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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Hungary : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date November 2011
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Hungary : Overview, November 2011, available at: [accessed 7 October 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Updated: November 2011


Hungary is bordered by Slovakia to the north, Romania and Ukraine to the east, Austria and Slovenia to the west, and Croatia and Serbia to the south. The eastern part of Hungary consists mainly of open plain; west of the Danube the countryside is hillier.


Main languages: Hungarian, Romani, German, Slovak

Main religions: Roman Catholicism, Protestantism (Lutheran and Calvinist), Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Judaism

According to the results of the 2001 census, out of a total population of 10,197,119 there were: 190,046 Roma (1.9%); 62,233 Germans (0.6%); 17,693 Slovaks (0.17%); 15,620 Croats (0.15%); 7,995 Romanians; 5,070 Ukrainians; 3,816 Serbs; 3,040 Slovenes; 2,962 Poles; 2,509 Greeks; 1,358 Bulgarians; 1,098 Ruthenians and 620 Armenians.

Other estimates put the number of Roma who are dispersed throughout the country at 5 to 10 per cent of the total population. Germans are widely dispersed throughout the country and their declared numbers have doubled since the 1990 census. The Romanians are concentrated mainly in the eastern part of the country. The Slovaks live in the north of the country and near the Romanian border whilst Croats and Serbs are mostly settled in the south.

There are also an estimated 100,000 Jews living mainly in Budapest who are considered a religious minority. Several initiatives to gain recognition of the Jewish minority as an ethnic or national minority under the relevant law have failed due to insufficient support from the community itself. The initiators were not able to collect the 1,000 signatures required by the law for the recognition of a new minority.

Hungary has a growing immigrant population, dominated by numerous Chinese.


The Hungarians, who speak a Finno-Ugric language, entered the territory of present-day Hungary in the late ninth century. During the Middle Ages, the Hungarians established a kingdom which included Transylvania, Vojvodina, present-day Slovakia, and sub-Carpathian Ukraine. After 1526, Hungary was incorporated within the Habsburg Empire of which it remained a part until 1867 when it became a dual monarchy. This dissolved in 1918. The historic Hungarian state had a strongly multi-ethnic character. Only about a half of its population were ethnic Hungarians, the remainder being principally Croats, Germans, Jews, Roma, Romanians, Serbs and Slovaks.

With the Treaty of Trianon (1920), two-thirds of Hungary was apportioned to neighbouring states, leaving Hungary with a largely homogeneous ethnic population. During the inter-war period, Hungary practised a policy of assimilation with regard to its remaining minorities. Most official documents and signposts were written only in Hungarian and the Hungarian language constituted the sole vehicle of education in state schools.

During the Second World War, tens of thousands of Roma and about 600,000 Jews were deported and murdered. Thousands more Jews emigrated after the war to Israel and the United States. Between 1945 and 1948, forcible resettlement and population exchange resulted in the expulsion of about 70,000 Slovaks and 200,000 Germans. For those members of minorities who remained, the Hungarian government instituted education in the mother tongue and authorized the introduction of bilingual signposts in areas of minority settlement.

During the 1950s, however, the policy reversed as minority organizations were considered 'atoms of pluralism'. The teaching of Hungarian was increased in minority schools, cultural groups went into sharp decline, and no opportunity was permitted for dealing with the authorities in any language other than Hungarian. The policy of assimilation persisted until the 1970s when minority language education, at both elementary and secondary level, was promoted.

During the late 1980s, there was a marked increase in the number of minority organizations and a Secretariat (after 1990, Office) of National and Ethnic Minorities was established within the Ministerial Council to coordinate and oversee policy. Free elections, held in Hungary in 1990, led to the formation of a conservative coalition government. The new government was much concerned with the plight of Hungarian minorities abroad, principally in Romania. As part of its attempt to secure enhanced international standards of rights protection for minorities, the government actively championed the rights of minorities within Hungary itself.

Hungary joined the EU in 2004. Moving towards full membership Hungary had to comply with the accession criteria (often referred to as Copenhagen criteria). In 1993, at a meeting in Copenhagen, the European Council made minority rights protection as one of its key requirements for accepting new members into the EU. With regards to Hungary, the improvement of the situation of the Roma had been emphasized and regularly monitored (see section on Roma).

Joining the EU also meant that Hungary had to transpose EU equality directives into national law. One of the key developments regarding minority rights protection in recent years has been the transposition of the EU anti-discrimination laws through the 2003 Act on Equal Treatment and the Promotion of the Equality of Opportunities. The Act prohibits discrimination based on a number of grounds, including race and nationality and in a wide range of fields. Based on the Act an equality body was established, the Equal Treatment Authority (ETA), in operation since 2005, which is entitled to investigate and sanction discrimination (see below).


