It was a cold Christmas in Tiszabura, an impoverished village situated in northeast Hungary where 80 percent of the population is Roma. On December 13, the heating was turned off in the school, medical center, and all public offices in the town. Tiszabura was the last stop in 2010 for the campaign "Equal Chances Against Cancer," run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Commitee–Hungary and the Open Society Foundations. As the local resident health visitor explained:
The heating in the municipality was cut off already, and the winter school-break started a week earlier here: the Breast Cancer Screening and Health Day was the last day in school. When the last awareness discussion finished, the kids were let go, and the heating was cut off. Apparently the electricity will also be cut off in January. We have no idea what will happen after that. The kindergarten was already shut down, and it looks like the school is also in danger.
The Hungarian government made the launch of an EU Framework for National Roma Inclusion Strategies a key priority as it assumed the EU presidency on January 1. Beyond the scheduled April launch, the real challenge lies in making a difference in Tiszabura, and all the other towns, villages, and urban ghettos across the new EU member states, settlements mired in poverty and deprivation.
In a report submitted to the European Parliament, Hungarian Roma MEP Livia Jaroka drew attention to the geography of social exclusion, and the concentration of disadvantage within underdeveloped micro-regions. She warned of increasing polarization as much of this exclusion remains "invisible" to European statisticians, commission officials, and policy makers. Jaroka called for a Europe-wide crisis map to survey those micro-regions where communities are hardest hit, and reiterated her demand for fewer bureaucratic obstacles and more policy and funding coordination from the EU.
While it is true that national governments bear primary responsibility for the rights and well-being of all of their citizens, the European Commission cannot afford to be disinterested in how EU member states spend EU monies. When reports surface in the New York Times about how one Slovak ministry in the former government siphoned off €600,000 earmarked for Roma education and gave it to two soccer teams, it must be ceded that the time is right for closer monitoring, more rigorous impact evaluation, and a less timorous brand of intervention from Brussels. A recent EU report confirms that "member states do not properly use EU money for the purpose of effective social and economic integration of Roma." The report notes that a lack of know-how and capacity to absorb EU funds is compounded by weak inclusion strategies and bottlenecks at national regional and local levels.
The consequences of bottlenecks, no know-how, and weak capacity are felt most keenly in places like Tiszabura. As the health visitor put it:
Children are in a bad way, they starve a lot, especially now that the public kitchen has closed down. The public kitchen provided three meals a day for every child. However, the kitchen was operated by an entrepreneur, the municipality accumulated such a debt that the entrepreneur had enough, upped and left… Winter is especially difficult. In December, you can see people walking in the snow in summer sandals, because they have no other shoes … Heating is a problem. Families tend to heat only one room in the house and use wet wood which makes unhealthy smoke. I know families where 30 people live under the same roof, all of them clustered in one heated room—imagine if only one of them is ill or smokes a cigarette.
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declared, "By the end of the Hungarian presidency, the European Union will have a Roma policy." Such a policy needs to combine a rights-based approach with clear development goals for social inclusion, which guarantee equal access to basic services necessary to lead a life with dignity. A Roma policy needs to break the intergenerational transmission of poverty and disadvantage which poses grave challenges for the future cohesion and well-being of entire societies. And such a policy needs to shine a light on villages like Tiszabura, to banish despair, to restore some semblance of hope for a better future, and to bring our Roma fellow-citizens in from the bitter cold climate of social exclusion.