Monday, June 20, 2011



Citizen Special June 16, 2011


It has been a bad spring for human rights. If the wave of assault, torture and rape in Libya and Syria is not cause for despair, there are new acts of repression in Iran, Indonesia, Burma, China and many reliable places in between.

One of those is Hungary, where there has been a campaign against the Roma, known as Gypsies, for more than the last three years. According to the European Roma Rights Centre, there were 49 attacks on the Roma and their property between January 2008 and April 2011.

Nine people were killed, including two children. Dozens were injured. Molotov cocktails were used at least a dozen times and property was vandalized at least 10 times.

In other words, these aren't the garden-variety verbal threats and scrawled epithets that we call discrimination in Canada. Prejudice is deeper and darker here, and much more dangerous, largely because it has institutional support.

On April 16, for example, members of a paramilitary group marched through the Roma village of Gyongyospata in northwest Hungary. They attacked a house and broke a window. No one was injured, which was fortunate; for weeks vigilantes had been a provocative presence among the 450 Roma of the village.

In March the Szebb Jovoert, a paramilitary group, made a habit of marching there. It's is all about intimidation. The marchers are supported by Jobbik, the right-wing party that won 17 per cent of the vote in national elections last year, feeding on frustration over a weak economy of crippling debt and high unemployment.

Jobbik considers the Roma "criminal" and happily harasses them.

Over Easter, half the Roma fled Gyongyospata, fearing for their safety. This is the norm in this country: Roma assaulted in their homes. Bombs thrown through their windows. Marches in the streets to provoke and terrify.

If it sounds like the Nazis and the Jews, it is. On March 15, Hungary's National Day, hundreds of blackclad militants marched down the boulevards and filled the square around St. Stephen's Basilica, in central Budapest. They wore jackboots and leather jackets, listened to folk music, and peddled anti-Semitic and anti-Roma literature.

The government says it is trying to curb these attacks, but Prime Minister Vicktor Orbán is busy cracking down on the media and amending the constitution to consolidate his party's authority. It is an audacious power grab that has happened while Hungary serves a six-month term in the rotating presidency of the European Union.

Member states protest the attack on democracy in Hungary, but Orbán, Europe's new strong man, is unmoved. He isn't anti-Roma and doesn't condone the attacks. Police do appear, sometimes late, but they have not always been able to stop or prevent the attacks.

The threat to the Roma goes beyond Hungary. There are 10 million to 12 million Roma within the European Union, and they suffer from xenophobia almost everywhere they live.

The EU has recently committed itself to improve education, jobs, housing and health care for the Roma, the most disadvantaged minority in Europe, and find ways to integrate them into society. But its highly publicized declaration in April did not propose measures to combat hate crimes faced by the Roma.

Championing the rights of the Roma has been the raison d'être of Járóka Livia since she was elected a member of the European Parliament from Hungary in 2004. For Livia, the plight of the Roma is intensely personal. That's because she is a Roma, the first Roma woman to serve in the European Parliament. Since arriving seven years ago, she has tried to erase an image of a people seen as dishonest, treacherous, lazy and nomadic. Today, for example, she notes that 95 per cent of Roma are sedentary. But they do face segregation and suffer from intergenerational poverty and a lack of education.

"They don't want to be nomads," she says. "They want dignity. They want opportunity."

At 36, Livia is a young veteran of European politics, hailed in 2006 among 150 others as a "young global leader." She is born in Hungary, a product of a mixed marriage. Her parents made sure she "had the good bits and pieces of my culture."

She learned English in Canada, in Sault Ste. Marie, where she lived with a family on a Rotary Club scholarship. Then she went to university and studied anthropology.

Her thesis was on rap music and Roma musicians. Today she is an emblem of "Roma-proud," a term for the growing self-consciousness among her people.

"I became an activist because my Roma friends didn't know who they were," she says. It isn't only about the Roma, she insists, because poverty, education and health care are not their issues alone; they are European issues. She's impatient for progress, and while some assume she will remain in politics as a rising star, she has doubts.

"I'm an anthropologist," she says. "I want to return to the field. If the EU gets this right (on the Roma), I'm done."

Andrew Cohen is a professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University.

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