Istvan Forgács is a prominent Roma Hungarian expert on the subject of Roma inclusion in Hungary and Central Europe. After graduating in Budapest, he studied at Columbia University and has managed and advised Roma inclusion programmes for decades, including at the Open Society Foundation and the Council of Europe. He has also worked with various Hungarian government agencies and NGOs as a Roma advancement policy advisor. Mr Forgács has become well-known but also often criticised in Hungary and abroad for his bold, taboo-breaking views on what he sees as the only effective way to advance and fully integrate the Roma communities in Hungary.
The Roma constitute Hungary’s largest recognised minority. What is the estimated size of the Roma population in Hungary and what can you tell us about their socio-economic status?
There’s a real debate about the size of the Romani community in Hungary. It is something between 800,000 and just about one million, I would say. There are some scholars who say that it can be 1 million, 1.1 million, more than 10 per cent of Hungary’s population. There are some others who say that it is something around 700,000 to 800,000. We had the latest census last year here in Hungary, but we don’t have the exact data yet on how many people declared themselves Roma. But we did have a census before, and from that census [in 2011] we know that three per cent of Hungary’s population called themselves Roma at the time, so around 300,000 people. But everybody says that that figure is unrealistic. As I said, I would estimate that there are between 800,000 and 1 million Roma, in other words, 8 or 10 per cent of the total population of Hungary.
Regarding the socio-economic situation of the Roma, it is changing. But there are some general statements that we can still make when we talk about the Roma in Hungary. The most important generalisation is that the Roma are undereducated. We have no exact data in that regard either—it is uncertain what the average level of education of the Roma in Hungary is. By average education I mean the number of years that the Roma spent in the education system on average. We do know that it is a much lower figure than in the case of the non-Roma majority.
We know that the number of Roma who get a Matura certificate, which is a secondary school diploma, is around 10 per cent, maybe 12 per cent, and the proportion of Roma in higher education is estimated to be around one to two per cent. So, we can see that most of the Roma finish their education without this general state certification exam, and only a very, very few of them graduate from higher education. It means that most of them only finish elementary school. That means eight grades in Hungary. But having only elementary-level education means you have no qualifications or learned skills. Vocational schools, on the other hand, provide knowledge and practical skills in some kind of trade, for instance, to be a carpenter, an electrician, or a lorry driver. Most commonly, the Roma have this level of qualification or no qualification at all.
With such low levels of education, they have a very small chance on the labour market to get a proper job.
This is extremely important because in Hungary in the last 10, 12 years, we have had a prosperous economic situation, so there has been a great demand for employees with vocational school certificates, but the problem is that if you don’t have any qualifications, or skills, it means you cannot get a proper job despite of the growing labour shortage.
To sum up: among the Roma, there is mass unemployment. By contrast, even on the local level, there is a real shortage of labour. It’s very, very unfortunate that we have plenty of unfilled jobs and people who are seeking a job, but they are not qualified to fill those vacancies.
In your opinion, in the last 30 years, what was the fundamental reason why the Roma minority has been left behind? Discrimination, the economic restructuring during the regime change, or something else?
It is a hard question because I think that many of these reasons are part of the situation. But just let me start with my take on the issue. The current situation of the Roma I think is better than it was 10 or 12 years ago. Because, as I said, now in Hungary we still have a booming economy, which means that if you want to work and if you are qualified enough, you will find a job. Tens of thousands of Roma could benefit from this opportunity in the last 10 to 12 years. It’s extremely important that many of them were able to gain skills or to find their own motivation or to just simply overcome their negative attitude towards work or employers. So many managed to find employment and as a result they are much better off than 10 or 12 years ago.
It’s an essential part of my credo when I talk about Roma issues that
I think the question of Roma integration is much less of a human rights issue and more of an economic issue.
What I try to advocate for is a kind of integration that is based on economic factors. I really do believe that if you have a prosperous economy, you can change vulnerable groups, put them into a situation where they will be able to find their own place and that can help them achieve emancipation. Fighting only and always for human rights is a nice mission. But on the other hand, we can see that probably that is not the best option to help these people. Maybe we should focus on education. We should focus on how to change the general attitude of the Roma community towards work. On the other hand, of course, the attitude of employers should also change, because we should admit that, even these days, discrimination on the labour market is a real challenge that many of the Roma face. It is something real. But it is much less of a problem than it was 10 or 15 years ago.
I think in the 90s and in the 2000s, many of the Roma were without real resources to change their own lives. And in those decades, what we saw was primarily the human rights aspect of the whole issue. So, we just saw a vulnerable group without real resources facing strong discrimination very often from the majority society. This is what changed, let’s say 10, 12 or even 15 years ago.
