Human Resources Minister Zoltán Balog promised closer cooperation with Roma rights groups when he said on Sunday that the integration of the marginalised ethnic minority is now being tackled at the ministerial level.
After two years as the governmental state secretary in charge of issues of social cohesion, Balog was appointed last week to head the new Human Resources super-ministry, which includes the key education and healthcare portfolios.
However, in a speech to mark the first anniversary of a government pact to tackle the problems faced by Hungary’s estimated 700,000 Roma, colloquially Gypsies, Balog warned non-governmental organisations (NGOs) not to “take the liberty” of speaking in their name.
Last year, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán signed a social pact with Flórián Farkas, head of the National Roma Council (ORÖ) and a member of the ruling conservative party Fidesz.
Fight for the right to represent
Balog said there was a battle being fought over who has the right to represent the Roma. Media and political “interests” at the local and international level are “deliberately calling into question” the role of the ORÖ, the minister said.
He told representatives of the ORÖ that there are “all kinds of civic groups and others” who “boldly take it upon themselves to speak in your name without discussing it with you”.
With the rabidly anti-Roma nationalist party Jobbik providing vocal opposition after winning 17 per cent of the vote in the 2010 elections, the issue of Roma integration, or the lack of it, has attracted unwelcome publicity for the government.
Nationalist vigilantes linked to Jobbik were permitted to patrol a remote town with impunity for almost three weeks last year, provoking a storm of controversy. An outcry by human-rights groups and intervention by a US activist and the Hungarian Red Cross thrust the issue into the international media and, according to one interpretation, forced the government to act.
A government-led parliamentary committee concluded, however, that the controversy was stoked by a desire on the part of NGOs and opposition parties to “discredit” Hungary.
Balog said on Sunday that no English-language studies had been published which explained Hungary is among the few countries with a bottom-up system of representation for the Roma minority (a claim easily refuted with a cursory Google search).
There are, however, many studies claiming that the system of ethnic minority councils is corrupt and inappropriate, the minister asserted.
The government has put Roma culture on the national curriculum of primary and secondary schools for the first time, Balog told his audience in the southeastern village of Lakitelek. The minister called for schoolchildren to also be taught conflict-resolution strategies, but cautioned that problems involving the Roma and Magyar communities are often incorrectly presumed to be racist in origin.
Poverty, not racism
“We are well aware that many cases described as ethnic conflict actually have nothing to do with ethnic conflict, but rather antagonism between people living in deep poverty,” he said.
The Human Resources Minister said the ORÖ is the government’s “primary partner” in tackling issues of integration. The National Roma Council is only one of 13 “minority self governments” in Hungary, albeit by far the largest. There are national councils representing all of the peoples whose seven nation states border Hungary (if one counts Austrians as ethnically German), as well as Greek, Polish, Bulgarian, Armenian and Rusyn self-governments.
Jobs and training
The framework agreement signed by Orbán and Farkas last year aims to return 100,000 jobless Roma to the labour market (which arguably has been achieved by a government workfare scheme that forces the long-term unemployed to undertake menial community work in exchange for social-security benefits).
It also called for vocational training for 20,000 young Roma and university scholarships for at least 5,000 promising Roma students.