Displacing the Roma in Miskolc: between the rhetoric of slum eradication and the ethnicization of poverty

by Cristina Bangau

Miskolc is a city in the North-Eastern part of Hungary, the seat of the Borsod-Abauj-Zemplen county, the third biggest city in Hungary. Its recent history is one typical for highly industrialized cities during the socialist regime. With a booming economy before the 1990s, it attracted many unskilled workers from the neighbouring area, which led to an increase in the demographics, with a population of more than 200.000. More than twenty years after the political regime changed, the failed industrial past of the area left deep marks on its inhabitants, currently less than 170.000, with rampant poverty and unemployment, especially among the members of the Roma minority, physically concentrated mostly at the outskirts of the city.

Map Miskolc

Map Miskolc

During Romedia Foundation’s media and citizen journalism camp for young Romani women, one of the teams visited Miskolc in August 2014, after the municipality’s decision to evict the inhabitants of the numbered streets, where around 900 families live, mostly Roma, in low-comfort housing units.

As it becomes obvious after watching the interviews, most of the people affected received only a plain notification stating that their contracts are to be terminated, with no further explanation. Some were just waiting, having no idea when and why they will be evicted. People who have been living there for 30 years ought to leave their homes, in order to make room for what it is thought to be a parking lot. Just some are to be compensated, under the condition that they move out of Miskolc, obliged not to sell or mortgage the newly acquired property out of the financial compensations. Unfortunately, when the team went to a neighbouring town, Tiszaujvaros, to survey the public opinion about the prospective arrival there of the evicted Roma, one of the replies was terrifying: to create a separate city, only for the Roma, to keep them away since they cannot be ‘integrated’ in the society. This is not a singular remark, since in 2009, the chief of police at that moment, publicly declared that the integration of the Roma was not successful and the attempts to the peaceful cohabitation of the Roma and the Hungarians is doomed to failure[1]. The authorities in the surrounding cities immediately reacted: in Sátoraljaújhely an ordinance being drafted as to ensure that those who purchase real estate properties with money received from another municipality are not eligible to receive welfare or to be employed in public work, for five years.[2]  As one of the inhabitants of the numbered streets mentioned, there is this double game when it comes to the around 25.000 Roma, when it serves a purpose, they suddenly count as Hungarian citizens, while being reduced to just a group of outsiders when other interests are at bay.

The Numbered streets, where low-comfort social units accommodate more than 900 families,  are now the subject of local dispute, after 35.000 people signed a petition “calling for the cleaning up of the place”, according to an article in Budapost[3], analyzing the controversial situation in Miskolc, after the municipality decided to get rid of the slums.

Still from "Numbered streets" short video

Still from “Numbered streets” short video

According to the Amnesty International public statement launched in July 2014[4], the Miskolc authorities directly targeted 450 families for evictions, with other 450 waiting for a decision on their situation. What is condemned is the abuse of the decree adopted in May 2014 on social housing, which tries to tackle the poor living conditions and offer compensations to the ones who inhabit subpar units. The problem is the clause that comes with this decision: that the almost 2 million forint (around 6500 euros) compensation have to be used by the tenants to secure housing in any other locality but Miskolc, properties that cannot be sold for at least five years. When one finds out that the specific area that is now targeted in Miskolc, the so called Numbered streets, is mostly populated by the Roma, the entire action starts to resemble more to an attempt to keep those Roma out of Miskolc, for at least 5 years, rather than a concern to secure adequate housing. Moreover, while the argument of public safety is set forth to legitimate the actions, no real consultations were undertaken with the ones who inhabit the buildings to be demolished. Nobody explained the reasons for the evictions, what is going to happen to the neighbourhood, compensation or alternative housing, the letters sent out to these families by the municipality only mentioning that their contracted will not be renewed. The people affected rarely have any knowledge of the possible legal procedures to undertake against the decision, the only support at this level coming from human rights organizations.

