Hungarian Gypsies (Roma): Past and present (Part II)

As promised yesterday I'm moving on to the topic of Gypsies in the work force. Traditionally Gypsies were artisans and traders. In the eighteenth century some of the settled Gypsies worked as blacksmiths and were considered to be very skilled in ironwork. Others were traders, especially involved in the buying and selling of horses. And, combining these two interests, some were farriers, an important profession in those days. Most of them lived in villages in segregated sections, usually at the far ends of the usually one-street hamlets. This is still pretty much the case. Think of the serial attacks on Gypsy houses lately: almost all of the houses burned or shot at were situated at the far end of the village. The Gypsies owned no land although in the eighteenth century there were all sorts of attempts to apportion some land to them, coming from the estates of the local, usually noble, owner whose land was cultivated by the local peasants. Legislation regarding these land grants was even enacted, but in practice nothing came of it. Thus Gypsies had no agricultural experience in a country where more than 60% of the population was employed in agriculture as late as the 1930s.

In 1945 there was a radical land reform. The huge estates owned mostly by the nobility and the Catholic Church were cut up into very small strips of land and given to people who owned no land at all but who were employed as hired hands. Gypsies were excluded. I don't know what the thinking was behind this exclusion. Perhaps they argued that Gypsies who had never worked the land wouldn't be able to take advantage of the opportunity. Or since there wasn't enough land for the non-Gypsy needy they were simply left out. In any event the change that occurred in 1945 didn't make any difference as far as the Roma population was concerned.

As late as 1971 (again here I quote the data of István Kemény) two-thirds of the Gypsies lived in segregated Gypsy settlements. Two-thirds of their huts (one couldn't really call them houses) were made of adobe bricks (vályog in Hungarian). Forty-four percent of these huts had no electricity, only eight percent had running water, and only three percent had toilets. Thirty-two percent of these huts didn't even have outhouses!  Most of the houses Gypsies live in today in the countryside still have no running water; water must be brought from a well, often quite distant.

During the socialist period there was one major change from earlier times: 85% of the heads of households worked, mostly in factories either in Budapest or in bigger cities nearby. Admittedly, among Gypsy men only 11% were skilled and 10% semi-skilled workers. Thirteen percent of them were employed in agriculture, doing mostly heavy physical work. Some migration took place between the countryside and cities, but many Roma men shuttled between home and workplace either daily by train if the workplace was close enough or stayed in workers' hostels during the week and went home only for the weekend.

The full employment fostered during the socialist period concealed the fact that most of the work these people did was superfluous. In 1989-1990 came the moment of truth. Factories producing unwanted goods had to be closed, more profitable ones were sold to mostly foreign companies that brought along modern equipment. This meant that they needed fewer workers and those that they hired had to be skilled. An incredible number of workers lost their jobs. After 1990 only 29% of Roma men managed to retain their jobs in contrast to 64% of the non-Gypsies. And in the last twenty years there has been no improvement in this respect. By now perhaps even two or three generations of Roma families live on welfare. The youngsters don't see their fathers or grandfathers get up in the morning and go to work. Gypsy girls get pregnant at an early age and women in their thirties might already be grandmothers. They have large families as is usually the case with the less educated, but in the case of the Roma their love of children is legendary. The more children the larger the cash benefits from the government, but even so most Gypsy families live in poverty. Because most of them live in the countryside job opportunities are practically nonexistent, and they either have no transportation to travel to work or they can't afford the fare. And there is also discrimination against them. Gypsies complain that as soon as employers find out that the applicant is Gypsy suddenly the advertised job has already been filled.

Non-Roma resent the welfare payments doled out to able bodied men and women who are, according to them, simply lazy. They don't want to work. Mayors who are responsible for distributing some of the welfare money started demanding public work for assistance. That demand turned out to be illegal. Then the second Gyurcsány government tried to take the wind out of the sails of local potentates by introducing a public works program for the able bodied. What happened to this project I don't know because there was a change at the head of the ministry of social welfare after Gordon Bajnai became prime minister and I haven't heard anything about it since. The Orbán government tried to tie family assistance to school attendance, which I thought was a good idea. However, the socialists then in opposition attacked the legislation and after 2002 they abolished it. In the last few months of the Gyurcsány government the idea resurfaced, mostly to appease the non-Roma population and to reduce tensions. Again, lately I've heard nothing more about this plan either.

