Imre Furmann

Ashoka Fellow
fellow-10337-Imre Furmann.jpg
Fellow Since 1997
Legal Defence Bureau for National and Ethnic Minorities (NEKI) / Nemzeti és Etn…
Ashoka commemorates and celebrates the life and work of this deceased Ashoka Fellow.
This description of Imre Furmann's work was prepared when Imre Furmann was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1997 .


Imre Furmann is creating the framework for civil rights legislation in post-communist Hungary by providing the country's first system of legal defense for Roma (Gypsies) and teaching the first Hungarian university course on human rights.

The New Idea

Imre Furmann has established the first civil rights litigation and advocacy organization in Hungary to secure a place for Roma (Gypsies) and other minorities in the post-communist democracy. Discrimination against minority groups, especially Roma, is widespread and openly practiced. Previous efforts to stamp out prejudice against Roma in Hungarian society have concentrated on forced assimilation. This policy manifests itself in several ways. The Roma were not recognized as an official minority group and therefore there were no Roma language schools or government-sponsored projects to preserve the Roma culture. This is quite different from the experience of, for example, the German minority in Hungary, which has German language schools and state-sponsored programs to preserve their culture in Hungary.

Imre and his organization believe that meaningful reform will not occur until the attitudes of mainstream Hungarian society change. He has assembled a team of dedicated professionals who are working to provide a safe place for the Roma community and to win their trust and assistance in documenting their experiences of discrimination. Imre and his staff then take the Roma story to the courts and the media. By engaging the legal system he demonstrates the absence of legal protection for the Roma and stimulates public discussion about civil rights. Through persistent litigation he is creating impetus and judicial discourse for the civil rights legislation he is determined to bring about in Hungary.

The Problem

Prejudice against the Roma is centuries old. It has existed since they migrated to Europe over 600 years ago. It is commonplace throughout all of Europe and is not specific to Hungary. They have been frequent targets of hate crimes through the centuries because they are racially different; most notoriously, they were victims of the Nazi Holocaust in the 1930s and 1940s.

There are between 500,000 and 800,000 Roma living in Hungary today. They constitute between five and eight percent of the total population. The lack of reliable census data makes it impossible to give a more specific number. The transition to a market economy has brought a great deal of stress and hardship to all Hungarians (e.g., high unemployment and increasing crime) but it has been particularly difficult for the Roma. As mainstream Hungarian society struggles to explain the dramatic increase in crime and unemployment, there has been a disproportionate amount of blame placed upon the Roma community.

Discrimination against the Roma takes many forms. They often have trouble finding work and are the first to be fired; in some areas the unemployment rate among Roma reaches 100 percent. Most live well below the poverty level in conditions that are unheard of in most Western countries.

Moreover, there is no civil rights legislation in Hungary: equal rights for all citizens are not guaranteed under the law. Therefore, minority groups are given no protection from the government or legal recourse when they are victims of housing discrimination, police brutality, etc. Indeed, because there is no process for appointing public defenders, Roma who are charged with crimes are frequently found guilty because they cannot afford a lawyer.

The Strategy

Imre took over the Otherness Foundation in late 1993 and developed it as a legal defense organization. Every year it takes on about 100 cases, defending Roma against police actions and discrimination (brutality, forced removal from housing, etc.). This office, although it boasts few legal successes, is at the forefront of the struggle for minority rights in Hungary. Imre and his team, through court proceedings, are forcing the judicial structure in Hungary to acknowledge and address cases of racial discrimination. These court cases can change the law through legal precedent in much the same way a court ruling can change the law in the United States. They also build impetus for legislative protections.

The Foundation has earned the trust and respect of the Roma community, who rely on Imre and his three assistants to investigate acts of discrimination all over Hungary. Typical cases involve police brutality, denial of access to housing or health care services and job discrimination. Using information from the Roma clients, Imre assembles an investigation team of a video crew, psychologists, doctors and actors who are "wired;" they stimulate a repetition of a case of discrimination and, with hidden camera, document it. Imre then prepares the cases and takes them to trial using the newly acquired video tape and the testimony of the original complainants as well as the team members as evidence. So far no policemen have been punished, but in some cases formal reprimands have been issued. It is a slow but steady battle to bring these issues into the open for public debate.

Each year there has been an increasing amount of media coverage of Roma issues both in the newspapers and on television mainly due to Imre's efforts. He is helping Hungarians to understand that the "Roma problem" is everyone's problem. Furthermore, he is making more and more people aware of the extreme poverty and abuse that the Roma community faces each day. Slowly his approach is changing people's attitudes.

One of the concrete results of Imre's work has been the publication of the White Book, which was produced by the Otherness Foundation. It details cases of discrimination against Hungarian Roma in 1994 and 1995. This publication, which is written in English and Hungarian, is used by the Helsinki Federation and by the American ambassador, who has asked Imre to prepare a summary of the state of human and civil rights in Hungary. Imre's Budapest office is so well known that it has become a magnet for other disadvantaged groups such as the disabled, who are seeking advice on how to set up similar offices around the country. He has just been awarded a PHARE grant (a program established by the European Union to strengthen democratic institutions in the former Communist countries of Central Europe) to set up branch offices around the country, including Miskolc, Eger and Nyregyhaza. The Otherness Foundation also receives money from the Hungarian Soros Foundation. Several other groups in Hungary have approached him expressing an interest in replicating his model to establish legal defense associations for the disabled, women, children and the unemployed.

In addition to his fieldwork, Imre is seeking to educate Hungarians about the Roma situation. He has volunteered to teach a course on minority issues and legal protection at the University of Miskolc. It is the first course of its kind in the country and is extremely popular with students.

The Person

Imre is a doctor of law and lives in Miskolc, the city where he grew up. Miskolc has a large and very visible Roma community, which Imre found difficult to ignore. Imre's parents taught him from an early age that he should use his talents to help needy individuals. He naturally gravitated to one of Hungary's most vulnerable groups, the Roma. In the 1970s, Roma groups began approaching him and his wife, a social activist and university professor, for help. Imre's work has been helped by his natural ability to cross cultural lines and communicate with the Roma and win their trust.

Imre was the vice president of the Hungarian Democratic Forum (the party that won the first elections in Hungary), but his stand on civil rights and his efforts to put Roma rights on the political agenda so marginalized him within the party that he resigned. Concern for the Roma was contrary to the party's nationalistic views and was not deemed a priority.

In addition to his legal work, Imre is an accomplished poet, with several published books of poetry.

Imre passed away in 2010 after a long and enriching life, committed to promoting legal rights for the Roma people.