Can Europe Make It?

Anti-Gypsyism 25 years on: Europe fails Havel’s litmus test

Twenty-five years after the fall of communism, it still hasn't sunk in that racism and exclusion is not a ‘Gypsy problem’ but a 'Europe problem'.

Bernard Rorke
16 January 2015

Back in the early 1990s Vaclav Havel famously called the Gypsy problema litmus test of civil society and described driving out manifestations of intolerance as the biggest challenge of our times. Twenty-five years after the fall of communism, it still hasn't sunk in that racism and exclusion is not a Gypsy problem- but it is abundantly clear from developments in 2014 that Europe has failed its litmus test


Two young Roma gypsies in Neamt County, Romania. Flickr/AdyM. Some rights reserved.

When Swedish Integration Minister Erik Ullenhag launched the White Paper on abuses and rights violations of Roma during the 1900s in March 2014, he declared,"This is an unknown and dark part of Swedish history, maybe even darker than I thought when we started the work with the white book.”

He wrote that widely-held prejudices by officials towards Roma at the beginning of the twentieth century laid the foundation for an attitude that the Roma contributed nothing and should be ‘annihilated’. His admission was frank and forthright:

"We have a heritage of prejudice, and the racist and xenophobic currents in Swedish society, in particular the first half of the 1900s, still exist today.”

As if to confirm this assertion, at the launch event of the White Book, Diana Nyman, chair of the Roma Council in Gothenburg, was prevented by staff from entering the breakfast room of Stockholm’s Sheraton hotel and forced to drink her coffee in the lobby.

The establishment of Sweden’s Governmental Commission against Anti-Gypsyism in March 2014 was directly tied to the publication of the White Paper. As the Commission’s head Thomas Hammarberg explained: “We argued that it was not enough to expose the crimes of the past; it is necessary to address prejudice against Roma today, as Roma and Sinti are still discriminated and victims of hate speech and violent attacks in today’s Europe.”

On July 1, 2014 in the Republic of Ireland, the government apologised to the parents of two very young Roma children seized from their parents by police the preceding October, on the grounds of ‘being blonde’.  At the time Brigid Quilligan of the Irish Traveller Movement expressed her shock that children could “be ripped from their parents for absolutely no reason other than prejudice, discrimination and racism”.

Following a damning report from the Irish Ombudsman for Children, the Prime Minister and the Justice Minister promptly acted on her recommendations and issued unqualified public apologies. On behalf of the police, Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan also apologised to the Roma families. She said every parent in the country could identify with the distress they were put through when their children were taken from them, that it was not an excuse to say officers were acting in the best interests of the children: “It's a reality. As is the fact that something along these lines must never happen again.”

On 25 September 2014, the European Commission, after years of prodding from non-governmental organisations, finally initiated infringement proceedings against the Czech Republic over its failure to end systemic discrimination and segregation in education. The decision to launch the proceedings followed a complaint to the Commission filed 18 months earlier by the Open Society Justice Initiative, Amnesty International and the European Roma Rights Centre, and came six years after the judgment of the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in the case D.H. and Others v. the Czech Republic.

How do we read such signs in 2014 - to resort to the well-worn cliché: is the glass half-full or half-empty? Without a doubt it would have seemed inconceivable a quarter of a century ago, that the so-called Roma issue could have excited substantial and regular international media coverage; held the attention of policy makers across Europe; and generated such a voluminous mass of reports, analyses, and scholarly investigations.

Neither could many have foreseen, 25 years ago, that an EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies by 2020 would be in place, endorsed by European Parliament resolutions and sealed with European Council Recommendations and Conclusions. And, it is precisely within that Europe-wide policy framework, that the three examples cited stand as full and substantial official responses rejecting the popular prejudice and institutional racism that constitute 21st Century anti-Gypsyism.

But let’s take a closer look at these and other cases across Europe to gauge the prospects for progress on Roma inclusion by 2020.

The Swedish example offers hope that in European politics what constitutes common sense need not be a populist scraping of the barrel when it comes to ethics; that common sense might actually be ethically informed good sense, that practically makes sense in terms of social cohesion, equality of opportunities and mutual respect.

But let’s not get carried away: Roma who number between 40,000 and 50,000, at most make up a mere 0.53 percent of the total population in Sweden, and as the authorities admit, all is far from rosy for Roma in this very affluent liberal haven.

