Roma are Leading the Fight against Authoritarianism in Hungary

13 May 2020

By Jonathan Lee

Yesterday morning, the Hungarian Supreme Court ordered the municipality of Gyöngyöspata to pay more than €280,000 in compensation to the families of 60 Romani students who had been illegally segregated from their non-Romani classmates for over a decade. The Court’s decision to uphold the September 2019 ruling from the Debrecen Court of Appeal keeps the flame of democracy alive for everyone living in Hungary; and it is all thanks to Roma.

The case was brought by the Chance for Children Foundation (CFCF), the ERRC’s partner organisation in Hungary. “I have no words, we’re so happy” said Erzsébet Mohácsi, the head of CFCF. “We have had unbroken trust in the independent Hungarian court and we are very pleased to see that the laws apply to everyone.”

The first judgment was originally handed down by a Court in Eger in October 2018, but the municipality appealed the decision again and again; all the way to the highest court in Hungary, the Supreme Court. The Romani children had been kept in segregated classrooms on the second floor of the Nekcsei Demeter Primary School for over a decade. They testified that they rarely ever met their non-Romani schoolmates; they were not allowed to take part in the carnival ball; they were not taken on class trips; and they were denied IT and swimming lessons. Many of the children were unable to ever graduate, and the inferior education they received meant that many left school barely able to read or write.

This was not a simple matter of school segregation for the Hungarian Government however. The independence of the judiciary is one of the pillars of democracy which, before the coronavirus pandemic, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was threatening to undermine. Devoid of migrants, refugees, or civil society workers to persecute, Orbán used this segregation case to turn his sights on the Roma as the nation’s newest imaginary enemy.

“If I lived there, I would still ask how it is that, for some reason, members of an ethnically dominant ethnic group living with me in a community, in a village, will otherwise receive a significant sum without doing any kind of work” the Prime Minister said.

Orbán rallied his considerable resources around ramping up the rhetoric around the Gyöngyöspata case which painted the judgment of the court as unjust. He ordered (yet another) National Consultation on the fairness of the court ruling and whether Hungary should pay the compensation due.  He said that "we must give justice to the people of Gyöngyöspata" and that it would offend the Hungarian sense of justice if the government was seen to “give money for nothing.”

Not to undo all his hard work in demonising Hungarian businessman George Soros, the Prime Minister declared the judgment “an unfortunate judicial verdict” and that in fact “the Soros network is behind it.” The Fidesz echo chamber went into overdrive and politicians could be heard parroting this line across the country. Alongside this politicians were increasingly claiming that money should not be “given for nothing” and non-monetary compensation, in the form of training schemes, would be better suited to the needs of the Romani families. This was echoed by Romani MEP and Vice President of the European Parliament, Lívia Járóka, in her condescending soundbite: “money runs out, but knowledge remains.”

The government offered education and training opportunities in place of damages to the affected Gyöngyöspata families, which they refused. In yesterday’s Supreme Court decision, the judgment stipulated that monetary damages are the only valid type of compensation for the 60 Romani children, and must be paid.

With the judgment confirmed by the highest court in the land, the next move is Orbán’s. He must either: concede to the Roma and let the municipality pay the damages; or refuse, and likely face a case before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. 

At a time when Viktor Orbán has used the coronavirus pandemic to legally become the European Union’s first dictator, ruling by executive decree, it is the Roma who have come to the nation’s defence and stood up for democracy in Hungary. This case is no longer simply about Romani parents seeking to secure damages for their kids suffering a decade of school segregation. This is about the freedom of the judiciary to hold the government to account. It pitches the Supreme Court against the Prime Minister, who had sought to undermine the rule of law, engaged in divisive racial incitement, and announced a ‘national consultation’ to overturn the ruling. Romani children and families from a small village now symbolize the battle for democracy in Hungary, and represent the most visible and profound challenge to the ambitions of a would-be dictator in a long time.

The Roma have led from the front, as protests on keeping the courts free from government interference drew thousands in February this year. While many international organisations had left the country – including the European Roma Rights Centre – Hungarian Roma could not afford this luxury. They had no option but to remain and fight against an increasingly authoritarian regime, which was once again turning its gaze on the Roma as a political scapegoat. 

These people fought, not necessarily as Roma, but as citizens of Hungary standing up for their rights. They defied Orbán’s not-so-subtle implication that Roma are foreign to the country, when he lamented that non-Romani parents in Gyöngyöspata “feel like they are in a hostile environment in their own homeland.” 

In a situation where a Romani MEP stands on the side of the segregators, this case demonstrates how a human rights approach is essential to fighting injustice. This approach lays down a bottom line for the defence of Roma Rights. It goes beyond ethno-political discourses and bases its legitimacy in a court decision founded on the principles of antidiscrimination laws; laws which we fought hard for in all countries where Roma live.

We should be proud that in Hungary, it is Roma who are defending democracy for all. If the will of the Supreme Court is negotiable then Hungary can no longer be described by any measure as a functioning democracy. The independence of the judiciary is an essential check to runaway executive power, one which Romani families are now putting themselves in the Fidesz firing line to defend.

The implementation of this judgment will need to be monitored, as well as the outcome of the inevitable National Consultation. It is likely that this will not be the end of the story, and it could be some time before justice is served for these families and for democracy in Hungary. Until then Roma will continue to stand against the whims of a government which is hostile to human rights, hostile to democratic structures, and increasingly hostile to Roma. 

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