A court ruling ordering for the compensation for school segregation of Romas in Gyöngyöspata has been at the focus of a fiery debate in Hungary. According to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the judgment is an “unfortunate ruling” and Hungarians “will never accept giving money for nothing.” The government even refused to pay the almost HUF 100 million compensation, stating it would only pay in kind, with education and training. The controversial case highlights the ethnic conflicts in Hungary.
The beginning of a nine-year-old story
In 2011, Ernő Kállai, the Commissioner for National and Ethnic Minority Rights, published a report which found that Roma students were physically segregated at the Nekcsei Demeter Primary School in Gyöngyöspata.
Gyöngyöspata first appeared in the national news in 2011, after a far-right paramilitary militia, Véderő, chose the village to be the basis for their training camp due to a reported increase of crimes committed by Romas. Later, another paramilitary organization, Szebb Jövőért Polgárőr Egyesület (of which most members came from the Hungarian Guard after it was dissolved by a court judgment), started marches in the town. The local organization of (then) radical nationalist Jobbik party had earlier invited the members of these organizations to the small town to “restore the public order” because of the alleged increase in the number of burglaries and thefts in Gyöngyöspata. In the fierce situation, led by the Red Cross (the idea came from an American businessman, Richard Field), a rescue attempt of the local Romas was even organized to prevent the escalation of the situation. Thus, Gyöngyöspata became a symbol of the ethnic conflicts in Hungarian society.
The document claimed that Roma children in the primary school are taught separately from non-Roma children, their classrooms are even located on different floors. They are also unlawfully excluded from swimming classes. Based on the document, the Chance For Childen Foundation (CFCF) filed a lawsuit a few months later.
On December 6, 2012, the Eger Regional Court ruled that the municipality and the school segregated the Roma children, stating that these students received a lower quality education.
It ordered the defendants (the school and the controlling municipality) to put an end to segregation from the next academic year on.
The case continued until 2015. As schools were placed under state control, a third defendant besides the primary school and the municipality was added, the Klebelsberg Institutional Maintenance Center (Klik).
Before 2013, primary and secondary-level educational institutions had been run by municipalities. However, following the approval of an amendment to the law, they were taken over by the state. A special ministerial agency, the Klebelsberg Institution Maintenance Center (Klebelsberg Intézményfenntartó Központ, KLIK) was set up to carry out these tasks in 198 school districts. The state has become ultimately responsible for providing education and is now the employer of all pedagogical staff.
The judgment has been upheld by both the Metropolitan Court and the Supreme Court (Kúria).
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Not long after, CFCF, representing 63 Roma students from Gyöngyöspata, filed another lawsuit, this time suing for damages.
In their final judgment, the Debrecen Court of Appeals found that from 2004 to 2017, Roma students were taught separately at the Gyöngyöspata Primary School, and this segregation violated their rights, hence the school must pay out a total of 100 million forints (EUR 300,000) as compensation.
The government calls the ruling unjust
The ruling was highly controversial, with many government politicians calling it extremely unfair, also naming the CFCF foundation a “Soros organization” as the sponsors of CFCF include the Open Society Foundations, the organization established by George Soros.
“Gyöngyöspata wants none of the money-making operations of the Soros network!” The local Fidesz MP said in a Facebook post last week. According to László Horváth, the Gyöngyöspata municipality will have to pay the majority of the compensation (HUF 80 million).
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“This decision may be lawful, but it is unfair, one-sided, excessive, and destructive. It is unfair because it punishes the whole town. It is destructive because the payment of compensation will bring the municipality of Gyöngyöspata – with an annual income of about HUF 40 million – to the brink of bankruptcy,” the MP wrote.
At his press conference, Horváth said that the municipality requested a review of the ruling and the suspension of payment at the Supreme Court.
The politician added that they would not be able to give the required sum as the local budget does not allow for it and asked for the payment in kind.
He also announced that they want to consult with the CFCF to let the local government pay for the compensation in kind, with education and training opportunities.
However, Lilla Farkas, one of the lawyers of CFCF, told leftist weekly 168 Óra that it was not true that they wanted compensation from the municipality – it is possible for the responsible ministry to grant the money.
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She also noted that it is not surprising that the defendant wants the compensation in kind as they requested this during the court hearing as well.
According to Farkas, many people already have specific plans for what they want to spend the awarded money on, so they are unlikely to accept the government’s offer.
At a press conference on Friday, Bence Rétvári, state secretary at the human resources ministry, insisted that the children would benefit more from this form of compensation, and it would not harm “people’s sense of justice.”
The state secretary suggested that if the children are compensated in cash “they may or may not” spend it on educational purposes. He insisted that “cash will not resolve a social issue but increase tensions” between Roma and non-Roma groups.
Even Prime Minister Viktor Orbán raised his voice against the judgment at his international press conference a few weeks ago.
“If I were a citizen of Gyöngyöspata, I would ask how it is possible to receive a huge sum without working for it in any way,” he said.
In a later radio interview, the PM emphasized: “Hungarians are not racist; they do not reject Gypsies by default.” But Hungarians “will never accept giving money for nothing.”
Orbán said the courts had delivered an “unfortunate ruling,” and he accused the litigators of being funded by “Soros organizations.” He called the case “a provocation” that harmed policymaking aimed at improving the situation of Gypsy-Hungarian cohabitation and lifting Romas out of poverty.
He also made it clear that the government wouldn’t pay the compensation. “We grant everything, but we cannot give money,” he said.
In his view, the only way to solve the problem is to provide help. “We can pay for their training, if necessary, re-training them, providing new courses. So we will give them a service and not the money “in their hands.”
The deadline for compensation already expired on January 17th and the government refused to pay. The case is still pending before the Supreme Court while the litigants are awaiting the conclusion.
Featured photo by Péter Komka/MTI