It is also very important that I never talk about one Roma community. There is no such thing as one Roma community. We should talk about separate and different Roma communities on the local level, which are very varied. It is not like the Black community in the US which is waiting for their own leader who may be able to fight for their rights. In Hungary, the Romani communities are mostly waiting for their own local hero or for their own local leader who can do something for them on the local level. And the Romani communities can find out what their own responsibility is, and how they can do something for themselves only on the local level, too.
When we talk about the responsibility of the Roma communities, it means that
we shouldn’t blame only the majority society.
It was very typical before 2010, and of course, it was very convenient as well that we, Roma blamed only the majority for everything. ´It’s raining today, oh, it is because of the majority.’ ´Guess what, I didn’t find a job today either,´ yeah, the discrimination on the labour market is against you, blah, blah. So, it was very, very typical before 2010. That has changed. Today we can also raise the question: is there a responsibility that we should request or demand from the Roma communities or not yet? Now, we can raise this question and we can discuss this question. 15 years ago, it was a scandal.
Today, we can talk about the responsibility of the individual, of the family, of the local community. Based on that, it’s much easier to find a solution and to find the ways to better the individual, the family, and the local community. Just a very simple example—there are two localities, just next to each other, two small towns. In town A, the Romani community is lazy, they don’t want to change, they just don’t want to take the opportunities to change their lives. Their situation is still the same as it was 15 years ago. In the other locality, 10 miles away, there is a good Roma leader. It is absolutely like in religious communities: that there is a good leader, a pastor people listen to. Who says ´hey, listen to me, let’s try to change the community, let’s try to change your life´. In locality B, we can see that the Roma community could take the opportunity to change the lives of many of those people who are part of that town. So, it is not predetermined that we Roma must always and everywhere face the same challenges. No, the Roma, even on local level, even on their own, are able to do something for themselves. But for that they must realise that they shouldn’t blame only the majority society or the decision-makers, rather find out what their own responsibilities and duties are that they have to fulfil.
Why is the dropout rate from education so high among the Hungarian Roma population and what is the significance of high dropout rates from the perspective of Roma integration?
Many scholars argue that education is not part of Roma culture. I don’t agree with that. But for a very long time, it was quite common to find excuses not to place any responsibility on the Roma communities for their own failures. Even nowadays, I can find these kinds of quotes from some experts who say look, the Roma are a kind of community that does not consider education an opportunity and we should respect that because it is a cultural issue. I simply don’t agree with that—just because you send your kids to school, you will not be less Roma than your grandparents. Being Roma is something different. Being Roma is belonging to a community, to a family, keeping the traditions, the language, the customs, the culture. But education is a real resource that you must take advantage of.
Letting the Roma to cite this cultural background argument as a valid excuse for not attending school is absolute nonsense.
Such excuses are lies—´I don’t want to go to school because it is not part of my culture´: no. You don’t want to go to school because you are lazy, because your family doesn’t care about you, because you don’t believe that you can be successful. There is also a very unfortunate situation that Romani girls are often not allowed to finish school when they are teenagers because their families believe that girls don’t need schooling, they don’t need an education. They believe that the Roma girls should stay at home and should take care of the family, do the cooking, the housework. Come on, that is absolutely unacceptable—it is a kind of fight that even me, a Roma, must fight. Fighting for the better opportunities of Roma girls to attend and finish school, very often I face criticism even from members of Roma communities. I get told: ‘István, you are not a real Roma anymore, because you want to send the Roma girls to school.’ So, it is a very strange situation.
The other thing is that face-to-face, many admit that I am right. Very often, it happens that when I give a talk in a Roma community, many understand immediately what I’m saying. They agree. They start to believe that the way that I am advocating for is good. After I leave the place, however, these ideas often leave with me, too. Nothing changes. So, the high proportion of dropouts is because in many localities, the Roma community simply doesn’t understand why it is important to get an education.
The second thing is that in many Roma communities, even the families or the parents, come to regret the bad decisions they had made. They tell themselves: ´Oh, it was a bad decision—I should have let my child attend school´; sometimes, even the teenagers realise several months later that they made a mistake: ´I shouldn’t have left school, but I got pregnant,´ or ´My boyfriend has some drug problems´. In a vulnerable group, making bad decisions is very easy, especially when you are a teenager. When the family is just not supportive enough, or the family does not resist the teenager’s decision, kids will drop out.
One more thing that is important to mention: in Hungary, compulsory education is until 16 years of age. The problem is that at the age of 16 you have not finished secondary school yet and you have no qualification. So it is, of course, the responsibility of the family and the student whether they quit going to school or not at the age of 16. The government would like to think that many of the teenagers are responsible enough to understand what the outcome of their decisions is or what the consequences of leaving school at the age of 16 are. The so-called liberals, on the other hand, blame the government whatever the case is, and want the age limit of compulsory school attendance to be raised back to 18, and keep teenagers, often against their will, in the school, with the hope that they will get some qualification at the end of their secondary school education.
