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Stigmatising the Roma Peoples in Europe

The Roma peoples across Europe are facing an alarming level of racism and discrimination – a situation that should worry all of us.

A few days ago France’s Interior Minister Manuel Valls called for tens of thousands of ethnic Roma to be kicked out of France. In language that will be familiar to Muslims, he said that the Roma way of life is "extremely different from ours," and they will never integrate into French society.

In Hungary, I witnessed at first hand the shocking persecution of Roma. I was one of a number of delegates who attended a conference in Budapest organised by the Roma Council at the start of September. The meeting looked at the growing tide of racism and violence directed at the Roma.

There are six million Roma living in Europe. Under half a million live in Hungary, and are its largest and most disadvantaged minority. The human rights organisation, Amnesty International says:

"Hundreds of thousands of Roma have been forced to live in informal settlements and camps, often without heating, water or sanitation; tens of thousands are forcibly evicted from their homes every year.

"Thousands of Romani children are placed in segregated schools and receive a substandard education. Roma are often denied access to jobs and quality health care. They are victims of racially motivated violence and are often left unprotected by the police and without access to justice."

Speaker after speaker at the conference described how supporters of Jobbik took part in violent attacks on the Roma and their property.

Jobbik is Hungary's third biggest party with 43 MPs. It gained 16.6% of the vote in the parliamentary elections in 2010. The party hopes to become Hungary's second biggest political party at next year's elections. Jobbik is a classic fascist party with a paramilitary wing, Magyar Nemzeti Garda, which attacks and terrorises Roma, Jews and its political opponents.

Many Roma speakers at the conference compared their situation to that of Muslims in Western Europe.

On the weekend of the conference, Jobbik held a thousand strong anti Roma march in the centre of Budapest. Leading the march were members of the Magyar Nemzeti Garda and the more extreme Betyarsereg (Army of Outlaws) whose members carried helmets and gas masks.

In the immediate aftermath of the conference, I, along with a Hungarian translator, visited several towns to write a report for the European Parliament about the conditions the Roma face.

We visited the small town of Gyöngyöspata (population 4,500), an hours drive from Budapest. Many of the Roma in Gyöngyöspata live in terrible conditions - in homes without electricity or running water set amidst unpaved roads.

The NGO, "Chances for Children", believes there are 200 schools in Hungary which segregate so called 'Hungarian' children from Roma children. In Gyöngyöspata I saw this with my own eyes.

We visited the local school, which segregates the children, the ground floor for the Roma and the first floor for the 'Hungarian' children. We saw a huge difference between the quality and condition of equipment on the two levels. The classrooms on the upper floors have modern electronic whiteboards; downstairs, where the Roma are taught, have to make do with a blackboard.

Roma children we spoke to complain that only "upstairs" children are allowed to use the pool and receive swimming lessons, and that they are not allowed to use the computers. They are excluded from after-school activities and are not allowed to use the children’s toilets on the first floor.

The town’s mayor is a member of Jobbik. He has gained power on the back of anti Roma violence. Tensions in the town exploded in 2011. Nationalists blamed the small Roma population for the suicide of a local resident; it was a lie but it didn't stop thousands of black-shirted militia members moving into the town, patrolling the streets and menacing the Roma. Jobbik held rallies outside the homes of Roma families. In the aftermath the village became a party stronghold.

We interviewed a doctor who told us that many Roma families have left the town, fearful for their lives. He also detailed how many Roma children suffer from panic attacks and nightmares as a result of this terror.

We also got a small taste of Jobbik violence whilst we were at Gyöngyöspata.

As we were about to leave the village we were approached by three thugs dressed in black who threatened us - they were armed with long sticks with axe heads attached. They warned us, "this is a Jobbik town, the supporters of Gypsy thieves are not welcome here".

We quickly moved on.

We also visited the pretty town of Vac, and there in a cafe we saw posters advertising a far right biker gang demonstration entitled, "The Jews are the problem - Step on the Gas".

Our final meeting was with a small delegation of Roma from Ozd in the north west of the country, another Jobbik strong hold. They told us about their council’s attempts to drive them out of the town. They have had their water turned off, the police have refused to stop gangs attacking Roma families and now Jobbik are proposing that Roma communities should be walled in and curfews put in place.

Walled ghettoes, segregated schools, racist propaganda and violent attacks. We have seen it before. We must not stay silent and ignore the question of the Roma. If they can stigmatise the Roma in this way other minorities in Europe will surely be next.

Martin Smith is studying for a PhD on the rise of the far right in Europe.