits granted to the Roma by the state or local council. Double standards at local level produce the greatest outrage. “I pay for my electricity; why can the other guy be left alone to steal it? I shelled out money for my driver’s licence; why are others let off scot free when they drive around without one? How come the Roma kid got into nursery but my kid didn’t?” they ask themselves (understandably).
In tough times anti-Roma sentiment grows apace.
In October 2006, a teacher was driving his car through a village largely inhabited by Roma. He was unfortunate to bump into a Roma girl (she was lightly injured) and was beaten to death in front of his own children by a group of Roma as a result. On another occasion a Roma beat an old man to death for an oil heater. Naturally stories such as these captured a lot of media attention. They also unleashed a tirade of anti-Roma polemic. Four bouncers working in Debrecen clubs decided to take matters into their own hands. They first fired shots at and broke some windows of Roma homes on the outskirts of villages; later they hurled petrol bombs into the houses. During the period of over 12 months until their arrest they killed six people and injured three at nine different locations. The attack in Tatárszentgyörgy was the seventh in a row.