Two years ago, I had the chance to make a nationwide survey on secondary schools in Hungary, especially focusing on the disadvantaged kids, mostly the Roma. What I realised was that generally, all the teachers, all the principals, all the professional assistants, all the pedagogical staff in the secondary school system are committed to keeping these kids in school. They do their best, they don’t want the kids to leave. They try to offer many options to keep them in school. It is very important to understand that because as I said, the left accuses the government of pushing these kids out of the schools, which is definitely not the case.
You speak openly about issues concerning Roma women. What is the explanation for the disadvantaged situation of Roma women and why do you think it is difficult to have a public dialogue about this issue?
It is not easy. I always try to find some parallel examples. If someone proposed to focus on the Latino communities in the US when discussing domestic violence—would you think that it is something that can be part of a public debate? Being politically correct is always a barrier to discourse. In Hungary, everybody knows that in the Roma communities, domestic violence is a much more common issue than in the non-Roman communities. But when you raise this question, all of those who are working for the Roma with a human rights approach will chastise you. They’ll say: ´István, if you talk about this issue, you will just reinforce the stereotypes against the Roma, so you shouldn’t talk about it. It is not politically correct’, they say, and strengthens the negative prejudices against the Roma.
But the fact is that my goal is precisely to make the issue part of the public debate,
to force the policy- and decision-makers initiate special programmes to help the Roma women. If I could make this topic, this issue, part of the public debate, I believe, I and many other people would have more chance to do something for the Roma women and a real chance to fight for the Roma women.
It is also important that I don’t want to give an ethnicity-based explanation to this question. No, I am not saying that Roma men beat their wives because they are Roma. What I say is that in the disadvantaged communities or in disadvantaged groups with a different socio-cultural background, there is a much bigger chance for the appearance of domestic violence than in some other more sophisticated families. Of course, we shouldn’t say that someone who has a PhD would never beat his wife. It also happens in Hungary. But I do say that in the Roma communities, undereducated people who probably have some other problems as well, who are simply bad at resolving conflicts, they don’t know how to handle family problems, tend to abuse children rights or human rights within the family. So, I would like to focus on this issue, but it is simply not acceptable to speak about it in public. For me, it is a kind of mission to make the issue of domestic violence against Roma women part of the public debate.
Given the high proportion of Roma Hungarians in young age groups, how does high dropout rates among them impact Hungary’s competitiveness in the future?
This is my favourite topic to talk about because, as I said, the whole issue of the Roma should be approached from an economic point of view. But first, let’s start with discussing the demographic issue. As I have mentioned, the latest census data on the exact number of Roma is unavailable for now. But based on my research, the proportion of Roma in the under 10 age group is very high. I would assume that the percentage of Roma children in the under-five age group is even higher. It is, again, an assumption, but I would say that under the age of 10, the proportion of Roma in Hungarian society is somewhere around 15 per cent and the proportion of Roma under the age of five could be as high as 20 per cent. This may sound dramatic, but it is absolutely not. This is something what we must accept. So, in demographic terms, the total number of the population of Hungary is decreasing, while the proportion of Roma in the country is increasing.
It follows that in 10 or 15 years the number and proportion of Roma teenagers will be much higher than it is now. If we are worried about the current high dropout rate of Roma students in secondary education, then we need to face the fact that it will be a problem in the future, too, and we have to find some solution for that.
Today in Hungary almost everybody is working. Of the 10 million people of Hungary, more than four million are working.
Those who are not working, as I always say, are the ones who are unable to work and the Roma.
There is a big public debate now about the new battery factory that is to be built in Debrecen in a couple of years. This factory will employ 9,000 people. For the time being, nobody has a clue where they will find those 9,000 workers. It is a real issue, absolutely a real issue. I am convinced that the demand for workers in the next couple of years generated by the most recent big investments in Hungary may be as high as 50,000 or even 60,000. These, I repeat, will be newly created jobs. But we simply don’t know how these jobs will be filled, with whom. If the Roma are not able to fill the empty working places, what will be the solution? We will obviously have to import the workforce from outside of Hungary. This is a real problem because you have a vulnerable group, hundreds of thousands of people have no regular income because they are not equipped to work, and at the same time you have 10,000 vacancies and you have to import the workforce, let’s say from South Asia or the Middle East. And the Roma may remain dependent on the government, on welfare, instead of being able to work in those factories. The large number of new workplaces could therefore be a big chance for the youth of the Roma communities, but we have to make that happen.
Internal migration is also a real problem. The skilled people leave their county, let’s say, they go to Budapest or to Pest County, from the central part of the country. Clearly, those skilled workers will be missing from those rural counties. For example, in Borsod County, who will be driving the tram? Driving a tram is a position that you must be qualified for. So, if in Miskolc there are not enough qualified people to drive the tram, there will not be tram service in Miskolc. This is what is happening in Hungary at the moment.
