Hungary: The Roma people’s Hungarian hell
A ruling by the European Court of Human Rights highlights a pattern of persecution.
By Barbora Černušáková
25/1/2017- “It was like hell. Bottles and stones were falling on us like a hailstorm,” Alfréd Király recalls. “All the children were terrified. We asked the police to protect us but they wouldn’t.” More than four years after hundreds of violent demonstrators surrounded his home shouting anti-Roma slogans and throwing rocks through his windows, Király is still shaken by the memory. But last week he and other Roma families won an important victory in a long struggle for justice that took them all the way to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
On August 5, 2012, more than 700 people associated with far-right groups descended on Devecser, a village in western Hungary. After holding a demonstration in the village center, the marchers moved on to a street where they believed Roma families were living. Gathering outside houses they chanted “Gypsy criminals …We will set your homes on fire … You will burn inside your houses!” They threw rocks and paving stones, forcing the Roma to barricade themselves in their homes. Meanwhile, the police just stood by watching.
Last week, the ECHR ruled that police had failed to protect the Roma that day and that Hungarian authorities failed to take sufficient action when investigating the “hateful and abusive” speeches given at the rally. The court also found the perpetrators of the crimes “remained virtually without legal consequences” — which, it added, could have been perceived by the public as the state’s legitimization or tolerance of such abuse. This decision sends an important signal to the Hungarian government at a time when the climate of racism and xenophobia is becoming ever more toxic. Not only is the far-right party, Jobbik, the third largest in parliament, but attitudes toward Roma and other minority groups in the ruling Fidesz party have worsened.
Racist violence against Hungary’s Roma peaked in 2008 and 2009 when a series of attacks claimed the lives of six men, women and children, and the fear has not gone away. Roma in Hungary continue to suffer a range of hate crimes including assault and attacks against their homes. Roma experience multiple forms of daily discrimination, impacting schooling and employment. They are also the target of racist abuse in pro-government media, and even from politicians. When, in 2013, one of the founders of the ruling Fidesz party, Zsolt Bayer, called the Roma “animals … unfit to live among people,” Prime Minister Viktor Orbán remained silent. Orbán himself has described the presence of Roma as “Hungary’s historical given … We are the ones who have to live with this.” And in 2016, President János Áder awarded Bayer the Order of Merit of the Knight’s Cross.
The state’s response to violence against Roma has been feeble. Police regularly treat hate crimes as ordinary crimes without considering the hate motive. For example, when assailants broke into the house of a Roma family in Eger in 2015, assaulting the family and shouting “Filthy Gypsy, you will die,” the crime was recorded by the police as merely “illegal entry.” The U.K.-based Institute of Race Relations has concluded that there could be collusion between “elements within the criminal justice system and the paramilitaries … [who] terrorize Roma in villages of central and eastern Hungary.”
The impact of threats and violence can be severe and enduring. In the summer of 2015, I met Roma families in the town of Gyöngyöspata who suffered threats and harassment from self-proclaimed vigilante groups in 2011. Four years after the harassment, many of them were still traumatized. In recent months, Hungary’s discriminatory treatment of Roma and other minority groups has largely been overshadowed by the appalling treatment of refugees and migrants, a group Orbán has described as “poison.” Asylum seekers — including unaccompanied children — suffer violent abuse, illegal pushbacks and unlawful detention.
This week’s ECHR decision sends a clear message to Hungary’s authorities that hate crimes must not be tolerated. They must take urgent steps to fully investigate these and other racist crimes and bring those who commit them to justice. “We are happy to finally see justice,” says Király . “But we have only won a small battle. The struggle to end hate crimes and discrimination against us is very far from being won.”
This article has been updated to correct the name of Alfréd Király.
© Politico EU