Modern Europe's Roma: Still Denied Social Justice
August 2, 2014
August 2, 2014 marks the 70th commemoration of the International Roma Holocaust Remembrance Day. On August 2, 1944, the last 2,898 people from the "gypsy camp" in Birkenau were liquidated. Between 220,000 to 1. 5 million of Europe's Roma were killed during the Holocaust (known as the Parajmos by the Roma). After the Holocaust, human rights conventions and intergovernmental organizations ensured a protection and safety framework for Europe's minority groups, including Roma. However, the lack of information about the Parajmos in the school curricula in many countries, as well as the recent waves of anti-Roma hate crimes, violence, and the proliferation of extreme right parties and groups are worrying signs of forgetting the past and not securing the future.
Along with other European Union (EU) institutions, the European Parliament (EP) represents itself as a "fierce defender of human rights." But 49 of the 751 members elected this year belong to militantly extreme right parties. This outcome presents a serious challenge to the EP's human rights mission, already under siege by anti-immigrant and anti-minority lobbies during the recent period of economic decline. The election results are likely to have an impact on Europe's marginalized communities, given the strong formal ties and joint operations that link the extreme parties—most notably the Jobbik Party in Hungary—to overtly violent grassroots groups. Explicit racism has now penetrated the EU institutions, with unprecedented electoral legitimacy.
Europe's Roma population, like many other European minorities, is diverse, spanning a wide range of social, economic and geographic contexts. But at its most visible, and on a significant scale, it constitutes the poorest, most stigmatized, and excluded population within the EU. Despite sustained EU efforts to develop a vigorous Roma inclusion policy, the vast majority of the 10–12 million strong European Roma remain severely marginalized, frequent targets of violence, and mired in entrenched poverty of a severity rarely witnessed outside the poorest communities of low income countries. This dramatic marginalization is most evident in the informal camps where Roma communities are forced to live on the outskirts of Western European metropolises such as Paris or Rome, and the destitute neighborhoods in villages or suburbs in Central and South-Eastern Europe. It is here, especially, that Europe's Roma population becomes a helpless prey for violent fascist thugs, for predatory traffickers, and for opportunistic and racist politicians.
Isolated and Exposed to Violence and Trafficking
The image of an adolescent, viciously lynched and then dumped in a supermarket trolley in Paris, hit the headlines earlier this summer, in June 2014. Gheorghe Franzu C. (known as Darius in the media), a Romani child migrant from Romania, was kidnapped from the camp where he lived with his family, moved to a basement, and very severely beaten by a hooded mob. They burnt his body and poured acid in his mouth. He was in a coma until recently.
As a result of this brutal incident, young Gheorghe has become a terrifying symbol of the extreme dangers facing Eastern European Roma who seek an escape from their long-standing poverty in the EU's more prosperous West. France's President Hollande, referring to the savagery of his assault, called it "unspeakable." But Gheorghe's case is not exceptional.
Gheorghe is one of many Romani casualties of violent attacks, trafficking, and persistent discrimination that are rife in the heart of modern Europe. In February this year, a 40-year-old man assaulted Romani families with acid in Paris's Place de la République. Roma camps situated on the outskirts of major cities in France and Italy are regularly attacked by neo-fascist thugs. On a 2008 visit to a Roma camp in Naples, Southern Italy, we received reports that local mafia groups were abducting Roma children and forcing them to beg or sell sex. Gheorghe's attack is yet another wake-up call for the EU to take Romani issues seriously.
So far there has been a dearth of effective measures directed at supporting and sustaining the integration of Romani migrants. Neither source nor destination countries have enacted appropriate policies. In Romania, for instance, the 2001 National Strategy flagged prior to EU accession by the Romanian government as the solution to the challenge of Roma inclusion sounded like a good plan. However, it was poorly enacted on the ground, according to an EU monitoring report which stated that "adequate resources for Roma strategies and policies are not always ensured, especially at the local level." Very recently, a Court of Appeal in Romania decided that the Romanian government had not fulfilled the commitments made to the European Court of Human Rights as long ago as 2005: a vulnerable community in Hadareni, Romania, targeted by a pogrom in 1993, still awaits justice despite the court's ruling.
The situation is no better in destination states. In violation of EU law that establishes freedom of movement for citizens across the Union, France has been spending its Roma budget on forced expulsions and other programs misleadingly called "voluntary" repatriations. These measures return vulnerable communities to circumstances that they have already determined to be unlivable. Despite sustained public criticism and with the notable exception of a few localities that have started substantial integration programs, France has taken no serious steps to coordinate its anti-Roma interventions with the Eastern European source countries, or to develop policies that direct EU inclusion funds to supportive or sustaining measures.