In December 2013 the story broke in the national media that a police force in southern Sweden had compiled a register of more than 4,000 names, which included children as young as two, of members of the Roma community, and people closely connected with it. Police claims that the register was drawn up to help them fight violent crime, and denials that the register had an ethnic basis (despite the file name Kringresande/Travellers) prompted the former leader of Sweden's liberal Folkpartiet, Maria Leissner to denounce the register as a ‘hate crime’.

One particular cause for concern is the continued rise of the Swedish Democrats, fascist thugs repackaged as ‘immigration critical radicals.’ Liz Fekete recently warned of the dangers and polarising effects of ‘the accommodation of the SD in parliament, the normalisation of SD racism, and a subsequent rise in neo-Nazi violence.’ The 2014 elections saw the SD increase their electoral gains, polling 12.9% and winning 49 (14%) seats in parliament. None of this bodes well for Roma or other visible minorities.

The Irish government apologies which followed two incidents of outrageous racist abductions by state authorities, were widely welcomed as forthright, genuine, and unqualified expressions of sorrow and regret for the harm caused. And they came complete with a commitment that such things should never happen again.

But, there is little to cheer about in terms of social inclusion for Travellers and Roma in Ireland. The financial crisis and austerity packages led to disproportionate cutbacks in service provision for the disadvantaged in general, and for the Traveller community in particular. According to Pavee Point: “One can think of no other section of the community which has suffered such a high level of disinvestment, compounded by the failure of the state to spend even the limited resources that are available.” The children’s charity Barnardos damned the cuts to Traveller-specific services as a short-sighted saving that will ‘cement intergenerational cycles of disadvantage in the Traveller community.’

As for the Irish government’s submission to the EU Framework for Roma Integration, the failings listed by civil society groups were depressingly familiar: the document simply set out strategies already in place; it contains no goals, targets, indicators or related timeframes, funding mechanisms or monitoring and evaluation mechanisms; and there was no active participation of Travellers and Roma in the drafting process. So apologies apart, in 2014 there is little room for optimism that great strides in social equity and inclusion will be made by 2020.

‘Great hatred little room’, and little room for optimism in the wake of mob attacks in Waterford in late October 2014, when Roma families were forced from their homes, aptly described by Minister of State for Equality, as “cowardly, prejudiced and racist”.

That same month, the Equality Tribunal awarded the maximum compensation to the Joyce family who were refused access to a funeral home when making  arrangements for their late 14-year-old son Aaron in 2011. Martin Collins, director of Pavee Point, described it as the most repulsive act of discrimination he had encountered in 30 years of advocating for Traveller rights, and “a reminder, if one was needed, of the systemic, institutional racism experienced by my community in Irish society.”

While one could credibly argue that in both Ireland and Sweden, there are signs of an awakening, that public authorities, service providers, and politicians are responding to anti-Gypsyism, are attempting to confront prejudice and grapple with deeply embedded institutional racism, there is precious little evidence of it in the Czech Republic.

Far from being a cause for celebration, the initiation of infringement proceedings by the European Commission is a sign of failure: testament to successive governments’ brazen recalcitrance in the face of international legal judgements, and complete indifference to EU ‘urgings’, recommendations and conclusions; and a damning indictment of Czech democracy, and the failure of Czech political elites, over a period of two and a half decades, to end segregation and promote inclusion of the republic’s Roma citizens. The Czech Republic stands accused of deliberately, wilfully and systematically ruining the life chances of thousands of Romani children and young people by depriving them of the right to a decent education.

In November, the Czech Government rejected the Commission’s charges out of hand and claimed the Commission lacked sufficiently precise data about the number of Romani children in special education. The government also objected to the Commission’s interference because, they claimed, education matters are not within the European Union's purview.

November in Hungary saw Minister for Human Resources Zoltán Balog file a bill to amend Hungary’s Public Education Act of 2011, to effectively legalise school segregation. Balog was piqued at a court decision in a case filed by the Chance for Children Foundation (CFCF) which ordered the closure of the Greek Catholic Church’s segregated school in Nyíregyháza. The court reasoned that attending a segregated school substantially diminishes the chances of children to get quality education as well as any opportunity for continuing towards a high school education. Balog declared that the court decision “only boosted my battle morale […] to keep the school open as this is really in the children’s interest.” The amendment due to be enacted soon, simply circumvents legal verdicts by exempting some schools from the requirements of the Equal Opportunities Act.

