BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — A Hungarian official who oversees programs to aid the country's Roma population is urging other European nations to fulfill earlier pledges to present strategies for integrating the minority group.
There are an estimated 10-12 million Roma, or Gypsies, in Europe — often its poorest and least educated citizens. The continent's economic crisis is an opportunity to pay closer attention to the group, which also faces widespread discrimination, said Zoltan Balog, Hungary's state secretary for social inclusion.
"The current economic crisis, while making it more difficult to spend money on Roma, also gives us additional incentives, because it is the most poor who become even poorer," Balog told The Associated Press in an interview.
Hungary occupied the rotating, six-month presidency of the European Union Council during the first half of last year and made the adoption of a European framework for Roma integration one of its main priorities. The 27 EU countries vowed to submit their Roma plans by Dec. 31, 2011.
Spain and Italy, which have significant Roma populations, are among the five EU members who have so far failed to present at least a draft of their Roma integration strategies to the European Commission, the EU's executive arm. The others are Sweden, Lithuania and Belgium.
In 2010, France expelled more than 1,000 Roma immigrants, mostly to Romania and Bulgaria, and demolished hundreds of illegal Roma shantytowns, calling it part of an overall crackdown on crime and illegal immigrants.
Balog said all of Europe should be involved in helping the Roma overcome poverty, discrimination and social exclusion.
"I hope there won't be the need again for such a negatively sensational event as the expulsion of Roma from France for European countries to acknowledge that the Roma issue needs to be dealt with," Balog said during the Wednesday interview. "Some people tell me 'There are no Roma in my country,' to which I say 'In the future, there could be.'"
Balog also highlighted Hungary's efforts to assist Serbia, Montenegro and other Balkan countries, which are potential EU members and also have large Roma minorities.
Hungary's Roma population is estimated at between 500,000 and 800,000 of its 10 million people. While Roma, like all Hungarians, were guaranteed jobs under communism, the Roma unemployment rate today is several times the national average of roughly 11 percent. Many Roma depend on state welfare as their main source of income.
The Roma also are often used as scapegoats for Hungary's social problems.
The unprecedented strength of Jobbik, a far-right party which won nearly 17 percent of the votes in the 2010 elections, has been partly attributed to its anti-Roma rhetoric and its links to now-illegal uniformed groups which organized marches and patrols in rural areas to intimidate the local Roma.
Hungary faces a possible recession this year and may have to implement further austerity measures while seeking financial support from the EU and the International Monetary Fund. That makes state aid to Roma a political minefield.
But Balog defended the integration programs, saying that they affect more than just the Roma.
"We are spending the money on integration programs for Hungarian citizens," he said in his office, which was decorated with paintings by contemporary Hungarian Roma artists. "It's just that we are making sure that if a program affects 100 people, there should be at least 20 Roma among them."
In an effort to increase one of Europe's lowest employment rates, Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government also has launched new public work schemes, aiming to get more people off welfare.
Balog said one of the aims was to ensure that Roma were taking part "at least proportionately" in economic and work programs by, for example, taking their community's unemployment rate into consideration.
"The principle of 'explicit but not exclusive' has to be applied when dealing with Roma issues," Balog added. "This means that the deep poverty programs have to define where they reach the Roma, but the programs do not apply exclusively to them, but to all people in a similar situation."