In the international human rights provisions it is clearly stated that no person should be made homeless or vulnerable or have the life endangered as a result of an eviction. The main concern at this point is that the municipality of Miskolc provided no information or genuine consultations with the families living in the Numbered streets, and no steps have been taken to ensure that the measure will not lead to further segregation on ethnic grounds, with the Roma minority being again resettled in a place with no adequate infrastructure, running water, electricity etc, where they are not visible and momentarily their welfare can be no one’s concern. In the context of the human rights provisions, even when evictions are justified, they cannot be carried out until alternatives are being provided, and so far it this does not appear to be the case in the specific Miskolc initiatives.

The Roma community did not stand by passively: starting from the end of June a protest was organized by the Roma local government, when people were holding signs stating ‘I am poor, not a criminal!’[5], the general fear being that the entire decision to demolish the neighbourhood may actually incite more anti-Roma sentiments, since the communication prevailing is more and more extreme

Another action was held in August, for ten days, to point out the inhumane conditions under which this decision is being implemented in Miskolc, completely disregarding the effect the evictions will have on the families affected, in a sort of ethnic cleansing of the city. What happens in Miskolc though is not an isolated case and raises hard questions on development methods, population displacement and segregation practices.

Roma Women protesting against the evictions in Miskolc

Roma Women protesting against the evictions in Miskolc

Just reading about the happenings makes it is difficult to comprehend the depth of the consequences of leaving these people without a house. I have been explained by one of the Roma activists, Attila Tamas, the evictions started, at an even faster pace, since local elections are set for the upcoming October 12 2014. As it appears, the entire situation is grossly exploited for political campaigning, with the popular political forces KNDP-FIDESZ declaring that the evictions are an emanation of the will of the people, since 35.000 inhabitants signed the petition asking for the clearing of the city and the eradication of the slums and the dangerous neighbourhoods. The whole discourse is designed in such way as to criticize the previous socialist administration which, as the rhetoric goes, indiscriminately allowed everyone in, offering free aid, encouraging “criminals of property fraud” to settle down in Miskolc, while failing in delivering proper policing of the “ghettos”.[6] The commitment to tear down these neighbourhoods is thus presented as a duty of the city’s representatives to its citizens, since as the mayor declares, the inhabitants are mostly poor and among them users and drug dealers appeared, so it is time to do something about it, as this video documents:

Moreover, the city did not provide alternative housing, so they are left with no solution but to find a place for themselves, which is almost impossible since they are so impoverished. The highest risk is that they will have their address cards revoked, which in turn would be the beginning of a new series of vulnerabilities: homelessness, they could be refuse the access to health care services, social benefits, their children may not be able to enrol in schools, and the most extreme measure, the children could be taken away from their families and put into state care. While some of them could temporarily stay with relatives or friends, it cannot be a long term alternative, since the municipality of Miskolc can not only fine the ones hosting the evicted people, but actually revoke their right to inhabit those units, if they are not private property. In the more fortunate case in which the flats are privately owned by the tenants, there is an imposed standard that has to be respected, in terms of square metres per person, more concretely 6 square metres per person, which has to be officially declared. All these complicated logistics, put into motion recently, seem only to further ensure that the evicted people have no real possibility to remain in Miskolc, and have the perverse effect of rendering them homeless. One of the few options left is for them to go abroad.

It is still to be seen if the city will undertake genuine consultations with its inhabitants and safe alternatives will be provided to the ones who have to leave their homes, to make room for a parking lot.

[1] http://hungarianspectrum.wordpress.com/2014/07/06/the-miskolc-dilemma-arguments-on-the-other-side/

[2] http://nol.hu/belfold/sajnalom-oket-de-ide-ne-jojjenek-1463961

[3] http://budapost.eu/2014/08/controversies-over-the-roma-in-miskolc-and-around-the-roma-holocaust/

[4] http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/EUR27/003/2014/en/f567800e-82f7-4188-b4ba-c242779ed412/eur270032014en.pdf

[5] http://budapestbeacon.com/public-policy/500-protest-plan-bulldoze-roma-housing-estate-miskolc/

[6] http://minap.hu/cikkek/ujabb-nyomortelepen-indult-el-bontas