Magazine article Contemporary Review

The Gypsies in Hungary

Magazine article Contemporary Review

The Gypsies in Hungary

Article excerpt

ZSOLT Janos, a tall, olive skinned lad with intelligent, widely set dreamy eyes, wants to qualify as a NATO pilot to prevent the recurrence of ethnic cleansing anywhere in Europe. He is a member of the first graduating class of Hungary's Gandhi Secondary School, the only such institution in Europe devoted exclusively to producing a Gypsy educational elite as an agent of social change. The headmistress of the school has just received an important human rights prize from the American government.

The graduates are facing a desperate struggle. But similar schools serving at various levels of education are springing up elsewhere to confront the widespread discrimination facing Gypsies throughout East-Central Europe and beyond. The school is in Pecs in the South of Hungary near the Croatian border, an ancient and beautiful city with liberal traditions and balmy Mediterranean weather. The city has accepted many refugees from the recent Yugoslav wars. It has also won a prize for racial tolerance from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Zsolt (not his real name) is very unusual in that he thinks he has never really been touched by racial discrimination. He has been chosen for the Ghandi educational experiment because both his parents belong to the one per cent of their people who have completed secondary schooling. He is also lucky because he has somehow escaped the segregation of Gypsy children -- a practice widespread throughout Eastern Europe -- who are often dumped in infant schools for the mentally retarded.

He is unlikely to succeed in his military ambitions. That is because of the intense competition for top jobs in the armed services, which are just being integrated with Nato, rather than because of institutional racism. But in the rural and industrial slums beyond Zsolt's world where most of his people live, conditions are very different.

The Gypsies are Europe's most deprived and fastest growing ethnic minority. They comprise several distinct tribes originating from Central and North-Western India between the 5th and 12th centuries. Today they number up to 30 million, perhaps a third of them living in Europe. They have retained strong tribal and family loyalties and preserved systems of collective security which conflict with common European traditions. They are known as Roma in Eastern and Central Europe, Manush and Sinti in Western Europe and Gitanos in Spain and Portugal.

In Hungary, 'only 0.3 per cent of Roma hold post-secondary school diplomas and only one in four complete primary school', says Professor Miklos Haraszti of the University of California's Study Centre in Budapest. They comprise an estimated 5-7 per cent of the loin national population but make up two-thirds of the prison population. Their jobless rate is over 60 per cent, more than six times the Hungarian average. And their life expectancy -- a vital measure describing health, economic and social conditions -- trails the national average by as much as ten years.

The gates of secondary schooling are at last wide open to Gypsy students, observes educational sociologist Istvan Kemeny, the author of pioneering fieldwork, in the January issue of the authoritative journal Hungarian Quarterly. But the educational gap between the Gypsies and the Hungarian ethnic majority 'has not narrowed over the past 40 years... And even today, only one in five Gypsy families could afford to send their children to secondary schools'.

The European Commission -- the administrative headquarters of the European Union (EU) in Brussels -- has urged Hungary as well as the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Bulgaria to take urgent practical steps to end discrimination. However, Michael Lake, the Commission's permanent representative in Budapest (and a former journalist on the staff of the London Sun newspaper), has also declared that the Gypsy issue will not hinder Hungary's EU membership application. …

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