An emblematic story of how Hungary’s Roma are faring in Viktor Orbán’s self-proclaimed illiberal democracy, twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is the fate of those living in the ghetto on the edge of Miskolc in northeastern Hungary. This is the setting for a Fidesz plan to ethnically cleanse the city, to dismantle the ghettos and slums to make way for a parking lot for one more of Orbán’s soccer stadiums. Tenants have been offered up to 2 million forints (EUR 6,500) to buy homes outside the city limits. Both Fidesz and Jobbik launched signature drives and claim that several thousand locals support the plan. Critics denounced the ‘sham signature drives’ as efforts to intimidate the slum dwellers and hint that they were ‘all criminals’.

Having defeated both the neo-fascist party Jobbik and the socialist MSZP in the October local elections, the FIDESZ local authority continue to press ahead with the clearances. The deputy-mayor Gyula Schweickhardt brazenly denied that this is an ‘ethnic or racial issue’, stating that the city leadership approaches it as “an endeavour to eradicate an impoverished slum.”

Where exactly the Roma displaced from Miskolc are supposed to go remains unclear. Several nearby villages declared they have no money to provide work or benefits to any newcomers, and have signed petitions saying that there will be no welcome for Miskolc’s  impoverished Roma.

Beyond Miskolc and its environs, the political climate for Roma communities continues to deteriorate. In the October 2014 local elections, while the right-wing FIDESZ swept to victory across the country and in the capital, the extreme-right Jobbik came second in 18 out of 19 counties, ahead of the Socialists, and won control of 14 towns and villages.

Jobbik’s most significant gain was taking control of the industrial town of Ozd in northeastern Hungary with a population of 35,000. The party’s election manifesto stated that there are two ways to solve the ‘Gypsy question’: ”The first one is based on peaceful consent, the second on radical exclusion… Our party wishes to offer one last chance to the destructive minority that lives here, so first it will consider peaceful consent. If that agreement fails, then and only then the radical solution can follow.” The election programme of an overtly anti-Semitic and anti-Roma political party, that can now credibly claim to be the second force in Hungarian politics, and is now in control of a major town in an EU-member state, openly threatens to "chase off people who are unable to conform”.

In neighbouring Romania, the situation has prompted the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to express concerns about the continuing “widespread discrimination and social exclusion, of Roma, especially in the areas of housing, education, health and employment”, as well as prevailing public hostility towards Roma.

The report drew attention to the situation of “Roma who continue to live in substandard housing conditions, without safe drinking water or sanitation facilities, electricity, heating, sewage, waste disposal or legal security of tenure which exposes them to the risk of eviction.” It also noted the “limited number of social housing units available and the absence of a monitoring mechanism to ensure that the allocation of social housing is transparent and non-discriminatory.” The report also echoed cases highlighted recently by ERRC and Amnesty of “forced evictions of Roma from irregular settlements, and their relocation to unsafe or polluted sites threatening their lives and health.” Only the naive would expect the Romanian government to act on the UN Committee’s recommendations to halt forced evictions of Roma “until they have been consulted, afforded due process guarantees and provided with alternative accommodation or compensation enabling them to acquire adequate accommodation.”

When it comes to squalid living conditions, the European Commission has recently warned the Italian government that infringement proceedings could be on the way. For years civil society organisations have protested against this form of apartheid, and repeatedly claimed that Italy uses European social funds to build and maintain segregated camps. The Commission requested information about La Barbuta camp in Rome, and said it was concerned about Italy housing people “on a very remote and inaccessible site, fenced in with a surveillance system”. As the Commission puts it, in this camp as elsewhere in Italy, such schemes “seriously limit fundamental rights of those concerned, completely isolating them from the surrounding world and depriving them of the possibility of adequate work or education.”

Describing the squalor in the camps, Sherazada Hokic from Bosnia told a reporter from the Italy edition of the Local : "There's no air, the children suffer from respiratory disorders and anxiety," She lives with seven of her nine children in one room and survives on food handouts that often include rotting fruit. The human cost of apartheid EU-style was revealed in an ERRC submission to the Human Rights Council last March. The report found that children raised in these camps - often under guard or video surveillance - are prone to a number of severe and debilitating conditions, are more frequently born underweight than other children and become ill with respiratory disease in greater numbers than their Italian peers. They suffer more often from poisoning, burns and accidents at home. There is a greater incidence of “diseases of poverty”, such as tuberculosis, scabies, lice. The children exhibit high incidences of anxiety and sleep disorders, suffer from phobias, are hyperactive and have attention deficits, and have learning difficulties - conditions which ‘are also predictive of more serious disorders in adolescence and adulthood’.

