Ahead of next month's parliamentary election in Hungary, a report published in February found the Roma minority in that Central European country face an unprecedented amount of violence and discrimination. While prejudice against Roma, pejoratively known as Gypsies, is widespread throughout Europe, the report says Hungary is more anti-immigrant and hostile toward minorities than elsewhere.
"In the last five years in Hungary, the establishment of vigilante groups and hate crimes against Roma and other minority groups has characterized a climate of increasing social and economic exclusion," according to the report, from the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University.
A 2011 survey finds many Hungarians share anti-Roma sentiments with 60 percent believing that criminality was in "gypsy" blood. The same poll found 40 percent believed it was OK to have bars and clubs where Roma were not allowed in.
These widespread attitudes help explain the popularity and political strength of the Jobbik party. It's the country's third largest, holding 43 seats of 386 in the Hungarian Parliament. It defines itself as a "principled, conservative and radically patriotic Christian party," but critics say it's a radical organization that targets minorities.
Its website, "The Movement For A Better Hungary," has a page dedicated to defending itself from accusations that it is extremist, anti-Roma and anti-Semitic. It charges that the foreign press wrongly concludes hard economic times have triggered Hungarians and other Central Europeans to victimize minority populations:
"Quite simple really. Central Europeans + Economic Downturn = (or rather, must and can only equal) Hateful Extremists and persecution of minorities.
"People don't behave like this anywhere else mind you, only around here. Take a few pennies out of a Hungarian's pocket, and he turns almost immediately into a slavering ultra-nationalist who on the way back from clubbing a local Gypsy, will pause only to hurl yet another brick through the windows of his nearest synagogue."
The party's sarcastic response is meant to dismiss the accusations as ludicrous. But statements and actions of party members over the last few years go against those Web protestations. In November 2012, one of Jobbik's Parliament members, Márton Gyöngyösi reportedly asked Parliament to create a list of Jews who allegedly posed national security threats.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center blasted Gyöngyösi's statement and called it "sadly reminiscent of the genocidal Nazi regime which murdered hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews with the help of numerous local collaborators."
Gyöngyösi said he was misunderstood and was referring to dual citizens of Israel and Hungary.
When asked in an interview by the Jewish Chronicle Online if Hungary should apologize for the Holocaust, Gyöngyösi replied "Me, should I say sorry for this when 70 years later, I am still reminded on the hour, every hour about it? Let's get over it, for Christ's sake. I find this question outrageous."
The World Jewish Congress held its Plenary Assembly in Budapest last year to highlight anti-semitism in Hungary. When WJC President Ronald S. Lauder opened the gathering he said, "We are seeing, once again, growing ignorance, growing intolerance, growing hatred. Once again we see the outrage of anti-Semitism. ... In the press and on television, anti-Semitism and incitement against the Roma minority are becoming commonplace, even accepted."
Lauder added the persecution of Jews and Roma have happened in tandem in the past, "Let us never forget the Roma were also victims of the Nazi Holocaust."
The Harvard report says the anti-minority climate is having a deleterious effect on the Roma and that hate speech by politicians and public figures has contributed to physical and violent assaults against this marginalized population. The European Roma Rights Centre documented cases of seven Romani adults and two Romani children who died in attacks from 2008 to 2012.
Another concerning issue in the report is the rise of paramilitary and extremist groups, which target not only Roma, but Jews and the LGBT community. And many of these groups conduct weapon trainings for their members. One of the report authors says the frequency and regularity of these instructions is unique to this central European country.
"There are some news in Romania about few trainings organized by some extremist organization, but nothing at the level of Hungary," said Margareta Matache, who has worked on Roma and minority issues in Europe for 15 years. She added, "What is interesting here is that each of these organizations, they organize these sort of training, not only once, they have regular trainings for their members on how to use weapons."
Anti-minority rhetoric runs rampant in these groups and the Jobbik party has ties to them. The party's current leader, Gabor Vona, founded the Hungarian Guard, a paramilitary group in 2007. Matache says, "One of their more explicit objective was to stop the Gypsy crime" and "that Gypsy crime is a serious form of crime which poses a danger to everyone." The Hungarian Guard was eventually banned, but Vona has worked to re-establish the group.
Last November, the U.S. Embassy in Budapest weighed in when it condemned an event organized by the Jobbik party. The embassy described Jobbik as a "Hungarian political party identified with ethnic hatred and anti-Semitism" and called it out after members unveiled a bust of Miklos Horthy, a Nazi ally and the leader of Hungary during World War II.
"Although the significant number of counter-demonstrators showed there is strong opposition to the organizers' views, and members of the Hungarian government have expressed disapproval, an event such as this requires swift, decisive, unequivocal condemnation by Hungary's highest ranking leaders," the statement read.
Earlier this year, the Hungarian ambassador to the United Nations apologized for Hungary's role in the Jewish and Roma Holocaust during World War II. This was the first time the country apologized for its involvement.
"We owe an apology to the victims because the Hungarian state was guilty for the Holocaust. Firstly because it failed to protect its citizens from destruction and secondly because it helped and provided financial resources to the mass murder," said ambassador Csaba Kőrösi.
In the last year and a half, Matache says she and her colleagues have observed a decrease in rallies and violence against Roma, which she considers a good sign. But that trend has been coupled with legislative changes that worry her. The report says that changes to the constitution limiting minority rights and free speech should be cause for concern, even as violent attacks decrease: "In other countries such as Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, similar trends have been recorded: outright violence has been supplanted by anti-minority policies and legislation."
Colleen Bell, the United States ambassador-designate to Hungary, expressed worry during her confirmation hearings in the Senate about recent changes to the constitution and fears that democracy was eroding.
"Many argue that sweeping legislative and constitutional changes have hurt the international investment climate, undermined property rights, weakened the judiciary, and centralized power in the hands of the executive," Bell said in her statement. "The United States has also expressed concern about the rise of extremism which unfortunately is a trend not unique to Hungary. However, the rise in Hungary of extremist parties is of particular concern."
Matache hopes the European Union will step in to help curb the violence and discrimination in this member country.
"They really have to take some measures because there is a legal framework available and there is a need for some measure to stop the violence," she says,"But also, to make sure that the Roma, Jews and LGBT, all minorities in Hungary, they feel safe because there is a level of insecurity that those people cannot really manage it from both the local level in their villages, but also in big cities."
And she says the European Union should figure out how to deal with member countries that violate the EU's human rights laws. She hopes reports like this one will also catch the attention of the U.S. and lead the international community to place pressure on countries like Hungary to move toward a more accepting society. But she says cultural education is also key to improving the situation.
"Hungary is one of the countries, along with Romania, Bulgaria and countries in central and Eastern Europe where children of both minority and majority population do not actually have the chance to learn about prejudice," she says, "The children belonging to majority population could actually learn more about minorities, by being involved in classes and reading more on cultural diversity and having educated children on cultural diversity, I think that the level of prejudice might decrease."
Tomorrow, the Code Switch blog visits Hungary's neighbor, Slovakia, to see how one town is working to integrate Roma and non-Roma students in a recently desegregated school.