The Challenge of Being Roma in Europe: Yesterday and Today

Valery Novoselsky
Executive Editor, Roma Virtual Network (Israel)


Roma (Gypsy) people, nomadic migrants from North-Western India newly arrived into Europein the 11th  century from Minor Asia; have endured during the centuries xpulsions, the forcible removal of children, servitude in galleys and mines, death sentences for being “Gypsy”, and absolute slavery in the principalities Wallachia and oldova from the 14th  Century until themiddle of 19th  Century. Persecutions of the Roma communities were initiated in many places bystate and religious authorities from local to the highest levels. Following the murder of up to 1500,000 Roma in the Holocaust during World War Two, persecution persists today in Europewhere in the countries of Central and South-Eastern Roma form up to 10% of population. Thiscomprises Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary and Macedonia and also thecountries of Western Europe. The plight of Roma has dramatically worsened since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989.Widespread problems such as low life expectancy, high illiteracy, dire poverty and poor housingare now sharpened by massive and disproportionate unemployment that is accompanied bydiscrimination of children throughout their education. This is a result of unprecedentedatmosphere of Antiziganizm, being unleashed as a result of radical nationalism and easing ofcensorship within the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, thus allowing the spread ofvarious forms of hate speech. Roma have become the scapegoat for society's problems in thecountries of Central and South-East Europe as they transition in the post-Communist era. Thisfinds mass appeal as media outlets of all kinds commonly stigmatize Roma for societal problems. However, there is an effort of relatively young Roma media and the tolerant sector ofmainstream media to address the anti-Roma bias by featuring balanced and factual information, by maintaining pro-Roma outlets online. Despite many European countries implementing laws to protect the human rights of ethnic minorities, including Roma, some civil activists fear of potential persecutions if socio-political conditions continue to worsen. 

Europe has a history of repression and atrocities against the Roma. This has certainly left scarsin the minds of individuals and groups within Roma communities. There has been little progressto officially recognize these historical cruelties, with little in the way of reparations or apologies.An example of the few exceptions to the lack of recognition of the atrocities faced by Romacommunities is the recent inauguration of a memorial in Berlin in respect of the Roma victimsduring the Nazi era; however these could be viewed as symbolic.The history of persecution of Roma in Europe, in combination with continued dailydiscrimination including hate speech and physical attacks by racist extremists, does not help theRoma people feel welcomed within the broader community of European nations. In manyEuropean countries the Roma population of more then 10 million persons, which is larger thanthe population of dozen of European countries, is still de facto  do not enjoy basic human rights.Open Antiziganism is still strong among xenophobes who view the Roma as "enemy numberone" in the list of "undesirables". It is the responsibility of governments and the societies thatthey represent that greater efforts are made to break this vicious cycle of stigmatization and marginalization. According to a report issued by Amnesty International in 2011,

"...systematicdiscrimination is taking place against up to 10 million Roma across Europe. The organizationhas documented the failures of governments across the continent to live up to their obligations" 

.Antiziganism has continued in the 2000s, particularly in Germany, France, the UnitedKingdom, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and Kosovo. The Council of EuropeCommissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg has been an outspoken critic ofAntiziganism, both in reports and periodic Viewpoints. In August 2008, Hammarberg noting that"today's rhetoric against the Roma is very similar to the one used by Nazis and fascists before themass killings started in the thirties and forties. Once more, it is argued that the Roma are a threatto safety and public health. No distinction is made between a few criminals and theoverwhelming majority of the Roma population. This is shameful and dangerous."According to the latest Human Rights First Hate Crime Survey, Romanies routinely sufferassaults in city streets and other public places as they travel to and from homes, workplaces, andmarkets. In a number of serious cases of violence against Romani people, attackers have alsosought out whole families in their homes, or whole communities in settlements predominantlyhousing Romanis. These widespread patterns of violence are sometimes directed both at causingimmediate harm to Roma, without distinction between adults, the elderly and small children and physically eradicating the presence of Romani people in towns and cities in several Europeancountries. And the events which took place in Europe during last two decades have onlyhighlighted the continuing discrimination and disadvantage faced by the estimated 10-12 millionRoma in Europe.Roma have faced a long history of social exclusion within European society, exclusion whichis compounded by severe disadvantage across a number of inter-related fields (lack of education,unemployment, poverty, lack of access to healthcare, poor housing and residential segregation,etc). Anti-Gypsyism is a specific form of racism targeted at Roma and has deep roots inEuropean history. Myths and stereotypes about Roma continue to prevail in the minds of thenon-Roma population, rooted in ignorance, fear and segregation, and still largely unchallenged by education. The recent resurgence of extremism targeted at Roma and other groups, fostered by the economic recession, fomented by demagogues, and fed by media reports, demonstratesthat anti-Gypsyism continues to be potent as a populist political force.Discrimination against, deportations from the countries of Western Europe and enforcedsegregation of, Roma are widespread, both at national and local levels. Roma are frequentlyvictims of acts of physical violence, forced evictions, ghettoisation, expulsion and deportationregardless of citizenship status and associated rights. Research shows that Roma continue to facesevere exclusion, poverty, disadvantage and lack of access to a wide range of social rights.Representatives of the Roma population are not sufficiently involved in the definition of policiesand actions and little is done to empower Roma to represent their interests.The Roma have been part of the European cultural landscape for centuries. They have alsosuffered greatly from discrimination and prejudice, particularly in times of economic crisis,when they become scapegoats. That is happening even now. Faced with persistently highunemployment and strained budgets, some European Union members are finding it easier tostigmatize and expel Roma than to provide them with the education, housing and employmentthey seek.In London, a Roma camp was dismantled over this summer and most of its residents sent backto Romania. In the Czech Republic, Roma children are still routinely segregated in schools. In Sweden, revelations that the police kept a secret registry of Roma families touched off a  nationalstorm. 

The Roma’s impoverished living conditions and inability to get legitimate jobs reinforcestubborn stereotypes of a people forced to live on society’s margins. France’s interior minister, Manuel Valls, has said the lifestyle of Roma from Romania and Bulgaria is so different that mostcannot be integrated into French society and must be expelled.

Discrimination against the Roma is a direct violation of the E.U.’s Directive on Racial Equality and its official policy on Roma integration. Viviane Reding, the vice president of the European Commission and the E.U. justice commissioner, has severely reprimanded France for violating E.U. rules protecting the free circulation of individuals. This reprimand can be equally applied to other countries of today`s Europe as well. And there is still a hope that European civil society has learnt the lessons of history and together with Roma civil society will find the ways for real equality and integration of Roma! There is also hope that the civil society of India will take steps forward to strengthen the cultural and political ties with their Roma brethren in Europe and other regions of the world. 

Written on 31 December 2014 for the Session "Romas: The Lost Children of India" to be held during HRDI 5th International Conference on 10 January 2015 at Indian Law Institute in New Delhi, India.



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