Perhaps two of the most indelible images of Roma in Europe 2014, came from France. The first in June, was the atrocious photograph of the young 16-year-old Roma victim of a lynching, beaten to a pulp and dumped for dead in a supermarket trolley by a motorway in the Seine-Saint-Denis area near Paris. The French President’s expressions of horror and condemnation counted for little, when one remembers the toxic atmosphere of anti-Gypsyism so deliberately stoked by his Prime Minister.

The second image was that of the injuries sustained by 89-year-old French Traveller, Raymond Gûreme, after a 40-strong police raid in November. When officers entered his caravan, he asked if they had a warrant. The reply was ‘we are not in America’. “When I told the police officers to leave, one started pushing me and hitting me with batons. He pushed me out of the trailer and then hit me again.” According to Amnesty International, police then fired tear gas at the several men, women and children who gathered around Raymond’s caravan.

Seventy-four years ago, Raymond was arrested along with his parents and six siblings and taken to a detention camp in Linas-Monthléry in Nazi-occupied France. He escaped, was rearrested and deported to a forced labour camp in Germany. Three years later, a railway driver who was part of the resistance helped him escape again by smuggling him on a train from Frankfurt to Paris. On his return he immediately joined the resistance. For his people’s suffering under Nazi occupation, Raymond said that in the collective memory of post-war France: “There was no space for my sorrow. Nor for me as a citizen.”

The French president, François Hollande, described the attack on the 16-year-old boy as "unspeakable and unjustifiable … and against all the principles on which our republic is founded.” Can Hollande find words to describe the behaviour of his police officers who so brutally attacked 89-year-old Raymond Gûreme, a holocaust survivor and resistance fighter?

Back in the early 1990s, Vaclav Havel reckoned that the exclusion and violence faced by Eastern Europe’s Roma populations were rooted in the lack of preparation by people to assume the responsibilities of freedom after living under repressive governments for so long: "They find themselves in a state of uncertainty, in which they tend to look for pseudo-certainties…One of those might be submerging themselves in a crowd, a community, and defining themselves in contrast to other communities.” The search for pseudo-certainties and scapegoats has long outlived the bumpy transitions from state-socialism, and anti-Gypsyism goes wider and deeper, and disfigures democracies old and new.

As for linking the spike in racist words and deeds to Europe’s economic crises, this is simplistic and misleading, for anti-Gypsyism has long thrived in good and bad times alike.

The acts of violence against Roma by state and non-state actors, the coarsening of public discourse coloured by inflammatory racist rhetoric and the increase in broad public hostility towards Roma, predate the economic downturn and form part of a wider populist assault on the liberal content of contemporary democracy. Prejudice has become a mobilising force, and unabashed and uninhibited anti-Roma prejudice has taken centre stage with crude ultra-nationalism as the core ingredients in a wider radical populist assault on the so-called liberal consensus.

In an idealistic vein, and somewhat at odds with the venal reality of contemporary practice, Hanna Arendt described the task of politics in all times and in all places to shed light upon and dispel prejudices. She stressed that the power and danger of prejudices is that something of the past is always hidden within them. Prejudices dragged through time without being examined or dispelled block judgment, obscure wisdom and corrode the fabric of democracy. When it comes to the situation of Roma in the European Union, the very real consequences of prejudice unchallenged are becoming all too apparent.

Without a doubt there are signs of progress, but nothing on the scale needed to make a difference to the lives of 10-12 million people. More worryingly we have seen anti-Roma prejudice contaminate mainstream politics, as politicians of both left and right scramble to outflank the neo-fascists and assorted extremist hate-mongers. Continued failure to deliver on the promise of inclusion to Europe’s largest ethnic minority could precipitate catastrophe. There is, however, nothing inevitable about this coming to pass.

Havel described the main challenge of the new democracies was to promote a climate where people would “act as citizens in the best sense of the word and drive out manifestations of intolerance.” Today this challenge remains as acute as ever for the entire European Union. The threat posed by a politics of hate needs to be faced and countered in every democratic polity. The task of progressive politics to shed light upon and to dispel prejudices has acquired a new urgency if Romani communities are to be spared another century of exclusion.

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