As recession bites, anti-Roma feeling grows in Hungary
In the latest deadly violence to afflict the country's 650,000-strong Roma minority, one of the largest in Europe, a father and his son were shot dead and their house burnt down in a village in central Hungary last week.
Budapest -- Mounting crime, a gloomy economic outlook and fiery rhetoric from right-wing parties are leading to a dramatic increase in anti-Roma sentiment in recession-hit Hungary.
"Luckily, I don't look much like a Roma as I've got relatively fair skin, so I deny that I am one for fear of being attacked," says Andrea, a mother of five pushing a pram in Budapest's District VIII, known as "the ghetto."
In the latest deadly violence to afflict the country's 650,000-strong Roma minority, one of the largest in Europe, a father and his son were shot dead and their house burnt down in a village in central Hungary last Monday.
Although no one has been charged over the attack, the same village had previously been the target of an anti-Roma march by the armed offshoot of the far-right Jobbik party.
But the sense of fear has also been heightened by the increasingly radical talk on the Internet chatrooms.
Earlier this month, several portals suspended their comment pages after blatantly racist posts appeared in the aftermath of the fatal stabbing in the town of Veszprem. One of the men charged with the murder was a Roma.
"We are dreading revenge from the skinheads," says Andrea, speaking on condition of anonymity. "What I saw on the Internet after the murder was horrendous: After the Jews, now it seems it is the gypsies' turn to be annihilated."
The sense of persecution was hardly helped with comments by the police chief of Hungary's third largest town Miskolc, in the northeast, who said all the muggings committed in December and January had been committed by "people of Roma origin."
"Co-habitation with our Roma citizens just does not work," he added.
These recent events intensified the debate on "Roma crimes," a term introduced by Jobbik to describe criminal activities associated solely with the Roma, such as petty theft and knife attacks.
According to sociologist Angela Kocze, who founded the Brussels-based European Roma Information Office and is herself of Hungarian Roma origin, a large part of society agrees with Jobbik that crime and Roma are inextricably linked.
And the right-wing opposition Fidesz party has also been fuelling antagonism at a time of rising unemployment due to the global downturn and when a devaluing forint has led to a greater debt burden on many households.
"We have to state that the number of serious crimes committed by people of gypsy origin is growing at an alarming rate," Fidesz leader Viktor Orban said after the Veszprem murder.
Hungary's parliamentary commissioner for minority rights, Erno Kallai, admits: "If the number of criminal acts committed by Roma really does increase, we have to look into the reasons for that."
Kallai, himself of Roma origin, points to the gloomy prospects for gypsies, who live in deep poverty and lack both education and work.
Around six percent of Hungarians are of Roma origin, although official census figures are not available.
Of those, about 70 percent are unemployed, while in the poorest, northeastern area, that number can reach 100 percent.
"I am lucky to be employed at all," says Endre, a bulky man in his early thirties, who works as a security guard at the market on Teleki square in Budapest.
"When you are Roma, people look down on you, police stop you all the time to ask for your papers... As a Roma, if you have some brains you leave this country," he concludes.
Andrea, who is having trouble finding work as a cleaner, added: "I want to work and so does my husband. But when we present ourselves for an interview, we don't get it because we are Roma."
"How can we be blamed for living on the dole then?" she asked.
Tensions between Roma and non-Roma have existed for years, but things have got worse in recent months.
"With the effects of the economic crisis, the deterioration of public security and Jobbik setting the public debate, tensions are getting out of hand and we are at breaking point now," said Kocze.
In 2008, 16 attacks, including two deadly, were committed against Roma using Molotov cocktails, hand grenades and guns.
"Racist public discourse has become mainstream because of a certain helplessness in society: We expect solutions from politicians who for 20 years have been unable to come up with a powerful programme to raise an educated and employed Roma middle class," Kallai said.