Hungary’s Roma Face Dark Days

By Justin Spike, Navanti News contributor  

For Hungary’s Roma minority, COVID-19-induced economic woes have made an already difficult life even harder. Many from Hungary’s largest ethnic minority (just over 3% of the total population according to the 2011 census) live in deep poverty in segregated rural communities, cut off from traditional employment. Reliance on seasonal labor and gig-based work rendered them ineligible for unemployment benefits once workplaces shut down, and lacking state assistance, many were pushed to the brink of hunger after losing access to their informal jobs.

Yet even before the pandemic brought increased financial hardship, recent events had inflamed anti-Roma sentiment, invoking memory of a period more than a decade ago when such tensions led to deadly racial violence.

In Fall 2019, a local court in Hungary’s second largest city of Debrecen ordered the state to pay 99 million Forints (over 300 thousand US dollars) in financial damages to the families of Roma children who faced institutionalized segregation in public schools. The national government has refused to pay the damages, instead announcing in February of this year that it would launch a new “national consultation” – a political questionnaire mailed to every voting-age Hungarian – to ask voters’ opinions on the ruling. Social scientists and pollsters have criticized such consultations, used by the government under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán since 2010, for containing leading questions and having little polling value. 

The government’s response sparked protests by Roma groups and supporters, who claimed it was an attempt to subvert judicial independence and scapegoat Roma by portraying them as undeserving drains on public resources.


As the coronavirus pandemic swept into Hungary, the government scrapped the consultation, but the reluctance of Roma communities to be placed at the center of a heated public debate was nonetheless well-founded. 

More than a decade earlier, fierce anti-Roma discourse among some media outlets and politicians led to a series of nine racially-motivated attacks in a 14-month period that resulted in the deaths of six Roma, including a child, and five serious injuries.

The perpetrators of the 2008-2009 murders, who used guns and molotov cocktails in their attacks, travelled to villages where media reports had indicated “Gypsy crime” was on the rise, and sought locations where nationalist vigilante groups had previously held anti-Roma marches. Their victims were targeted only for their ethnicity but otherwise chosen at random, leaving an indelible mark on the Roma community.

The term “Cigánybűnőzés or “Gypsy crime” employed by these groups is a racially categorized class of crimes that was officially in use in Hungary until the late 1980s, but is now rejected by state institutions for being racially divisive and conflating Roma ethnic identity with criminality.

In 2008, the vigilante groups that marched in Roma-inhabited villages had ties to the far-right Jobbik political party. Beginning in spring of 2019, Jobbik’s radical successor, the Mi Hazánk Mozgalom or “Our Homeland Movement”, began staging its own marches through Roma towns in response to violent crimes allegedly committed by Roma suspects. Torch-wielding marchers demanded an end to “Gypsy crime,” echoing the calls of a decade earlier. 

The latest such demonstration took place after two young men were stabbed to death in central Budapest in late May 2020. Right-wing media were quick to allege that the 18-year-old perpetrator, apprehended within minutes by police, was of Roma origin – a claim that was later proven false. 

In response, the Our Homeland Movement called for a “march against crime” to begin at the headquarters of the National Roma Government in Budapest, signaling that they held the Roma community at large responsible for the murders. 

On May 28, several hundred soccer ultras for soccer clubs the victims supported joined the movement’s supporters for a march through the city, chanting nationalist slogans and demanding the establishment of a special police force to fight Cigánybűnőzés or “Gypsy crime”. 

Party leaders called for criminals to be sent to “Siberian forced-labor camps”, and referenced “defenseless Hungarians against an overpowering horde” of Roma. The movement later called for the death sentence for the perpetrator, a practice that has been illegal in Hungary since 1990.

During the march, the National Roma Government, a political organization advocating for Roma issues, evacuated its headquarters, and later denounced the march as an attempt to ignite racial hatred. Coming just on the heels of the national consultation campaign, the events sparked renewed fears over violent incitement against Hungarian Roma. 

Observers of the march in Budapest criticized police for failing to break it up, despite a previous ban on the gathering for non-compliance with pandemic-related regulations. Police also allowed earlier marches to take place in rural towns despite causing fear among residents, and the Hungarian government has released no statements condemning the fanning of ethnic tensions.

At the end of June, the government announced it would make payments to segregated Roma families as ordered by a court, but submitted a bill which would prohibit such payments in the future. Some observers see the bill as giving a green light to official segregation of Roma students, and a signal that the government has no intention of mending relations with Roma communities.

The National Roma Parliament has launched a petition for a court to formally ban the Our Homeland Movement, arguing it was “playing the Roma card” to bolster its marginal popular support. Meanwhile, the party has vowed to hold additional marches wherever crimes are committed by Roma suspects, leaving members of the ethnic minority to wonder whether recent events could lead to a reprise of the deadly attacks of a decade ago.