Interview

Interview: Viktoria Mohacsi

A Roma political leader and celebrated human rights campaigner speaks to FP on hate crimes, segregation, and why Europe needs to protect its most vulnerable minority.

DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images
DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images

In recent weeks, French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government has come under fire from the European Union and human rights organizations for its expulsion of Roma migrants. Less attention has focused on the deteriorating situation for the Roma in their home countries in Eastern Europe. A newly released report from the U.S. NGO Human Rights First documents a recent uptick in hate crimes — including murder and arson — directed against the Roma community in Hungary. The upsurge in violence coincides with the growing influence of the far-right Jobbik party, which has been eager to pin the country’seconomic woes on the "Roma problem."

This week, Hungarian Roma political leader Viktoria Mohacsi visited the United States to receive Human Rights First’s 2010 human rights award. Mohacsi represented Hungary in the European Parliament from 2004 to 2009, when she lost her seat as a result of Jobbik’s electoral gains. She spoke with FP about the challenges facing the Roma in Hungary and throughout Europe.

Foreign Policy: What message are you looking to bring on your visit to the United States?

Viktoria Mohasci: This is the biggest opportunity I’ve had to request help [from the U.S. government] to combat hate crimes in Hungary. We have an ongoing racist serial-killing spree happening in my country which has not ended. The FBI cooperated with the Hungarian police in the investigation. That cooperation was very successful and that’s why they caught the killers. Four perpetrators were caught last August. But even since they’ve been caught, the hate crimes [against Roma] are continuing. The police have found six dead bodies and nine instances where Molotov cocktails have been thrown at houses. And according to my research, there have been at least three times the amount of attacks than what the police have reported.

Now, [far-right political party] Jobbik, who received 15 percent of the vote in last year’s parliamentary elections are promoting the idea of "gypsy crime" and the whole atmosphere in my country is unbelievable. It’s not comfortable for a Romany person to live in Hungary.

This is why I’ve come here to raise the issue with the State Department. We’ve had very good cooperation in the past and I hope that with this cooperation we can create pressure to make combating hate crime part of the planned EU-Roma strategy.

FP: To what do you attribute the rise of Jobbik and this recent wave of anti-Roma sentiment?

VM: The main reason is because of the economic crisis. So many people lost their jobs — like everywhere in the world. Some people are blaming my people for the lack of jobs. Of course, we didn’t have jobs 20 years ago, 10 years ago, or now. [The Roma] haven’t lost anything with the economic crisis. We’ve never had anything!

FP: Is that what’s going on in France as well?

VM: Yes, partly. But France is just the latest place where this is happened. I believe that many of the people being expelled from France had previously been in Italy. This is a group [of Roma] that came from the Balkans, as well as from Romania and Bulgaria. We fought against the fingerprinting and other policies in Italy because we knew that if we let this pass, other states would copy. [In 2008, Italy’s parliament passed a controversial measure to fingerprint all Roma in the country as part of an anti-crime campaign.]

What I want is for these people to be treated as EU citizens. If they’re found committing a crime, they should be treated as criminals — but the whole group should not be targeted as "gypsy criminals." Most of the people who left Italy went to France, Switzerland, Denmark, and Germany. We’ve heard already a statement from German Chancellor Angela Merkel who has threatened migrants, saying that they will be punished for not integrating into society. Switzerland has almost entirely expelled them. These probably won’t be the last.

FP: Why is anti-Romany racism so engrained in Hungary?

VM: When we joined the EU, we put together a desegregation plan based on the experience of the United States. We took a survey and found that94 percent of Hungarians didn’t want their children sitting next to Romany kids in school. We knew that this would be the hardest issue in the country, but we knew that without mixing them into schools, full integration would never be successful.

Twent-five to 30 percent of Romany kids have been declared mentally disabled by the [Hungarian education system]. For the general population in Europe, the average is 3 percent. The World Health Organization has said that it’s not physically possible for one population to have more than 3 percent. This is because of prejudice as well as the fact that school districts can get extra funding for having more special needs kids.

Sometimes, people say that Romany parents want their children to be declared disabled because they’ll get extra state benefits. This is a lie. The money goes into the pockets of the local government.

The students themselves wind up in lower-quality ghetto schools. That’s why I feel very alone. There are no Romany teachers, doctors, judges, or human rights activists. There’s nobody who can be successful.

FP: Have Roma tried to become more active in the political system?

VM: My fellow MPs and MEPs would always tell me, "Teach your people to vote. You have to teach them to participate." But my research discovered that the election percentages were exactly the same. In EU elections, 60 percent of Roma people voted and 60 percent of [the total population] voted. It’s the same thing when you hear people say that our kids are not attending school. Less than 1 percent of Romany kids are not attending school in Hungary.

Of course, I don’t know how it is in other countries. If I get the chance, I’d like to extend this research to all of the 27 EU member states.

FP: But if Roma are voting, why aren’t Roma politicians more influential at the national level?

VM: All the major political parties [in Hungary] choose one Roma representative. Most of these are not effective because the parties always choose someone who won’t speak up too loudly. I heard one of them say, "We have to teach the Romany people to work before we can have integration." A Romany politician said this! It’s shameful. But this is because they were chosen by the party. I was chosen by the Liberals, and we wound up fighting a lot because they thought I would be silent and not get involved. When they saw I was going to independently pursue my issues, they wanted to kick me out. We’ve created several Romany parties, but none of them have been successful.

FP: How have the open borders in the EU changed life for your community?

VM: People thought that they could have a better life in the West. Instead they experience discrimination, exclusion, having their kids taken away from them by authorities. It’s worse for us today than it was when the border was closed under communism.

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