Article 68 of the Hungarian Constitution, amended in 1989-90, declares:

'The national and ethnic minorities living in the Republic of Hungary participate in the sovereign power of the people: they represent a constituent part of the State. The Republic of Hungary shall provide for the protection of national and ethnic minorities and ensure their collective participation in public affairs, the fostering of their cultures, the use of their native languages, education in their native languages and the use of names in their native languages.'

Between 1991 and 2003 bilateral treaties reinforcing the rights of ethnic minorities were signed with Ukraine, Germany, Slovenia, Croatia, Slovakia, Romania, and Serbia and Montenegro respectively.

In September 1992, the representation of minorities in the parliament by non-voting deputies received legislative approval, although this measure was subsequently withdrawn by parliamentary amendment in 1994. In June 1995, a Parliamentary Ccommissioner for National and Ethnic Minority Rights was appointed, who was charged with ensuring the implementation of legislation affecting minorities.

Minority self-governments

The cornerstone of minority rights protection in Hungary is the 1993 Law on the Rights of National and Ethnic Minorities. The 1993 Act recognized the existence of 13 minorities: Armenians, Bulgarians, Croats, Germans, Greeks, Poles, Roma, Romanians, Ruthenes, Serbs, Slovaks, Slovenes and Ukrainians. A condition for recognition is that the relevant minority has to have been present in Hungary for at least a century. All recognized minorities are entitled to establish Minority Self-Governments (MSGs), which provide wide cultural autonomy for minorities and primarily handle cultural and educational affairs. The president of each MSG also has the right to speak at and attend local government assemblies. The Act, which includes prohibitions against assimilation, discrimination and harassment, makes the provision of minority-language classes compulsory when demanded by more than eight children. The state is obliged to support cultural activities of minorities, and local bodies are instructed to make official documents and street names bilingual in areas of minority settlement. Most of the 1993 law, however, concerns the operation of MSGs. Directly elected minority local governments are to be consulted by the local authorities in all matters pertaining to the minority, and they are given budgets with which to promote cultural activities, including local broadcasting and publishing. A national MSG, elected by representatives of local minority institutions, safeguards minority interests at state level.

Criticisms of the 1993 act include its vague wording in several places, particularly concerning the use of minority languages in national television and radio, and its refusal to permit a full devolution of state functions by grant of territorial autonomy. One unexpected difficulty may be the clause that in settlements where a minority constitutes a majority, the MSG may appropriate the powers of the local authorities. The Act makes no allowance, however, for the rights of local Hungarian minorities-within-a-minority created by this provision. It is additionally claimed that MSGs lack sufficient resources of their own to be effective. In order to remedy this situation, a Government Decree of 2006 orders that the buildings that were transferred to the 13 national MSGs for free use in 1995 should be passed into their ownership as a free one-off transfer of assets. Critics also contended that as the right to participate in MSG elections was open to all citizens and did not depend upon public profession of membership of a minority, many minority representatives were not from the relevant minority. This affected all national or ethnic minorities, in particular the German, Roma, Romanian, Slovenian and Serbian minorities. Most of them appear to have become involved for financial reasons, since local MSGs are organizations recognized by public law and manage public funds. It also seems that some people elected in this way have tried, by infiltrating Roma self-government organizations, to introduce segregation of persons belonging to that minority, particularly in the education field (see Roma section).

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

Comprehensive amendments to the 1993 Act were adopted by the Hungarian parliament in 2005. These, among other things, reorganized the existing structure of national MSGs by introducing a middle-level (county) representation and clarified their powers.

The abuse of MSGs for political or other purposes was also addressed by modifying the system of minority elections. Article 70 of the Constitution was amended in 2002 (entering into force in May 2004) so that only persons belonging to minorities can elect their self-governments and to stand as candidates in those elections. According to this legislation, those who decide to run in elections for MSGs are required to register with the head of the local election office and declare their ethnic identity. However, the declared ethnic identity may not be questioned and the criteria for registration are lacking in rigour. After the new amendments, elections were held in October 2006 and a total of 2,045 local MSGs were elected. All the 13 recognized minorities had elected their own MSGs with the Roma in the lead with 1,118 MSGs across the country. Following the elections, however, some minority leaders declared that, despite the new provisions, the system was still being abused. For instance, the Ukrainian MSGs estimated that around one-third of their elected bodies had nothing to do with the Ukrainian minority. This is largely due to a lack of thoroughness in the registration process. It is widely believed that further amendments to the law will be needed.

There were no figures on the number of minorities in parliament or the cabinet. However, minorities did not appear to be well represented. In spite of being warranted by the Constitution, the question of guaranteed preferential representation for minorities in parliament has remained unresolved for some time; it is a matter which regularly appears on the agenda of the National Assembly and the government but fails for political reasons.