To sum up, demography and the economic situation are key considerations in terms of the Roma question.
Since the regime change, dozens of Roma parties have been founded, but none of them has achieved a significant electoral result. What is the reason for the fact that these Roma political organisations are not successful?
There is no real culture of politics among the Roma. To be a politician, you need many, many skills. You have to be credible in the eyes of your community. Even the Roma community can realise that their own leaders are not prepared enough or not able to represent them. So on election day, the Roma will vote for one of the mainstream parties. That is a big disappointment, a real frustration for the Roma parties, because they believe that their people would vote for them. It is also worth noting that the non-Roma parties take advantage of that. The Roma parties lack resources, while the mainstream parties have real money. Campaigning, having posters, flyers, local forums, campaign events—all of that is much easier if you’re in a non-Roma party.
It happens very often that the non-Roma parties simply ‘steal’ the talented Roma candidates,
co-opting them, which is another reason why the Roma end up voting for a non-Roma party.
In last year’s elections, compared to previous years, a record number of Roma representatives were elected to parliament. How do you evaluate the opposition’s openly expressed dedication to sending more Roma representatives to the House?
Being a ‘quota’ MP is always a big responsibility and also a kind of disadvantaged situation. Because you don’t know that you got that position because of your values, because of your talent, or you got it because a checkmark had to be put in the ethnic minority box. We must not forget that all three Roma MPs currently sitting in parliament got their mandates from the national party lists of opposition parties, they did not run as individual candidates in an electoral district. They were simply not put to a real test—nobody knows how popular they are on the local level.
That is one of the reasons why it is hard for such politicians to be respected by the Roma community because they never voted for them, and the criticism From the Roma voters may be that it was non-Roma votes that put those people in their seats, without real competition, as token Roma MPs.
Of course, I would be happy to see more Roma in parliament. But I am also aware that now all Roma representatives, including those who were supported by the ruling parties, were on the national party lists. The opposition parties had this idea that if they put three quota Roma politicians on their lists that will make the Roma vote for them. It didn’t happen.
How can you explain that the overwhelming majority of the Hungarian Roma minority supports Fidesz? Is it because of Fidesz’s Roma policy?
Fidesz is very popular across many strata of society, including the Roma. We started this conversation speaking about achieving social integration through economic development. Many of the Roma have come to realise in the last 12 years that the government’s approach of transforming Hungarian society, as Orbán said, into a work-based society is a chance even for them. Today, as I said earlier, if you want to work and you have even a minimal qualification, you can work. It was not like that before 2010. Many of the Roma have realised that this period and the strong economy is a real chance for them to do something for themselves. I think maybe 80 to 90 per cent of the Roma simply decided in the spring of 2022 that they are living better than before 2010, and they said that is thanks to Fidesz. It’s very simple. They did the math and they voted for Fidesz.
Also, Fidesz communicates well with the Roma.
The Orbán government has come up with several initiatives or government programmes that help the lowest income groups of society. To give you an example, kindergarten is now compulsory. Many of the Roma kids had real problems in school because of the lack of socialisation, as they had not taken part in any preschool programmes. Now Roma children can acquire those skills needed in primary school. Also, free school meals are available, too—the state pays for three meals a day from kindergarten to the eighth grade. 99 per cent of Roma children are part of this programme. And, what’s more, these free meals are not only for the school period but it runs even during the summertime and other holidays as well. So it is immensely important that the government, I am sorry to put it this way, but essentially feeds these kids. Not going hungry is a big deal, and the government has done a good job in this regard. And, additionally, every schoolchild in Hungary gets their textbooks for free.
There have been some other programmes started in the last couple of years, too, let me mention two. Today in Hungary, regardless of her ethnic background, a woman with four children doesn’t have to pay personal income tax at all. In addition, as of 1 January 2022, those under 25 also don’t have to pay a personal income tax. That means that if you don’t attend university and if you don’t spend so much time in higher education, and you can get a vocational degree at the age of 18, you have quite a considerable period at your disposal to strengthen your financial situation because you don’t pay taxes. This is a tool that can really help social integration. If you are from a disadvantaged community, from a Roma community, and you are talented as, I don’t know, a carpenter or technician or whatever, and you can get a degree by the age of 18 and you can find a job at once, you will have a seven-year income tax-free period. That means that you can make very decent money in that time frame. It can even be four, five times, six times more than your parents’ salary, meaning that you can start your life with real financial resources. It’s important that the government never, never described these programmes as designed specifically for the Roma. The government simply created programmes that can improve social integration, but everybody knows that the real beneficiaries of these programmes are the Roma. That is an important reason why large proportions of the Roma are pro-government.