Roma children in Budapest. Photo: Zoltan Balogh (Hungary) /

Forced integration for Roma?

The Hungarian press is heatedly debating what to do about Roma, the main perpetrators – and victims – of the recent crime wave in Hungary. Essayist Eszter Babarczy makes a modest proposal in the weekly HVG: put the kids in boarding school to help them make their way in Hungarian society.

Published on 27 October 2009 at 16:50
Roma children in Budapest. Photo: Zoltan Balogh (Hungary) /

Amid the ongoing debate over the difficulties of integrating Hungary’s Roma, my editor-in-chief asked me to write the “politically correct” version of the story. “Piece o’ cake,” I said to myself. “No problem. If the racists would only stop blaming the Gypsies for all the wrongdoing, it would all be sorted out.”

Really? Of course not. The past 15 years go to show that this approach has not solved the problem: on the contrary, it has only fuelled racist invective in our society. The rise of Jobbik (right-wing extremist party) is largely due to this naiveté. The Roma who opt out of society and live in ghettos are not necessarily criminals. They live in a community divided up into clans and suffer more from the “bad families” in their village (who steal from everyone, including their fellow Romany) and the loan sharks (likewise Romany) than from discrimination. The vast majority will never even have an opportunity to experience discrimination because there is no way out of the village ghetto.

Education is a financial impossiblity

The question that divides Hungarian intellectuals is: who should pave that way out of the ghetto? I don’t believe ghettoised Roma are capable of doing it under their own steam. Gypsy organisations serve merely as a forum for their corrupt and power-hungry bosses. (Two Romany leaders were recently indicted for embezzling public funds.) These posts are the wages of hypocrisy and do not provide any solution.

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In all seriousness, can we really imagine that people who are honest but unemployed can afford to send their children to high school? Those who think they can have never gone to see a Romany family. These families live in an economy devoid of liquid currency (unless they steal it). So outside of donations and whatever can be produced, built or jerry-rigged in situ, they have no access to anything that has to be paid for (petrol, school supplies, remedial instruction). Romany kids can knock themselves out at school, but they still don’t see where all that effort is going to get them: they won’t be able to leave the village since there is no money for boarding school, train fare, textbooks.

Prison is no deterrent

“Educating” Romany adults is also an impossible task. The families who lead an upright life in this culture of poverty are afraid of the criminal elements, but they know that in a pinch, they’ve no-one to turn to but members of their own family (among whom there is bound to be someone who has chosen a life of crime). To bring them back to the straight and narrow, prison is not a suitable punishment. It is not a deterrent. We middle-class whites do not know what would be an effective deterrent. To find out we’d need an anthropologist and an expert on Gypsy culture – and above all the cooperation of the Romany community.

Last but not least: no, the Romany are not going to be gainfully employed any time soon. It is unrealistic to expect them to land a job, seeing as however hard they look, they won’t find one. Not because they are discriminated against, but because there is no work in the Hungarian countryside at the moment. There is none for skilled workers, much less for the unskilled.

Send Roma children to boarding school

The gradual amelioration of the plight of American blacks began with the creation of schools offering scholarships to black children in poor areas. Michelle Obama attended a school like that. Unlike most sociologists, I would see nothing scandalous about placing Romany children in boarding schools. The Romany family that I know well was founded by young people educated in boarding schools who appreciate the opportunity they got to escape from the destructive forces of their milieu.

If we do not help 10-to-12-year-olds assimilate NOW, we middle-class Hungarians are re-creating social tensions through negligence and irresponsibility – as we’ve been doing for the past two decades, preferring to look away and hide our utter helplessness behind politically correct verbiage that doesn’t cost a thing.


Intellectuals divided over Gypsy question

For a year now Hungary has been hard hit by a crime wave whose main victims and perpetrators are Roma. Heti Világgazdaság (HVG) has launched a debate on its web site to try to find solutions to the “Gypsy question”. Among the participants, Romany sociologist Sándor Romano Rácz advocates a “patient, and necessarily long-term, dialogue” with the Romany people. Not only do Gypsies form a different ethnicity, he argues, but they have a different form of civilisation: that of marginalising themselves and remaining within the “reassuring cocoon of the group”. But in present-day Hungary, only the musicians can count themselves lucky to belong to this community – which is why more and more Roma are calling themselves musicians. At the same time, Romano Rácz finds that the autonomous Romany organisations are “not suited to their mentality.”

Economist János Stadler, for his part, contends that the preconceptions about Romany have grown up as a result of their “wild” way of life, which perpetuates their backwardness and poverty. Although now sedentary, they still live according to the customs of a nomadic people: “They plunder the kitchen gardens or suddenly show up at school and beat up the teacher.(…) We need to sit down with them and consider the reasons for all this delinquency,” writes Stadler. “Punishing them will not suffice: we have to change their mentality. And they need to seize the opportunity to assimilate – and stop playing the role of scapegoat and going on about how much society hates them.”

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