There are constant complaints about Roma thievery. Of course, not all Gypsies steal, but Jobbik and the Hungarian Guard introduced a new concept: "Gypsy crime." Liberals have been fighting this stigma. After all, they argue, there is no such thing as "Hungarian crime." Those who don't find the term objectionable claim that in police textbooks the term exists and describes petty thievery: stealing wood from the forest, taking fruit from other people's trees, stealing a couple of chickens at night from neighbors' yards. Apparently, the Hungarian police refuse to look into these petty crimes because they don't bother with any loss that is under 20,000 forints. And the resentment grows. With it the prejudice. A vicious circle. Jobbik and Hungarian Guard offer simple solutions: "we will keep them in line." They want to bring back the gendarmerie, a notorious force that was in charge of the countryside before 1945. Some people want to send them back to India. Actually, the European Gypsies are most likely from the area where today the Pakistani and American forces are battling the Taliban!

As we know from other examples, the integration of a fairly large group that is different looking is a difficult business. The integration of American blacks who in many ways were a great deal better off fifty some years ago than Hungary's Gypsies are today is still a work in progress despite the fact that United States has a black president. It takes time, targeted legislation, and a lot of money. Quite a few billions of forints were already spent without making a dent. Apparently, a large portion of this money never reached those who were supposed to benefit from it.

Once the economic crisis passes, the European Union should pay some attention to this question because after all there are many European countries with large and ever growing Roma populations. The problem is particularly acute in Eastern Europe where the concentration of Gypsies is the greatest. Unfortunately these former socialist countries have the least resources. Therefore perhaps western countries should come to the rescue, not just with money but perhaps by sending social workers and volunteers. I just read that Péter Balázs, the new foreign minister, had a meeting with Hilary Clinton yesterday and the two of them talked about the "Gypsy question." There might be some U.S. help, not necessarily financial. Perhaps American experience in integrating American blacks might be helpful. Help is sorely needed.

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The situation of the Gypsy in Romania is very similar to the one in Hungary: unemployment, poverty, lack of education, segregation in schools,early pregnancies, discrimination etc.. Some (affirmative action type of) measures were taken but the social integration of the Gypsy is very difficult.
Many Romanian Gypsies left for Western Europe in the last decade. Some of them were involved in anti-social behavior (begging, stealing, violent crimes) and this only led to growing resentment against them inside Romania, where they are accused of tarnishing the country’s image abroad.
A majority of Romanians resent the fact that Gypsies are associated with Romania and dislike the use of the term Roma (that again associates them with Romania). A mainstream newspaper even launched a campaign to have the official name for the minority, i.e. roma, replaced with ‘ţigan’ (pronounced tzigan), the exonym that is generally used but considered by some to be discriminatory.
One difference would be than even tough antigypsism is widespread it is not politically organized. Fortunately there is no real correspondent for Jobbik, at least not one with that kind of support.
This is an issue than needs closer European cooperation and that would take a lot of time to solve.

Your penchant for naivety continues Dr Balogh. It is not only between Romania and Hungary that Roma gypsies feel free to move… Did we not in fact first cross swords when I objected to your assertion that Magyars who find themselves across the border should content themselves with the inaccurate nomenclature of calling themselves Slovaks or Romanians? I wondered what you and your oh-so-PC readership will make then of this story: Here we have the natural consequence of the inexactitude of language this blog so actively promotes in pursuit of its socialist ends. Now, every English person who reads it will think “Hungarians” are machete wielding thugs with a taste for touching up Asian girls; precisely because such media outlets subscribe to the worldview you promote. In fact the top national BBC story today is racism against “Romanians” in Belfast. Read James Simpson’s comment to this article, and see how “Romanians” are already perceived in the UK. But is ‘The Press’ piece either sensationalist or hysterical? No. It merely inaccurately uses one noun: “Hungarians.” And so the blood, sweat and tears of thousands of Magyars who have strived as émigrés to be the most hard-working and law-abiding citizens… Read more »

As an American, with and Eastern European mother, who recently moved to Budapest – first time living in this part of the world – the situation with the Roma people is really, really confusing.
To hear about segregation in schools is like a dagger through the heart of Americans where we learn as adolescents about Brown v. the Board of Education and the civil rights movement in the 60s under Dr. Martin Luther King.
Actually, it brings tears to my eyes when I hear about so much open racism and hate.
The best I can do for the situation is to educate myself on what all of the circumstances are. Educate myself, ask questions and tell people what I’ve learned.
That’s how I found this blog and I am so thankful you put the matter in such concise and clear terms. Thank you.
And because I am American, somewhere it has been deeply ingrained in me that nothing is without hope. We simple don’t believe in or accept social complacency.
Ask the question, under ideal circumstances, what measures would be needed to make progress? Then set about getting them. There are other idealists out there who may be difficult to find but are willing to help.


If you really want to have tears in your eyes when you hear so much about open racism and hate, please check out but please get a big box of Kleenex before you do.