In the Carpathian basin, the Roma have been coexisting with other peoples for centuries. The Roma form the largest transnational minority in Europe; at the same time, the Roma community is the poorest minority in Europe. The Roma did not have a writing system, and for that reason they do not have extant written sources: their past may be reconstructed exclusively on the basis of – often prejudiced – documents created by their environment.

The Roma are of Indian origin, and arrived at the Balkans in the second half of the 14th century. Until the late 15th century, they formed a ‘tolerated’ group in Hungary and in East Europe. Attempts were made to force them back to the Central and Eastern European territories. After these attempts proved to be partially unsuccessful, increasingly strict and cruel measures were taken against them. In Hungary, tensions between the Roma and the non-Roma had not emerged as a serious issue until the early 16th century. This was partially due to the fact that Roma people living in Hungary were employed for agricultural and industrial work, so they could more or less settle down for a short period of time. They were especially skilled in metal works. The Roma lived within the administrative framework of feudal lands and villages. Their leaders were elected by the Roma themselves, but their position was confirmed by feudal lords. Roma leaders were responsible for the conduct, morality and actions of the Roma. In Buda, the Roma inhabited almost a whole district; as rule, they worked in trade. Numerous historical records evidence that the Roma were persecuted, raided or banished. Instead of the intention of getting to know them, prejudices prevailed, which hinders Roma inclusion even today. ‘Solutions of the Roma issue’ have always focussed on assimilation instead of a willingness to accept them.

In the 18th century, Maria Theresa and Joseph II issued several decrees to perform forced Roma settlement. Authorities implemented these measures violently, with the application of deterring punishment. Areas near the village borders were assigned to them, where they were forced to live in small huts. It was prohibited for Roma craftsmen – who, until then had been travelling – to leave their new place of residence. So they were stripped of their former way of making a living, as the mending of vessels or sharpening knifes, metalwork or the preparation of wooden vessels required being continuously on the move. The measures, which were taken under strict supervision, were partially successful. Those Roma who could make their living as settled persons, providing services for the village inhabitants, stayed, while others moved to Western countries, fleeing forced assimilation. Fourteen thousand Roma families gave up travelling life and became farmers or craftsmen; instead of ‘Gypsy’ they were called ‘new peasants’ or ‘new Hungarians’. Many children were taken from their families by force, and were made to enter institutes of education in order to be ‘reformed’.

Those Roma, who stayed in Hungary, gradually switched to the use of the Hungarian language from the 18th century onwards. In the 19th century, the majority of craftsmen working in blacksmith’s workshops were Hungarian Roma. In the Reform Age of Hungary (the first half of the 19th century), Roma art had significant influence on the development of Hungarian national music and on great composers, such as Franz Liszt. Several Roma artists rose to world fame, for example, Pista Dankó in the late 19th century. During the Hungarian Revolution of 1848-49, the Roma sided with the Hungarian cause, and many repaired weapons, or worked as cannon-casters or camp musicians who assisted the county-level recruitment campaigns. The musician of the highest rank was Ferenc Sárközi, known as the ‘Gypsy lieutenant’ of Lajos Kossuth. The first person to issue a publication in Roma language (‘First Gypsy Prayers for the Gypsy Nation in Two Home Countries’, Esztergom, 1850) and a Hungarian-Roma dictionary was János Balogh, an educated musician. The diversity of Roma culture still flourishes: many unforgettable musicians, writers and painters – such as Ferenc Snétberger, Béla Szakcsi-Lakatos, Menyhért Lakatos, Tamás Péli or István Szentandrássy – belong to the Roma national minority.

In the 20th century, with the introduction of mass production, several crafts that traditionally were cultivated by Roma people became superfluous in rural areas as well. Moreover, between the two World Wars, legislation restricted travelling work. With the loss of their traditional clients, the majority of the Roma became unemployed, which, in turn resulted in social tensions. In 1944, the Nazis committed genocide against the Roma in Germany and in other countries, such as Hungary: during the Roma Holocaust (the Romani term is “Projamos”: ‘devouring’ or ‘destruction’) 30,000-70,000 Roma persons living in the Transdanubia region (including children, women and elderly people) were taken to concentration camps, where they were tortured to death.

