Under Surveillance: The Roma in Hungary 2012

Police in Hungary have now been formally instructed by the Chief of National Police to pay specific attention to minorities in their work, referring to what some have called ‘ethnic criminality’. The National Police were issued the instructions on December 30.

The special rules for “working in a multicultural environment” refer to officers handling immigration issues with the advice being issued by National Police Chief, Joseph Hatala.

The developments have received a mixed response from police officers and criminologists. Some believe that the new law will actually help the police to identify criminals while others have criticized the measure, claiming that it will only deepen the already existing prejudice within the force.

The main role of the police’s minority liaison division in dealing with minorities is to forge relationships with different cultural communities, youth organizations, refugee organizations as well as realigning minority leaders of social organizations.

Ultimately, the information gathered in the process is shared with the National Bureau of Investigation, the Alert Police Department, the Airport Police Directorate and regular police officers.

Furthermore, the instructions allow the chief of police to use the minority liaison to investigate any crime in which he thinks a minority group may have been involved. The assumption of innocence is put to one side.

Prejudiced police

Law enforcement and investigative bodies have been under pressure to reduce feelings of prejudice within the National Police. A decade ago, there was great controversy at the national Police Academy where an investigation found that its students were widely anti-Roma.

Research carried out by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee in 2007-2008 found that “Roma people are three times more likely to be stopped by police than non-Roma persons”.

Police activity against Roma communities in Hungary has come under international scrutiny

The police and Hungarian state in general, were under serious pressure when in April 2010 Amnesty International issued a report “highlighting the shortcomings of the Hungarian criminal justice system in identifying and addressing hate crimes, in particular racist violence that mostly affects Roma people in Hungary.”

In October 2011, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg expressed concern about police behavior against Roma communities.

The Commissioner stated: “Patterns of discrimination and ill-treatment by police towards Roma are widely reported. Roma have been subjected to police violence in detention facilities and public spaces, such as Roma settlements during police raids. When investigations have been carried out, they frequently appear to have been biased or discriminatory.”

Suspicions of racism among the police intensified further when an internal police internet forum was found to contain officers exchanging derogatory opinions on the Roma. However, similar discoveries have been made across Hungarian society, not only within the police, leading to a growing sense of unease and alienation among Hungarian Roma.

Police protecting a Roma community in Hejoszalonta, Hungary 2010

The head of the police had aimed to address these issues and tried several ways to tackle this widespread prejudice. He announced a record number of Romani officers, and encouraged police officer candidates among Roma children entering secondary schools. In addition to this, cooperation agreements with Roma minority self-governments, and a special rapporteur on the Roma were ready to be launched.

However, such measures were not warmly welcomed within the police force as leaders continually stressed that social issues could not be solved by police alone..

One police officer, wishing to remain anonymous, claimed that as a district agent with a good relationship with local residents, he could not understand the purpose minorities being given special attention and found the new regulations to be vaguely worded.

Results will take time

The new instructions were paved with good intentions according to National Institute of Criminology Fellow, Finszter Geza. The scholar insisted that it was a necessary means to encourage cooperation from minorities and bring them closer to the police.

“This type of instruction in Hungary has not yet been undertaken, even though in almost all European countries with multi-cultural societies, there are such solutions” – said Finszter.

He cited Holland as an example where, he explained, there are lots of immigrants from a variety of cultures, so each police officer is obliged to partake in an educational program in which the officer becomes acquainted with an ethnic group’s traditions and habits.

Finszter continued, and outlined that the solution to the problem was clearly handed down to every police service by the Declaration of Human Rights.

“Every police organization will answer to a centralized bureaucratic element, so the problem is more complicated. A professional attitude and cultural change is required, these things do not happen immediately, but over many years.”  stressed Finszter, who hopes that the chief provision will have a positive impact on the police.

However the criminologist also found it important to note that the instructions had an introductory section, attempting to explain the need for the new measures. “Thus the statement is a bit of a self-criticism as well. For example, the prejudice reported among the police must exist for this to be made clear. ”

Nothing new

Further anonymous officers claimed that the instructions do not say anything new. “It would be nice to know why the command was issued. Last spring we were already provided instructions on how to be a police officer and to keep in touch with the minorities’ – he said. They said the objective is not new, because the police’s role was still to prevent crime above anything else.

The impact of the latest police guidelines will be seen in the coming months. However, from the outset, in a country which is no stranger to ethnic or racial tension, paying specific attention to minorities may be sending the wrong message to the Hungarian people.

Many will take this as an assumption of criminality within Roma communities, and particularly volatile sections of society may take this as justification for persecution. It certainly won’t discourage the extremist right wing groups and their paramilitary wings in their anti-Roma activities.

Having said that, in an article of January 10, the extreme right media portal kuruc.info has actually criticized the instructions for which the title read “Pintér (Minister of Interior) protects Gypsy criminals again: “special attention” has to be paid to them from now on”.