Roma fleeing from Hungary to Sweden: extreme poverty uproots communities

Friday 1, December 2006 BUDAPEST, December 1 (UNHCR) – Sweden received 356 asylum-seekers from Hungary in recent months in an unprecedented influx from a fellow EU member state. Although the applications were judged in an accelerated procedure and the first group of rejected Roma asylum applicants was returned to Hungary […]

Friday 1, December 2006

BUDAPEST, December 1 (UNHCR) – Sweden received 356 asylum-seekers from Hungary in recent months in an unprecedented influx from a fellow EU member state. Although the applications were judged in an accelerated procedure and the first group of rejected Roma asylum applicants was returned to Hungary in a matter of weeks, more families plan to go from different regions of Hungary, saying they have no other choice but to flee from extreme poverty due to wide-spread discrimination in labour and education.

„Only the most destitute go abroad” – says Sándor Csonka from Mohács (South Hungary), a leader of the local Lungo Drom Roma Association. „Those who have even a minimal income in public service paying 39,000 Forints (200 USD) a month would never take the risk of losing that and they stay. The ones leaving are running away from total hopelessness, total destitution.”

The hardship of unemployment and poverty is bitterly summarised by Katalin L., a Roma mother of two who was rejected as an asylum-seeker in Sweden and returned to Hungary a few days ago: “We were told that we are not refugees as there is no persecution in Hungary. I wonder if it will amount to persecution if my children will go to bed hungry every day in a cold apartment that we cannot afford to heat.” Katalin complains that the local labour service cannot offer enough jobs for unemployed people, and the few jobs available are usually given to the non-Roma. She says “We were returned from Sweden, but we will go elsewhere to look for a better life as soon as we can.”

Sándor Csonka is convinced that the current outflux of Roma is similar to a previous wave of Roma asylum-seekers earlier on, in the nineties to Canada. “The austerity measures introduced by the Government come down most heavily on the Roma who are disadvantaged and discriminated in many forms anyway. A decade ago when thousands of Roma went to Canada asking for asylum, their reasons were similar. Roma then also fled from Hungary simply because they had nothing to eat.” – Csonka comments.

A total of 11,784 Hungarian citizens (mostly ethnic Roma) applied for asylum in Western, developed countries and most of them in Canada between 1995 and 2004. In Canada, an annual 8 to 21 per cent of them received refugee status in the above period. In comparison, during the same years, more than 18,000 Polish and more than 25,000 Slovak citizens, predominantly Roma as well, sought asylum in industrialised countries world-wide.

“We are aware that Roma are discriminated and face a whole range of serious problems not only in Hungary, but in many other Central and Eastern European countries”, says the Regional Representative of UNHCR in Budapest, Lloyd Dakin. “But the problems that the Roma face should be tackled within the countries of origin.”

The present wave of asylum-seekers was triggered by some 20 Roma from the town of Mohács who arrived in Malmö with a direct flight of a low budget airline via Budapest already during the summer. In October and November however, the numbers rose dramatically, and by 1 December reached 356. So far, the authorities have rejected 101 applications as “manifestly unfounded” in an accelerated procedure, whereas 87 applications have been withdrawn by the applicants themselves.

In the meantime, officials of the Swedish Embassy in Budapest attended meetings with Roma leaders in the South of Hungary in an effort to discourage the community from going to Sweden as asylum-seekers, explaining that Sweden adheres to an agreement between EU member states not to give refugee status to each other’s citizens. The Swedish Embassy official was referring to Protocol 29 (the “Spanish Protocol”) of the Amsterdam Treaty which limits asylum in EU states to “third country nationals”, i.e. people who are not citizens of the EU thereby excluding EU nationals from refugee status – a provision UNHCR has always firmly contested.

Michael Lindenbauer, Deputy Regional Representative of UNHCR in Budapest, is of the opinion that “The problems many Roma face in Europe today remind us that asylum requests will not disappear by virtue of a decree. It is the issue of persecution and discrimination that decides whether someone is a refugee, not the citizenship of the country of origin.”

The Hungarian press quotes Swedish authorities as believing that the influx of Roma was manipulated by criminal groups taking money from the travellers and promising them labour and accommodation in exchange. But István Kovács, President of the Mohács Roma Minority Self-Government flatly rejects that allegation: “the first Roma groups were travelling to join family members that had been living in Sweden already for two-three decades as Swedish citizens.”

After the first arrivals in Malmö, news about the excellent quality of the Swedish social and economic system was soon to be spread among friends and relatives back in Hungary, prompting increasing numbers of Roma from Mohács to travel to Sweden to “try their luck” as Kovács puts it. He adds: “Some families have sold all their belongings including TV sets or furniture to be able to buy the air ticket to Malmö”.

In a reaction to the Roma outflux, the Government of Hungary announced that it will allocate HUF 300,000 (USD 1.5 million) to help the three Southern counties of Hungary from which Roma have travelled abroad recently as asylum-seekers. However, József Szekó, Mayor of Mohács, the town which produced 90 per cent of all new Roma asylum applicants, says that this sum would only be enough to cover one year employment of 300 persons, while in his town alone there are 3,000 Roma and the town has no means to provide employment to them.

At a forum for returned and “would-be” asylum-seekers in Mohács at the end of November, István Szirmai from the Roma Integration Department of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour confirmed that “the Government is aware of the fact that Roma in Hungary are in a grave situation as the number of suitable job opportunities in the country is by far not enough to provide Roma with long term employment. The Government-sponsored “public service labour scheme” could be a solution, but state funds are not enough to provide labour to all. The situation of Roma, according to Szirmai is further complicated by intolerance and discrimination during job interviews or at the workplace.”

No wonder that more and more Hungarian Roma see their future abroad. A fifty year old Roma man at the forum said: “Believe me, I would never leave if I had a chance here. You know, I even get homesick if I leave my village and come to Mohács, ten kilometers away…”

Andrea Szobolits in Budapest, Hungary