“We are living in times similar to the 1920s. Then there were Jewish laws, which the government said were merely to organise life and society. And we know what happened in the Second World War.”
Around 500 people protested Miskolc city council’s plan to bulldoze a Roma housing estate to make way for a new football stadium in the north-eastern city on Wednesday. The threatened settlement consists of around a dozen streets – numbered, not named – where Roma families live in 100-year-old, two-storey houses. It skirts the main thoroughfare of Miskolc and at one end is dwarfed by the Disogyöri VTK football stadium.
Carrying placards with slogans such as “I’m Poor, Not a Criminal” and “Rights and Respect” and chanting “We’re staying in Miskolc”, the mainly Roma marchers proceeded from the threatened estate, across town, to a square adjacent to City Hall. “This march is in the centre of a political battle,” Miskolc National Roma Self-Government president Gábor Váradi told the Budapest Beacon.
Last month Fidesz city mayor Ákos Kriza and his fellow Fidesz councillors voted to demolish what they describe as a slum area and to offer a HUF 1.5-2 million (USD 6,610-8,815) compensatory payment to residents who promised to leave the city limits. Far-right Jobbik members then started a petition to turf out the Roma without compensation.
“We are not animals, we are people, just like the non-Roma,” local MCP member Ferenc Botos said to a crowd waving Solidarity and Roma flags. “Those tens of millions spent on football stadiums should have been spent on helping with social problems.” The speeches were interspersed with emotive musical performances of Roma standards and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.
After the speeches Váradi handed over a letter to Mayor Kriza, signed by 1,800 people, asking him to annul the decree. The letter said “with this move the city administration is endorsing anti-Roma sentiment”.
“The decree breaks the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” said Péter Zselenszky, a wheelchair-bound non-Roma person who travelled from Tarnalelesz to attend the march. Also in attendance were Aladar Horváth, the founder of Hungary’s first Gypsy political party, and the philosopher Tamás Gaspar Miklós, who delivered a speech while scores of police officers, some in riot gear, waited out of sight in vans and alleyways. Police later began to prevent entry onto the square, blocking its three entry points and redirecting late arrivals to another entrance, where they then received the same advice.
Attila Orsós, who travelled some 400 kilometers from Bogyíszló in Tolna county to attend, said: “We are living in times similar to the 1920s. Then there were Jewish laws, which the government said were merely to organise life and society. And we know what happened in the Second World War. With a big economic plunge, in other countries too, we can see the Nazi ideology rise. Now, in the 21st century, they think they can do it again, with our minority. This is not a governmental law but they have given city councils the chance to kick out the people they don’t like. They want to criminalise us and say, whoever you are, you are definitely a criminal and a problem for society. Now it has become ‘acceptable’ to say these things in the Parliament too,” Orsós added.
Racism and poverty are interlinked, ever-growing problems in Miskolc, a city that has seen its fortunes slide since the collapse of both the socialist regime and the heavy industries that employed the majority of its workers into the 1990s.
In 2010 several thousand Roma people fled the area to claim political asylum in Canada, which deported them two years later. Kriza’s response was that “Miskolc will not receive Canada’s refugees”. One of those “refugees” was Robi, a 14-year-old from the settlement who joined Wednesday’s march. He said: “I spent two years in Toronto. Canadian people, when they are on the street, they don’t see your skin colour, they don’t care. Here people look at you like you are nothing.” He shuddered. “Viktor Orbán said Gypsies don’t want to work but what can I do here? I want to go back to Canada. Maybe I will in three months.”
Orsós saId: “We are here to represent the Roma minority, that we are not outside but a part of society. So give it to us: political integration, economic integration, cultural integration, instead of our low level in Hungarian society. If they don’t do that, then what shall we do? Education is our one chance for integration.”
Education will be a two-way process: when the chant “Miskolcon maradunk” (We will stay in Miskolc) broke out at regular intervals during the march, many of the city’s non-Roma residents looked decidedly unmoved. “That’s exactly the problem,” one of them commented.