A similar picture emerges in Italy. In 2013, the municipality of Rome spent approximately 24 million euros on so-called "nomad camps" for Roma—settlements that isolate and ghettoize the community, and falsely label them as transient when they are known to be sedentary and in search of permanence, like other poor migrants to the EU. Of the allocated funds, a staggering 86.4 percent was used "to administrate, supervise and safeguard the camps," leaving 13.2 percent for education and a mere 0.4 percent for social inclusion measures. By insisting on the "nomad" misnomer, the Italian authorities continue to signal a distance from the majority population and a reluctance to execute inclusive policies. The prospects for new measures that give effect to the EU's human rights principles are slim, when French Prime Minister Manual Valls notes publicly that the Roma don't seek inclusion or, when an Italian deputy mayor bluntly states that "These are dark-skinned people, not Europeans like you and me....Our final goal is to have zero Gypsy camps in Milan."
Politicians, Policies, and Policymakers
The fear and loathing of Romani people is not an isolated phenomenon. National politicians across the political spectrum as well as recently elected members of the EU Parliament regularly indulge in policy statements and electoral campaigns intended to inflame public sentiment against the Roma.
In France, former president Nicolas Sarkozy made fiery anti- Roma racist statements. His goal, expressed in a 2010 speech in Grenoble, of putting "an end to the wild squatting and camping of the Roma," has been taken up by his successor, socialist President François Hollande. Although as a candidate he promised not to follow his predecessor's harshly discriminatory practices, Roma camps continue to be destroyed and Roma are expelled by the same methods as before. The far right National Front candidate in France proposed that the "invasion of lepers", (his term for the Roma) be dealt with by "concentrating" them in camps. According to a member of the French Parliament: "Maybe Hitler didn't kill enough of them [Roma]."
France and Italy are not the only European countries where openly racist anti-Roma statements are regularly made. Both in Hungary and Romania inflammatory comments abound, if not for electoral gain then simply to vent rage. Zoltan Bayer, a member of Hungary's ruling Fidesz Party, said the following in 2013:
A significant part of the Roma are unfit for coexistence. They are not fit to live among people. These Roma are animals, and they behave like animals. When they meet with resistance, they commit murder. They are incapable of human communication. Inarticulate sounds pour out of their bestial skulls. At the same time, these Gypsies understand how to exploit the 'achievements' of the idiotic Western world. But one must retaliate rather than tolerate. These animals shouldn't be allowed to exist. In no way. That needs to be solved—immediately and regardless of the method.
Among the Romanian politicians accused of discriminatory statements against Roma are current Prime Minister Victor Ponta and President Traian Basescu. The latter was even fined for offensive remarks against the Roma. It's small wonder that hate crimes and brutal violence against the Roma proliferate across Europe.
Of course, not all European politicians espouse such views. Some, especially at the local level, have expressed courageous, progressive, and informed opinions about Roma and the benefits of inclusionary policies, emphasizing the need for effective implementation. Tsonko Tsone, the mayor of Kavarna, a town in Bulgaria, was recognized by MERI, the Making the Most of EU Funds for Roma Inclusion, for its infrastructure, employment, and education programs for the Roma community. In an interview for Focus Radio, the mayor commented: "I am most proud, not of the infrastructure, but of the change in attitude of Bulgarians towards Roma and of the fact that there is no division between them." Noting the comprehensive gains achieved, MERI remarked on the program's success in ensuring that 70 Roma families were provided lots on which to build legally. It also commented approvingly on additional signs of progress: a decreasing mortality rate among the Roma; an increasing number of Romani children have completed secondary school education; a growing awareness of the importance of girls' education; anti-discrimination measures in institutions; and the employment of Roma municipal officers.
Other inclusion projects demonstrate that integration work can generate enduring success if the interventions are seriously designed and carefully implemented, and if they are supported by politicians willing to think and act outside a racist box. The shift of Roma from powerless victims to empowered and equal participants in the reshaping of their communities has been promised for decades. It is time to ensure that inclusion projects like the one in Kavarna are replicated widely.
Prejudice and Violence
It is not just politicians who give voice to extreme anti-Roma sentiments. A large number of EU citizens harbor strong prejudice against the Roma, and have done so for a very long time. The October 2013 story about a blonde four-year-old Romani girl found in a Roma camp in Greece and taken from the family burst open an entire Pandora's box of prejudice. There are few ethnic minority groups about whom one can so easily scatter racial slurs and prejudice nowadays. Newspaper headlines and texts competed to dissect the relationship between skin color, hair, culture, and primitivism among the alleged Roma child abductors.
One of the most overused racial slurs in breaking news stories was the term "Gypsy." This pejorative appellation, still widely used out of ignorance about Roma history and sensibilities, denotes a whole range of stereotypes—Roma as thieves, as irrational fortunetellers, and as exotic, primitive, and highly sexed creatures. In the United States the "G word" is used largely out of ignorance and because it is the only term that has some resonance for a largely invisible community. In Europe on the other hand, politicians and journalists are aware of its negative connotations, but persist in using it for defamatory and stigmatizing reasons. Some even go as far as insisting, as in Romania, that constitutional changes be made to replace the word Roma with the derogatory "tigan" (gypsy).
