A drop of hope in the sea of fear: Tackling hate crimes against Roma in Hungary

It was like hell. Bottles and stones were falling on us like a hailstorm,” recalls Alfréd Király. “All the children were terrified. We asked the police to protect us but they wouldn’t.” More than four years after the incident, during which hundreds of violent demonstrators surrounded his home shouting anti-Roma slogans and throwing rocks through his windows, Alfred is still shaken by the memory. But this week he and other Romani families won an important victory in their long struggle for justice. A struggle which took them all the way to the European Court of Human Rights. 

It was like hell. Bottles and stones were falling on us like a hailstorm

Alfréd Király, Hungarian Roma

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 centre, marchers set off to a street where they believed Romani 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 European Court ruled that the police had failed to protect Roma that day and that Hungarian authorities had failed to take sufficient action when investigating the “hateful and abusive” speeches given at the rally. The court also found that the perpetrators of the crimes “remained virtually without legal consequences”, which it said could have been perceived by the public as the state’s legitimisation 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 the ruling Fidesz party has drifter further and further in its negative attitudes towards Roma as well as other minority groups.

While 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, fear of violence has not gone away. Roma in Hungary continue to suffer a range of hate crimes including assault and attacks against their homes.

In addition, Roma experience multiple forms of daily discrimination in impacting  schooling and employment as well as 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”, the Prime Minister Viktor Orbán remained silent. Viktor 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 Janos Ader awarded the Order of Merit of the Knight’s Cross to a journalist who had compared Roma to animals. 

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 Romani 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”.

In 2016 the inability of the system to expose racially motivated crimes led the UK-based Institute of Race Relations to speak of collusion between “elements within the criminal justice system and the paramilitaries … [who] terrorise Roma in villages of central and eastern Hungary.”

Roma experience multiple forms of daily discrimination in impacting schooling and employment as well as racist abuse in pro-government media and even from politicians

Barbora Černušáková

The impact on individuals of such 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 traumatised. They were on medication and unable to go to work or school. 

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 that Prime Minister Orbán has described as “poison”. Asylum-seekers – including unaccompanied children – are suffering violent abuse, illegal push backs and unlawful detention at the hands of Hungary’s. Rather than being shamed by international condemnation of Hungary’s flagrant breaches of international law, Viktor Orbán proudly extols them as an example for other countries to follow.

Whilst this week’s European Court’s 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.”

Alfréd Király was represented throughout the court proceedings by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee.

This article was first published here by Politico.