Attempt to move Roma sparks civil rights activity, anti-Roma backlash in Hungary
02 April 1998
Romani issues became front-page national news in Hungary when the local government in Székesfehérvár, approximately 50 kilometres southwest of Budapest, renewed its long-standing attempt to re-house thirteen Romani families comprising 73 individuals illegally occupying the decrepit so-called „Rádió Street 11” building (see article on p.37 on Roma and housing in Hungary). The proposed new location was a series of pre-fabricated containers which had previously been used to house SFOR troops. The containers were metal cells placed at the periphery of the town near a dog kennel. One container was to be allotted as sanitary facilities for all of the families. Following a three hundred person protest by a grouping of Hungarian NGOs called the Anti-Ghetto Committee, as well as intervention by several national offices, the city government backed down and relocated the Romani families to temporary housing in the city. „We were convinced that if the people were put into those containers they would never get any other flats,” Romani leader Aladár Horváth of the Foundation for Romani Civil Rights told Reuters.
The Rádió Street 11 building was knocked down on the morning of November 26, and a crane scraping away at the side of the half-demolished house amid a cloud of dust featured on the front pages of most of the national dailies the next day. The local Roma self-government was then allocated 1,600,000 Forints per family (approximately 16,000 German Marks) to buy flats for the thirteen families concerned. The Romani families were moved to temporary housing in a local building owned by the Red Cross and given until midnight on December 20 to find permanent accommodation.
Three days before the deadline, the Hungarian press began reporting that there would be difficulties in meeting it; although eleven of the thirteen families concerned had purchased houses or flats outside Székesfehérvár, this had spurred county-wide reaction on the part of many non-Roma. On December 17, Blikk and Népszabadság reported that two Romani families had purchased houses in the village of Pátka, but local villagers had thrown a molotov cocktail into one of the houses and had broken the windows of the other. The mayor of Pátka, Mr Károly Hedlicska, had reportedly gathered close to one thousand signatures in support of keeping the Romani families out. At a village meeting in Pátka, locals agreed that they would do everything to prevent the Rádió Street Roma from moving into the village. A Rom from the village told the press that local Roma did not want the Rádió Street Roma either: „We don’t want to be considered squatters because of the Székesfehérvár people.” This and similar statements by Roma were widely quoted in the Hungarian press as Roma were marshalled to act as a mouthpiece for popular anti-Romani positions. In the village of Aba, the local government quickly bought a house that was being pursued for purchase by a Romani family. The mayor of Aba, Mr Kósa, stated that his town has nothing against Roma as such, they just did not want the Rádib Street Roma in their village. In the village of Úrhida, locals also held a village meeting concluding that they do not wish to accept Roma in their village. Rumours abounded that Székesfehérvár was attempting to export its Gypsies by having concluded backroom arrangements to inflate the prices of local flats artificially.
The following day, December 18, Magyar Hírlap printed a photograph of angry non-Romani locals in the village of Belsőbáránd as they blocked another family from the Székesfehérvár group from moving into a house they had purchased. The mayors of forty-three Fejér County towns and villages had evidently met and drafted a resolution that Székesfehérvár should keep its Gypsies and not export them to the surrounding communities. Despite initial assurances that the Rádió Street Roma would be evicted from the Red Cross building as planned on December 20, the deadline was extended at the eleventh hour.
On Thursday, January 8, the Székesfehérvár local government backed down and announced that the families would be allowed to stay in their temporary accommodation until alternative housing can be found for them in Székesfehérvár. „I hope very much that by March or April I will find flats for them”, Mayor István Nagy told Reuters. The result has been hailed as one of the greatest successes of the Romani civil rights movement to date, as Roma first took their claims to the street and then pressured the national government to intervene. How wholeheartedly Roma around the country support the political activity of some of their leaders is, however, unclear, as is the question of to what extent the national government simply engaged in skillful pre-emptive diplomacy.
(Blikk, Magyar Hírlap, Népszabadság, Reuters)