Prejudice has often surfaced in the form of extremely violent actions. We are not speaking of the Holocaust, which resulted in 220,000 to 1.5 million Roma deaths, but of vicious contemporary attacks, killings, and anti-Roma marches throughout the EU, including in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and Italy. European Romaphobia goes beyond prejudice and stigmatization. It is increasingly embedded in institutionalized racism, vigilante attacks, and racially motivated killings. In a survey recently conducted by the EU's Fundamental Rights Agency, 18 percent of the Roma interviewed stated that they had experienced racially motivated crimes.
In a 2014 case study on Hungary, the Harvard FXB Center documented the frequency and patterns of killings, violence, and propaganda against Roma, as well as the militarization of extremist movements. The report, Accelerating Patterns of anti-Roma Violence in Hungary, showed the limited impact of EU institutions in protecting the safety of vulnerable citizens. During unstable times when xenophobic views have widespread currency, economic crisis and ethnic tension generate severe risks. The report also noted that several extremist organizations conduct trainings for their members on weapon usage and combat, skills that are deployed to destroy the security of minority groups, such as the Roma, Jews, or the LGBTI community.
Racial violence and ethnic tensions are sensitive and unpopular subjects for European governments and EU institutions. But they are serious menaces that the EU can no longer tolerate alongside its democratic foundation. It is time to take on board and replicate the powerful good practice examples that exist within the EU and to initiate vigorous measures to incentivize such interventions. Consider, for example, the successful Roma inclusion policies implemented in La Milagrosa in Albacete, one of Spain's most troubled and violent neighborhoods. Within the space of five years, a densely populated Roma community marked by crime, massive unemployment, and inter-ethnic tensions, was turned into a well-functioning and peaceful town with low crime, higher school retention rates, and increasing economic activity among the population. A patient and well thought-through collaboration between municipal leaders, Roma community members, and local Roma rights advocates and researchers generated a model of participatory community building that reversed the despair and destruction of previous decades. The project demonstrated the importance of community participation in the process of social inclusion. Their approach contradicted what a 2012 Includ-Ed report characterized as "discourses that tend to blame students or their environment for school failure, especially students with minority or immigrant backgrounds."
A 2011 study documents another positive precedent. It shows that Romani immigrant children originally from the Czech Republic and Slovakia, who had been abusively placed in segregated or "special" schools for children with mental disabilities in their countries of origin, once moved into the UK mainstream, successfully completed their primary and secondary education in integrated schools.
Not all Roma citizens in less economically stable EU countries travel to the wealthier parts of Europe. Not all Roma live in ghettos or isolated and deprived communities. Not all Roma lack education and employment or beg on the legendary boulevards of Europe's capital cities. But a large number of European Roma live daily under conditions of serious impoverishment, persistent rejection, and a dramatic curtailment of their basic human rights. Others, those more fortunate in terms of income and education, may "pass" more easily, thanks to their higher social status, and avoid the outright rejection of the poorest Roma. Instead of overtly racist actions or racially motivated violence, they may experience more oblique or muted forms of stigma and verbal discrimination. But the experience of exclusion and contempt remain pervasive throughout the community.
Throughout the long history of Roma life on the European continent, prejudice, violence, and discriminatory policies have emerged time and again. After the Holocaust, the new rights-respecting setting developed by international bodies ensured some level of protection and safety for Europe's beleaguered minority groups, including Roma. But prejudice has persisted and unfortunately the Roma community in particular is again the target of growing racism and violence that in some places recalls the darkest moments of European history. Education and public policy have not adequately tackled this resurgent hatred; extremists have been able to exploit a period of serious economic instability and turmoil to scapegoat the most vulnerable community in their midst. It has not taken long for racist politicians to understand that, whether through silence, complicit acceptance, or outright vitriol, they can capitalize on voters' fears and latent racism and target their Roma populations as convenient enemies.
Roma inclusion cannot and will not be achieved if policy makers and politicians are not educated to grasp the complexity of the Roma plight. If those who are in charge of social inclusion regard Roma as criminals or lepers, only harm can follow. In the medium term, the solutions lie in strengthening intergovernmental organizations and increasing the pressure these entities exercise on states to apply human rights standards. Recommendations also have to be targeted at progressive politicians at the local, national, and European levels to assist them in framing non-racist and non-paternalistic anti-discrimination policies and practices. A key catalyst for effective implementation of both these strategies is a stronger joint European and grassroots Romani movement, independent of the priorities of donors or funding organizations. The movement must be guided by a consistent common agenda, and it must establish clear, transparent, and sustained goals that guide its activities over time.
While local civic organizations and leaders have succeeded in changing legislation and getting new, non-discriminatory policies on the books, the balance sheet for the European Romani movement as a whole has been disappointing: hectic, energetic, but lacking in coordination, in strategic thinking, or in medium- to long-term systematic impact. What is urgently needed as a catalyst of change moving forward is an upright, resolute, and independent movement that brings together Roma leaders and progressive constituencies from across the continent to ensure that the EU, in the 21st century, does indeed become a fierce defender of human rights for all those who live within its borders.