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CEU and NGO crackdown: a double blow for Roma inclusion in Hungary

The university, its culture, and its location here in Budapest, are a vital component of the social and economic expansion of Roma in Europe. Few universities have made Roma empowerment so central to their mission as CEU have.

lead Emma Rorke at the human chain protest around CEU, calling for President János Áder to veto the bill (Photograph by Bernard Rorke). Tens of thousands marching on the streets of Budapest, a university facing forced closure, civil society in the cross-hairs of the regime, and the threat of violent government crackdown looms large over the civilly disobedient citizens of the city.

Amidst all the ‘hoopla’ (the prime minister’s description of the country’s largest protests since the fall of communism), there has been little attention paid to the effect the new laws could have on Hungary’s largest ethnic minority: the Roma.

The provocation which ignited demonstrations across Budapest was the threatened closure of Central European University (CEU). Mass civil disobedience began in the capital after the ruling party, Fidesz, rushed through the 'Lex CEU' higher education amendment which has been widely criticised as discriminatory for specifically targeting the Soros-funded university. Now, parliament is set to debate a new bill aimed at foreign-funded NGOs, sparking further protests off the back of the CEU solidarity marches. Critics have compared the bill to similar gagging laws which severely curtail NGO activity in Russia and Israel.

The motives behind Hungary’s recent actions are not exceptional. Would-be-despots across Europe have ramped up their right-wing rhetoric to whole new levels of feverish jingoism in 2017. Emboldened by the Trump presidency, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has wasted no time in putting in motion plans to rid the country of foreign influence, be that refugees, Central European University (CEU), or NGOs. Whilst his plans are not directly targeted against Roma, they stand to lose the most from the closure of CEU and the proposed bill to curtail NGOs. The motives behind Hungary’s recent actions are not exceptional. Would-be-despots across Europe have ramped up their right-wing rhetoric to whole new levels of feverish jingoism in 2017.

For Orbán, CEU is the locus of all of meddlesome civil society, and it is everything the prime minister hates: international, liberal, and critical of the right-wing ‘pro-peasant populism’ peddled by him and his cronies. The university is in so many ways, a flagship for Roma empowerment through education but its special contribution to Roma Rights is in its Roma Access Programs (RAP).

RAP provides an entry point to postgraduate study for Roma from across eastern Europe and the Western Balkans. The university provides full scholarships to cover tuition, housing and living costs for the brightest Romani students. They offer intensive English language preparation, organise social and networking events, and have links to professional opportunities across the world for their graduates. Over the last 11 years, the university has helped more than 250 Romani students achieve Masters degrees and go on to be real change-makers in a diverse range of professions throughout society.

In 2016, CEU furthered its commitment to Roma inclusion through the launch of its €5 million ‘Roma in European Societies’ initiative. The first of its kind in higher education, this collaborative funding supports further teaching and research, Roma Studies programs, community outreach and leadership development. It shows a meaningful commitment from CEU to improving the situation of Roma in all sectors at local, national, and regional levels. Roma from completely different backgrounds and countries can, through English as a common language, build a truly international Romani community. This is crucial for real, and lasting Roma inclusion in the long term.

The physical space of the university is also hugely important to Romani students. Roma from completely different backgrounds and countries can, through English as a common language, build a truly international Romani community. This is crucial for real, and lasting Roma inclusion in the long term. The university, its culture, and its location here in Budapest, are a vital component to the social and economic expansion of Roma in Europe. We cannot achieve parity without educated Roma occupying positions of influence in public policy and civil society particularly, and CEU leads the way as a centre for Romani inclusion in post-graduate education and professional development.

Additionally, CEU has long been an ally of Roma Rights NGOs in Europe and in Hungary, who have strong ties with the institution, its academics and its students. If the university's days are truly numbered, we are looking at a sudden drop-off in Romani post-graduates from January 2018; students who would otherwise go on to work in multinationals, financial service companies, legal practices, centres of European policy-making, UN bodies, or international NGOs.

Those of us working in Roma Rights organisations would no doubt be the first to feel the shortage of bright, qualified Roma, but the loss of talent would also impact on Budapest and the wider region. The city's ability to attract international organisations will be hindered if government policy is so clearly hostile to internationals – a stance Orbán succinctly proclaimed in his recent defence of the Lex CEU and anti-NGO laws: “what is at stake...is whether we will have a parliament and government serving the interests of Hungarian people or it will serve foreign interests”. In other words, Hungary for the Hungarians.

Representatives from the European Roma Rights Centre marching at Roma Pride, Budapest 2016 (Photograph by Lili Bayer).

In other words, Hungary for the Hungarians.

The harassment, police brutality, discrimination and stigmatisation which Hungarian Roma face on a daily basis will only increase with an absent or hamstrung civil society. Not to mention, NGOs are amongst the few dissenting voices remaining in the public sphere to call out anti-Roma hate speech. Orbán has already successfully dismantled all major independent media critical of the government. One protester amongst the 100,000 demonstrating at Heroes Square commented: “it is like the air is getting thinner and thinner in this country”.