There were some 5,000 Roma politicians in the local MSGs and 1118 out of 2045 active MSGs were Roma following the local elections of October 2006. There are two Roma members of the European Parliament in the Hungarian delegation.

The 2003 Act on Equal Treatment and the Promotion of Equal Opportunities generally prohibits discrimination on 19 grounds, including on gender, race, colour, nationality, national or ethnic affiliation, mother tongue, disability, health state, religion or creed, political opinion, marital or parental status, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, social origin, property status, the conditions of employment (part-time or fixed-term employment), membership in an interest protecting organization or any other situation or characteristic feature. Discrimination in the Act includes both direct and indirect discrimination, harassment, illegal segregation, victimisation and/or any instruction to commit these actions; however, affirmative action aimed at eliminating the disadvantaged situation of a well-defined social group is not considered as violation of the requirement of equal treatment.

Women have the same rights as men under family law, property law, and in the judicial system. However, there was economic discrimination against women in the workplace, particularly against women aged over 50 and pregnant women.

The creation of the ETA in 2005 has proved to be a considerable success in terms of cases received, with nearly 500 complaints being lodged the first year, a number that has risen steadily every since. In addition to its key role of dealing with individual complaints, the ETA has launched a number of activities to raise awareness among national and ethnic minority groups of the anti-discrimination legislation now in force and to increase public awareness of its work and the mechanisms available to challenge discriminatory practices. However, national NGOs and also the 2008 country report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) have noted with concern the latest decisions of the Hungarian government that moved the Authority from ministerial supervision to ministerial direction signalling a trend towards diminishing its independence.

The 2003 Equal Treatment Act also includes an important innovation in Hungarian law, the so called 'actio popularis' procedure, whereby NGOs are able to act as plaintiffs in cases where they consider a provision to be discriminatory even though no individual has yet suffered any harm, and provisions on the sharing of the burden of proof between the victim and the perpetrator of the discriminatory act so that the difficulties often experienced by victims of discrimination in proving their case can be overcome.

The situation of the Roma remained the most problematic (see Roma section). During 2005 the ETA determined that employers had illegally discriminated in nine cases, with most of the victims being women or Roma. The ETA imposed penalties ranging from reprimands to fines.

The Roma may require a larger degree of affirmative action in employment, education and housing than the electorate is prepared to tolerate.

All the recognized national and ethnic minorities have access to electronic media, including national television, although minority organizations complain that such programmes are broadcast at inconvenient time slots.

The Hungarian school system offers several models of minority languages teaching but minority-language schools and bilingual schools have very few pupils in practice. The most common model remains the one where minority languages are taught as a second or foreign language for only four or five hours a week. Mainstream schools remain based on highly ethnocentric models and do not provide sufficient space for nurturing multiethnic identity and cultural diversity.

Despite its deficiencies, the 1993 law is generally regarded as model of good practice and Hungary is considered a path-setter in Central and Eastern Europe in the field of minority protection. Nevertheless, two issues must be kept in mind in this respect. First, Hungarian minority policies tend to focus on ethnic Hungarian minorities outside Hungary rather than being designed for the benefit of ethnic minorities living in Hungary, as is illustrated by a referendum held in 2004 on extending Hungarian citizenship to ethnic Hungarians abroad – an idea that still holds political currency in some quarters of Hungary – but the referendum failed due to low voter turnout. Second, Hungary has several obvious advantages in comparison to its neighbours, not least its relative prosperity and the very small size of its minority population.

Hungary is one of very few European states that has established a specialized Ombudsman for the protection of minorities. The Parliamentary Commissioner (Ombudsman) for the Rights of National and Ethnic Minorities was elected in 1995 and is independent from both the judiciary and the executive power, reporting exclusively to parliament. The powers of this body are based on the Hungarian Constitution and it assumes an important function in the formulation of laws and policies regarding minority protection. Whereas the ETA is primarily concerned with individual cases and can impose fines on parties found to have breached the requirement of equal treatment, the Ombudsman primarily carries out official assessments of existing laws and policies, conducts investigations concerning the public sector and makes recommendations for broader change. One of the oldest structures dealing with minority issues, the Office for National and Ethnic Minorities, which was established as an autonomous government body in 1990, was reorganized into a Department for National and Ethnic Minorities within the Prime Minister's Office in February 2007.

While it has commended the Hungarian authorities on a number of steps undertaken to improve the position of national minorities in Hungary, the Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM) has also pointed out a range of areas in which further attention is required in its Opinion issued in December 2005. Although the Advisory Committee noted that important measures had been taken to promote the integration of Roma into society, it found that Roma communities continue to face various forms of discrimination in a range of fields such as education, employment, housing and healthcare. The Committee recommended that the Hungarian government ensure the full and effective implementation of the 2003 Law on Equal Treatment and the Promotion of Equal Opportunities and remedy the shortcomings of the 1993 Law on the Rights of National and Ethnic Minorities. It also asked that the sState redouble efforts to put an end to exclusion and segregation practices at the expense of Roma pupils and intensify existing measures to enable all Roma to enjoy decent living conditions.