During the land distribution after the Second World War, Roma persons could not acquire land. Numerous Hungarian Roma people participated in the Revolution of 1956, for example, Ilona Szabó, who was shot dead at the age of 17. She has a commemorative plaque in Budapest. During the Socialist era, the single-party state regarded the ‘Roma issue’ as a welfare-related problem rather than a problem of an ethnic minority, and attempted to find solutions accordingly. Industrial centres offered a livelihood for the Roma; consequently, a large number of Roma men living in rural areas ‘commuted’, that is, on workdays they lived in workers’ hostels offered by urban workplaces. The majority of the Roma carried out seasonal work that did not require high qualification. In the 1960s, the elimination of the Roma settlements started: the Roma were given loans for buying houses under favourable conditions; in many cases, they were entitled to take possession of empty old houses in villages. The process of settling the Roma in villages, however, was opposed by non-minority inhabitants in some places. In certain municipalities, the value of immovable properties decreased considerably, which, in turn, contributed to the migration of native inhabitants. Segregated Roma settlements recreated themselves on an ongoing basis. According to the latest research that covered the whole territory of Hungary, presently there are 1,633 segregated areas in 823 municipalities and in ten districts of the country’s capital.

Ten years ago, during the 2001 census, 190,046 persons declared themselves Roma in Hungary; nevertheless, research on sociology evidences that the actual number of the Roma population is much higher, an estimated 600,000-800,000. They constitute the largest officially recognised national minority group in Hungary and the only minority without a mother country. Since 2012 the Roma are recognised as a national minority, not only an ethnic minority. Officially, those persons are to be regarded as Roma who declare themselves so during censuses or elections, to the self-governments or other official bodies. Regrettably, the prejudices and discrimination the Roma have always faced is gaining momentum again. This makes the everyday life of the Roma a misery in all fields of life: in education, healthcare and employment. Segregation in education determines the future of Roma children as they have no access to high-quality instruction or the assistance of talented teachers, and ignores the fact that the inclusion of the Roma as a social issue has some important some education policy-related aspects. Unlike children who attend non-segregated schools, Roma children in segregated schools have a very low chance for further education. The Roma – as a result of their unfavourable social conditions and the negative discrimination they experience in healthcare – do not enjoy the benefits of a healthy lifestyle: indeed, their life expectancy is lower than the country average. Job search involves more problems for them than for non-Roma persons: even if they have the required qualifications and skills, they are frequently rejected on the basis of their ethnic origin. The media and other areas of communication offer a very limited amount of information that gives a comprehensive picture of the Roma.

On the basis of languages, the Roma living in Hungary fall into three groups. About 71% of them speak Hungarian as their mother tongue and do not speak their minority language: they are the Romungros or Hungarian Roma. The other – bilingual – group is that of the Vlach Gypsies who speak dialects of the Romani language (21%). The smaller (approx. 8%) bilingual group is made up by Boyash who speak Hungarian and archaic dialects of the Romanian language.

Over the last years, the situation, the poverty, the life expectancy, the income and the public opinion on them have gradually deteriorated. Moreover, those conflicts which, to a certain extent, are interethnic in nature have become severe – in certain cases, tragic – and shocked the Hungarian society as a whole. The targeted programmes launched with the aim of promoting the social inclusion of the Roma cannot bring a breakthrough in themselves. The international official opening ceremony of the Decade of Roma Inclusion Programme was held on 2 February 2005 in Sofia. The objective of the Programme is to accelerate the process of the social and economic inclusion of the Roma and, at the same time, to contribute to a favourable change of society’s opinion on the Roma. In 20 May 2011, the Government and National Roma Self-Government (ORÖ) concluded a framework agreement targeted at the establishment of a co-decision system to be used mainly for development programmes, grant programmes, investment and employment incentives aimed to develop employment and to improve the quality of education and living conditions. The objective of the system is to help ORÖ (as an organisation for the representation of the interests of the Roma) to guarantee that disadvantaged or destitute Roma and non-Roma children, young persons and adults participate in such programmes in adequate numbers and that these activities actually contribute to the betterment of their situation. The National Social Integration Strategy – Extreme Poverty, Child Poverty, the Roma – (2011–2020) makes a conscious attempt at maintaining an approach which combats impoverishment (a process that threatens non-Roma persons as well) and, at the same time, monitors the changes of the situation of the Roma minority – if required, with special anti-discrimination programmes. Taking the history of the Roma into consideration offers a valid picture of the reasons why the Roma as an ethnic minority have experienced successive failures in all aspects of life. Thus it can be understood that the exclusion and humiliation the Roma have suffered over centuries is not only their failure but also of those persons whose prejudices hindered the betterment of their fellow human beings’ life.