The challenge of being Roma in Europe: Yesterday and Today
by Valery Novoselsky on 01 Feb 2015 7 Comments
The story about the past of the Roma people living in Europe is a dramatic one; the Roma are in fact brethren whose ancestors left Bharat one thousand years ago. India will surely be able to understand the plight of today’s Roma people and the necessity of strengthening political and cultural ties between Indian and Roma civil societies. India can contribute immeasurably to the process of affirmation of a Roma cause and defense of human rights of Roma. This cause is not only about discrimination and other forms of suffering, but also about the fight for dignity, freedom and equality.


The Roma (Gypsy) people are nomadic migrants from north-western India and arrived in Europe in the 11th century from Minor Asia; they have through the centuries endured expulsions, forcible removal of children, servitude in galleys and mines, death sentences for being “Gypsy”, and absolute slavery in the principalities Wallachia and Moldova from the 14th century until the middle of 19th century.


Persecutions of the Roma communities were initiated in many places by state and religious authorities, from local to the highest levels. Following the murder of up to 1500,000 Roma in the Holocaust during World War II, persecution persists today in central and south-eastern Europe where Roma comprise up to 10 per cent of the population. This includes Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary and Macedonia and also the countries 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 housing are now sharpened by massive and disproportionate unemployment that is accompanied by discrimination of children throughout their education. This is a result of an unprecedented atmosphere of Antiziganizm (Anti-Romanyism or Anti-Gypsyism) being unleashed as a result of radical nationalism and easing of censorship within the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, thus allowing the spread of various forms of hate speech.


Roma have become the scapegoat for society’s problems in the countries of central and south-eastern Europe as they transition in the post-Communist era. This finds 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 of mainstream media to address the anti-Roma bias by featuring balanced and factual information, and 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 potential persecutions if socio-political conditions continue to worsen.


Europe has a history of repression and atrocities against the Roma. This has certainly left scars in the minds of individuals and groups within Roma communities. There has been little progress to officially recognise 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 Roma communities is the recent inauguration of a memorial in Berlin in respect of the Roma victims during the Nazi era; however these could be viewed as symbolic.


The history of persecution of Roma in Europe, in combination with continued daily discrimination, including hate speech and physical attacks by racist extremists, does not help the Roma people to feel welcome within the broader community of European nations. In many European countries the Roma population of more than 10 million persons, which is larger than the population of dozen of European countries, is still de facto deprived of human rights.


Open Antiziganism is still strong among xenophobes who view the Roma as “enemy number one” in the list of “undesirables”. It is the responsibility of governments and societies to make greater efforts to break this vicious cycle of stigmatization and marginalization. According to a report issued by Amnesty International in 2011, “...systematic discrimination is taking place against up to 10 million Roma across Europe. The organization has 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 United Kingdom, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and Kosovo. The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg has been an outspoken critic of Antiziganism, both in reports and periodic Viewpoints. In August 2008, Hammarberg noted that “today’s rhetoric against the Roma is very similar to the one used by Nazis and fascists before the mass killings started in the thirties and forties. Once more, it is argued that the Roma are a threat to safety and public health. No distinction is made between a few criminals and the overwhelming majority of the Roma population. This is shameful and dangerous.”


According to the latest Human Rights First Hate Crime Survey, Romanis routinely suffer assaults in city streets and other public places as they travel to and from homes, workplaces, and markets. In a number of serious cases of violence against Romani people, attackers have also sought out whole families in their homes, or whole communities in settlements predominantly housing Romanis. These widespread patterns of violence are sometimes directed both at causing immediate 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 European countries.


The events which took place in Europe during the last two decades have only highlighted the continuing discrimination and disadvantages faced by the estimated 10-12 million Roma in Europe. Roma have faced a long history of social exclusion within European society, exclusion which is compounded by severe disadvantages 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 in European history. Myths and stereotypes about Roma continue to prevail in the minds of the non-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, demonstrates that anti-Gypsyism continues to be potent as a populist political force. Discrimination against, deportations from the countries of Western Europe and enforced segregation of Roma are widespread, both at national and local levels. Roma are frequently victims of acts of physical violence, forced evictions, ghettoisation, expulsion and deportation regardless of citizenship status and associated rights.


Research shows that Roma continue to face severe 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 policies and 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 also suffered greatly from discrimination and prejudice, particularly in times of economic crisis, when they become scapegoats.


That is happening even now. Faced with persistently high unemployment and strained budgets, some European Union members are finding it easier to stigmatize and expel Roma than to provide them with the education, housing and employment they seek. In London, a Roma camp was dismantled in summer 2014 and most of its residents sent back to 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 national storm.


The Roma’s impoverished living conditions and inability to get legitimate jobs reinforce stubborn 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 most cannot be integrated into French society and must be expelled.


Discrimination against the Roma is a direct violation of the EU’s Directive on Racial Equality and its official policy on Roma integration. Viviane Reding, the vice president of the European Commission and the EU justice commissioner, has severely reprimanded France for violating EU rules protecting the free circulation of individuals. This reprimand can be equally applied to other countries of today’s Europe as well.


There is still hope that European civil society has learnt the lessons of history and together with Roma civil society will find ways for real equality and integration of Roma. There is also hope that the civil society of India will take steps to strengthen the cultural and political ties with their Roma brethren in Europe and other regions of the world.


The author is the Executive Editor, Roma Virtual Network (Israel). Based on a presentation at the 5th international conference of Human Rights Defence India, New Delhi, 10 January 2015

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