In its 2007 report the UN Committee against Torture noted with concern reports of ill-treatment of and discrimination against persons belonging to national minorities and non-citizens by the police and recommended that the state should strengthen its efforts to combat ill-treatment of and discrimination against persons belonging to national minorities and non-citizens by law enforcement officials.

Against a backdrop of the political situation in 2006 that saw demonstrations and riots against the government, 2007 witnessed a growing and worrying tendency of the increasing visibility and success of the paramilitary and radical right-wing group, the Hungarian Guard (Magyar Garda) that regularly stages demonstrations with anti-Semitic and anti-Roma elements. In 2008 Hungary continued to witness an increase in the open expression of far-right and extremists views which was noted with great concern by civil society, the EU's Fundamental Rights Agency and the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance. The ECRI 2008 country report noted a sharp rise in racism in public and political discourse. It warned that anti-Semitic articles regularly appear in the press and on the internet, that anti-Roma discourse appears to be becoming increasingly virulent and wide-spread and violent attacks against Roma settlements have increased.

Against the backdrop of the political situation in 2006, when there were riots and demonstrations against the government, 2007 witnessed a growing and worrying tendency – the increasing visibility and success of the paramilitary and radical right-wing group, the Hungarian Guard (Magyar Garda), which regularly stages demonstrations with anti-Semitic and anti-Roma elements. In 2008 Hungary continued to witness an increase in the open expression of far-right and extremists views which was noted with great concern by civil society, the EU's Fundamental Rights Agency and ECRI. The ECRI 2008 country report noted a sharp rise in racism in public and political discourse. It warned that anti-Semitic articles regularly appear in the press and on the internet, that anti-Roma discourse appears to be becoming increasingly virulent and widespread and violent attacks against Roma settlements have increased.

Hungary had parliamentary elections in April 2010. The right-wing Fidesz party won a supermajority with two-thirds of the seats and the radical nationalist and openly anti-Roma and anti-Semitic Jobbik or 'Movement for a Better Hungary' party entered parliament for the first time. The left-liberal party LMP or 'Politics Can Be Different' also secured representation in parliament for the first time. LMP became popular for its fresh and green approach, and for its roots in human rights and civil liberties grassroots organizations in the country. LMP has 16 representatives in its parliamentary fraction, five of whom are women. The 2010 European Gender Equality Law Review notes with concern however that none of the parties addressed issues related to gender equality in their programmes, which resulted in the elimination of the already scant presence of gender issues in Hungarian politics. The Third Opinion of the FCNM Advisory Committee, adopted in 2010, also points out that 'although the Hungarian Constitution and the 1993 Law on the Rights of National and Ethnic Minorities guarantee in general terms the possibility for minorities to be represented in parliament, a specific mechanism for the representation of minorities in Parliament is still lacking', and recommends the institutional framework be rapidly adjusted to ensure adequate minority representation.

One of the first moves of the new government affecting Hungarian minorities living abroad was the amendment to the Hungarian citizenship law passed nearly unanimously in May 2010. The measure that came into effect on 1 January 2011 allows ethnic Hungarians living abroad to apply for dual citizenship. Of the neighbouring countries, only Slovakia – where nearly 500,000 ethnic Hungarians live – objected. Robert Fico, Prime Minister of Slovakia at the time, called the move a 'security threat' and introduced countermeasures, withdrawing Slovak citizenship from people applying for Hungarian nationality. Romania on the other hand saw no problem in members of the Hungarian minority having dual citizenship.

Hungary held the presidency of the EU from January to July 2011 and succeeded in its ambitious objective of having the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies adopted at the June 2011 meeting of the European Council. The Framework has been supported by the European Roma Policy Coalition (ERPC), a coalition of human rights NGOs, and discussed by the European Commission and the European Parliament since 2008, and put on the agenda of the triple presidency of Spain-Belgium-Hungary. The EU Framework was adopted on 24 June 2011, and EU Member States are now required to get to work on and develop their 'National Roma Integration Strategies'. As the ERPC has stated, it will be of crucial importance that Roma civil society is involved in the development and implementation of the national strategy plans. It remains to be seen whether the adoption of such a Roma strategy will bring about real changes in the lives of the approximately 10 million Roma in Europe, and whether Hungary, itself facing major problems in protecting the human rights of its Roma population, will succeed in developing and implementing a meaningful national strategy.

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