So far, the government response to the demonstrations has been uncharacteristically measured. Other than some minor incidents, there has been little to no violence from police or protesters. However, recent threats have come from chief propagandist Zsolt Bayer, who warned “we too will take to the streets in defence of all that is important and holy to us. And we will be angry...So for a little while you can still rage on the streets... for the time being. But then not. Then you will experience what it means to be persecuted and threatened.”

Not to be outdone, Orban used his Easter Sunday interview to threaten that the “hands of peaceful and upright Christian people are itching” to strike the tens of thousands of demonstrators protesting against the regime. His comments came the day after recently arrested activist Gergő Varga gave his ultimatum to a 20,000 strong crowd that “this government either resigns, or the proud people of Budapest will drag them out of parliament.”

What's next?

For Budapest, the threat of a heavy-handed response from authorities is a distinct possibility considering the recent rhetoric coming from establishment voices. However, regime violence against peaceful protesters could ultimately prove to galvanize the wider population into action and increase public pressure on Fidesz just as we enter the run-up to the next parliamentary elections in 2018.

Closing CEU would be a big step backward in attempts to create an international Roma movement of educated changemakers. Few universities have made Roma empowerment so central to their mission as CEU have. The long-term effects on Roma education and professional development can only be guessed at if we lose a generation of CEU Romani professionals. Few universities have made Roma empowerment so central to their mission as CEU have.

For Hungarian Roma, the future is even less certain. Without the Roma Access Programs, where do Roma Rights NGOs stand? Roma in Hungary need the watchdogs in civil society to be active and uninhibited to ensure that human rights violations are challenged and reported on. Any government attempts to muzzle NGOs will leave an already vulnerable population more open to abuse and discrimination.

The European Commission (EC) has already brought infringement proceedings against Hungary for breaching the Racial Equality Directive in the treatment of its Romani minority. Far from the situation improving, things have actually got worse for Roma, with the Hungarian government claiming the EC was taking punitive measures taken against Hungary as revenge for contesting mandatory refugee quotas. Particularly, the placement of Romani children in segregated schools has remained commonplace since infringement, with signs the government have actually exacerbated school segregation, rather than complying with the recommendations of the commission.

It is vital for the European Union to take a stand now, at the midpoint of the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies. It is clear that the Commission fully recognises the need for action, and is deeply concerned that "no real improvements can be seen on the ground". It calls on Member States to demonstrate greater political will to combat discrimination, describes rising anti-Gypsyism as a "specific form of racism", and urges public authorities to distance themselves from racist and xenophobic discourse that targets Roma. When it comes to anti-Roma hate speech and hate crime, the Commission bluntly stated that authorities’ failure to take action effectively amounts to complicity: "it is important to realise that a reluctance to act also contributes to the acceptance of intolerance in societies."

Much of the shocking mistreatment of Roma in Hungary has been largely overshadowed by Orbán’s abysmal treatment of refugees. Yet Hungary has a woeful record of negligence and outright abuses of Roma by authorities. State complicity to hate speech and hate crime takes on a new whole new meaning in a country where the Prime Minister is on record as describing Roma in Hungary as "Hungary’s historical given … We are the ones who have to live with this". When far-right paramilitaries force Roma to barricade themselves in their homes and threaten to burn them to the ground, all while the police stand by and do nothing - it is imperative that civil society play an active role in fighting for justice and accountability. Commission proceedings are drawn out and secretive, away from the democratic gaze, and in their current form will hardly deter Orbán in his Putin-style purge of NGOs.

The new legislation being railroaded through the Hungarian parliament shows clear signs that Hungary is sliding deeper into authoritarianism, with a grim outlook for the country’s Roma. The EU must stand up to the attacks on CEU and on NGOs.  The Commission’s decision to take legal action and send a Letter of Formal Notice to the Hungarian Government regarding the CEU is a welcome first step; but this legal action is just one amongst dozens of infringement proceedings currently pending against Hungary.

Time is of the essence for the university which has to plan for its next academic year. Commission proceedings are drawn out and secretive, away from the democratic gaze, and in their current form will hardly deter Orbán in his Putin-style purge of NGOs.

Beyond CEU, and in defence of civil society organisations, to paraphrase the commission:  a reluctance to act on their part contributes to the acceptance of intolerance, and will only further embolden authoritarians throughout the union.

About the author

Jonathan Lee is a Romani activist and writer from Swansea, South Wales. He graduated with an MA in Middle East & Islamic Studies from the Institute of Arab & Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter in 2015. He is currently based in Budapest where he works as the Communications Coordinator for the European Roma Rights Centre (@errctweets). Find him on Twitter at @jon_j_lee


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