Roma inclusion in 2012: no respite in prejudice

Does the EU deserve its Nobel Peace Prize? 2013 is the European Year of Citizens, dedicated to the rights that come with EU citizenship. It seems utterly remote and removed from the reality facing millions of Roma across the Union.  

Despite the reassuring noises from the European Commission in 2012 that all goes well with the EU Framework for Roma integration, the evidence on the ground suggests that something remains rotten in the states of Europe when it comes to justice for Roma.  There is little sign of progress but much evidence of continuing prejudice and discrimination.

2013 is the European Year of Citizens, dedicated to the rights that come with EU citizenship. It seems utterly remote and removed from the reality facing millions of Roma across the Union.  At the launch of an online consultation with Europe’s citizens, Commissioner Reding declared:

"The European Union is there because of and to serve its citizens. People expect concrete results from  Europe, and with cheaper roaming charges, better rights for crime victims and easier shopping online for consumers, that is exactly what we are delivering.”

This prompted criticism from Amnesty International about the absence of any reference to violations of key fundamental rights: “Despite the EU’s obligation to respect and promote human rights, it’s simply turning a blind eye to violations in EU countries.”

In 2013 the Commission should use its existing powers boldly to defend fundamental human rights in Europe. In 2012 violence against Romani people cast a grim shadow over the EU Framework for Roma Integration.  In December, in the Slovak village of Žihárec, a 37-year old Romani man, Daniel Horváth was beaten, then beheaded and his body dumped in a cesspool, following an altercation in a bar.  In another atrocity in Slovakia last June, an off-duty policeman drove up to a house occupied by a Romani family in the small town of Hurbanovo and opened fire, killing three and wounding two others. What was chilling about the aftermath of the shooting was the surge of online support for the gunman. Irena Bihariová, from People against Racism reported that: “public discussions turned into mass glorification of the murderer and hateful responses towards the victims.”

In Bulgaria, that same month, in the town of Sandanski, Malin Iliev a Romani candidate in the municipal elections, was critically wounded when a bomb exploded outside the headquarters of the Euroroma party. Malin died of his injuries a month later. Four youths arrested on suspicion all belonged to a local ultra-nationalist group.

These are just three examples of a wider pattern of violence across central and Eastern Europe.  While the details may differ and the circumstances may be disputed, there is one common denominator: in 2012, Romani people continued to die at the hands of state and non-state actors within the European Union. Constant tirades concerning ‘Gypsy crime’ emanating from extremists and elements within the political mainstream obscure the extent to which Romani people are victims of crime.  The recent EU-MIDIS Data in Focus Report on Minorities as Victims of Crime, found 18% of all Roma and 18% of all sub-Saharan African respondents in the survey indicated that they had experienced at least one racially motivated crime in the last 12 months.

This racist violence does not occur in a vacuum. Thomas Hammarberg recently condemned the anti-Roma rhetoric from politicians and media, messages which “distorted minds” can and do understand as a call for action: “We see today a growing number of attacks on Roma committed by individuals mobilized by racist anti-Roma ideology. These are premeditated attacks, with the intent to kill, that target random individuals or families because of their ethnicity.” 

The gravity of the current situation in 2012 was highlighted recently in research conducted by Political Capital which placed Hungary fifth out of 33 countries on a ‘radicalism’ index, with sympathy with far-right ideas and politics among the over 15s surging from 10 to 21 per cent: “a practically unprecedented rise by international standards.” A survey question on “Gypsy crime” found that 63 per cent of Hungarians view “the Roma inclination to commit crime” as genetically pre-determined; while approximately two-thirds of respondents would not allow their children to befriend a Roma.

Last December, as the leaders of the three EU institutions received the Nobel Peace Prize, they were no doubt minded of the words of former laureate Martin Luther King Jr. that “true peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” In his acceptance speech in Oslo in 1964, King declared that, “the struggle to eliminate the evil of racial injustice constitutes one of the major struggles of our time.”

A half-century later, it is clear that across the Union, we ain’t what we want to be; and we ain’t what we ought to be.  Parts of the Europe today bear more than a passing resemblance to the American Deep South in the early 1960s. As the very idea of European values continues to take a battering, there is great danger that the protracted struggle against racial injustice will be stalled in the face of stubborn, deep rooted and wide spread anti-Gypsyism.  

In addition to prejudice, hate speech and racially motivated violence, 2012 was a year in which many Roma families faced evictions, demolitions of settlements and forced removals in Member States such as Romania, France, Slovakia, and Italy.  

The Slovak authorities targeting of Romani communities for forced evictions under the pretext of environmental law, saw more than 150 people, including 60 children evicted from their homes in Kosice on 30 October 2012. Their houses were demolished and the Roma were sent by bus to other parts of the country where they are supposedly registered. According to ERRC, more than 400 mayors of towns and villages have signed up to a movement called Zobudme sa! (Let´s wake up!), which aims to coordinate a targeted programme of demolition of Roma settlements by defining them as waste dumps.

The European Union should commission a wide-ranging external review of how EU funds have been used for Roma inclusion. EU funds could be harnessed for change, but in many countries, the record to date is dismal, the capacity to absorb and manage EU funds is weak, and the impact on Roma communities remains negligible. Beyond accounting for monies spent, there is a need to ascertain what has been achieved, what amounts to good, bad and downright useless practices. The focus needs to switch to impact and the imperative for member states to demonstrate how the smart use of EU funds can make a “tangible difference to Roma people's lives.”

It is certainly to the credit of dedicated personnel within the European Commission that the issue of Roma inclusion did not simply vanish from a very crowded EU political agenda in a year when the entire European project seemed to teeter inexorably ‘on the brink’. As the Union lurches from crisis to crisis, it is quite an achievement that Commission officials driving its Roma Task Force, have managed thus far to sustain the political momentum generated by the EU Framework for Roma Integration.

There is however a grave danger that this momentum will peter out due to a lack of political will. The fundamental flaws and the failures of most National Roma Integration Strategies to comply with the expectations laid out in the Framework Communication stood as stark evidence of the indifference and ambivalence of many Member States.

Commissioner Reding was characteristically forthright about the deficits:  “For the strategies to exist not just on paper and to produce tangible benefits for the 10-12 million Roma living in Europe we now need concrete measures, explicit targets, earmarked funding and sound monitoring and evaluation.  As we know, the devil is in the detail. And it is precisely this level of detail that is lacking in most of the strategies.”  

 At the outset, the Commission offered to act as a broker between member states on Roma inclusion. The Commission is entirely correct in its repeated assertions that the primary responsibility for equal opportunities, fundamental rights, safety and security of Roma citizens lies with the governments and institutions of the Member States. But primary responsibility is not sole responsibility. From developments in 2012 it is clear as day that if Member States are left to their own devices they just won’t deliver on Roma integration.  

If these strategies are to have a life beyond paper, if the Framework for Roma Integration is to make a difference, there is no option but for the EU, in this 2013 European Year of Citizens, to become more boldly interventionist, and go way beyond ‘brokerage’ in the defence of fundamental rights, combating discrimination, and advancing “the struggle to eliminate the evil of racial injustice.”  

About the author

Bernard Rorke is international research and advocacy director for the Open Society Roma Initiatives. He has worked on Roma issues with the Open Society Foundations since 1998. He currently teaches the “Roma Rights” course at the Central European University in Budapest. He is a regular contributor and commentator on Roma issues. His posts on Open Society Voices can be read here.