Can Europe Make It?

Eyes wide shut: collective punishment of Roma in 21st-century Europe

75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, despite the EU Framework for Roma Integration which closes this year, anti-Roma racism has spiked across the continent.

Bernard Rorke
Bernard Rorke
24 January 2020
April 20, 2018, Sofia, Bulgaria. Residents watch as bulldozers raze homes in the Roma quarter.
April 20, 2018, Sofia, Bulgaria. Residents watch as bulldozers raze homes in the Roma quarter.
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Jodi Hilton/PA. All rights reserved.

Mob violence and collective punishment against Roma in countries such as Bulgaria, Italy, France and Ukraine do not occur in a vacuum – such intimidation is politically orchestrated. Seventy-five years after the liberation of Auschwitz, antigypsyism is an obscenity, a stain on the European Union and democratic values. It’s time to call it out and combat it more forcefully. The message to mainstream political parties for 2020 is simple: eyes wide shut is no longer an option; failure to act against far-right nativism, and the racism that comes with it, amounts to complicity.

Last March, the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) published a fact sheet on mob violence and collective punishment and warned of the threats facing Roma communities in countries where antigypsyism has been mainstreamed as an ‘acceptable form of racism’. Unfortunately, this warning proved to be all too prescient. The 2019 EU election campaigns coincided with a spike in mob attacks against Roma in Bulgaria, France and Italy.

April 2019 witnessed violent attacks on Roma homes and property in the Bulgarian town of Gabrovo by gangs of young men, following ‘spontaneous’ protests. Together with the vicious assaults on vulnerable Roma in Paris and Rome, these outrages served as a grim reminder that antigypsyism won’t be wished away. Growing far-right mobilization against ‘ethnic replacement’, multiculturalism and minorities, means that Roma will continue to be singled out for collective blame and collective punishment by cynical nativist politicians and neo-fascist mobsters.

A short history of persecution

There is nothing new about this kind of anti-Roma racism: the parallels with antisemitic violence in the last century are worthy of note. The word pogrom usually evokes memories of atrocities committed by roving bands of Jew-haters such as the Black Hundreds, amidst the collapse of the Russian empire; and it was the Kishiniev pogrom of 1903 that “ushered in the start of pogroms as a national institution”, and offered “a jarring glimpse of what the new century might well hold in store”. Roma would also be singled out for collective punishment throughout the twentieth century, victims of public cruelty orchestrated with official connivance, targeted because of their pariah status and their ethnicity.

There is nothing new about this kind of anti-Roma racism: the parallels with antisemitic violence in the last century are worthy of note.

As the Romani academic Ian Hancock has shown, the imagining of Roma as hostile non-Christian pariahs has a long history; while Jews were Christ-killers in the eyes of anti-Semites, Roma were accused of forging the nails with which Christ was crucified. And while Jews were accused of drinking the blood of Christian babies in secret rites, Roma were likewise charged with stealing and even eating those babies. The grim genealogy of Roma persecution stretches from officially sanctioned ‘Gypsy-hunts’ and edicts of banishment in the seventeenth century to mass extermination in the mid-twentieth century Holocaust, and persecution and expulsion in the course of ethnic cleansing at the end of the millennium.

The twentieth century closed with the last Balkan war, and the Roma in Kosovo were caught between, and victimised by paramilitary combatants from both sides. In a wave of ‘reverse ethnic cleansing’ at the end of the war, Albanian extremists raped and murdered Roma, mobs plundered and burnt down entire Romani neighbourhoods, forcing thousands to flee for their lives and precipitating the forced migration of as many as 100,000 Roma from Kosovo.

After the fall of the dictatorship in Romania, Roma became targets in the 1990s for communal violence and collective punishment, which sometimes culminated in the expulsion of entire communities. On September 20, 1993, following a fatal stabbing incident, three Romani men were killed by a mob in the village of Hadareni. During the pogrom, 13 Romani houses were set on fire and destroyed and four other dwellings were seriously damaged. A sense of just how perilous the situation was for Roma in Romania can be garnered from a 1994 Human Rights Watch report:

Mob violence . . . reveals a type of lynch law that is often supported by the local government. The local authorities are, in some cases, active participants in the violence, but more frequently are involved in creating the climate of extrajudicial abuse of Roma, and are active participants in the obstruction of justice after the crimes have been committed. This jeopardises the safety of Roma in Romania and has set a dangerous precedent for the rule of law.

Reports from the time indicate that police were frequently slow to arrive at the scene of the violence, and typically would not intervene to protect the Roma being attacked. In a macabre echo of earlier pogroms, it was reported that mobs of villagers assembled to the sound of church bells before descending upon Roma neighbourhoods to beat, burn and loot.

In a macabre echo of earlier pogroms, it was reported that mobs of villagers assembled to the sound of church bells before descending upon Roma neighbourhoods to beat, burn and loot.

In April 2017, in a chilling echo of the early 1990s, a mob of ethnic Hungarians descended on the Roma neighbourhood in Gheorgheni, after local media identified two Romani children as the culprits in a theft. According to a journalist who was later expelled from the area, Romani families were dragged from their homes in five locations, and then beaten by the mob before their houses were set alight. Afterwards, the mayor Zoltán Nagy expressed his regret at the 'unpleasant' situation brought about by Romani aggression, and described the theft which triggered the attack as ‘the last straw’.

And more than a century after the Kishiniev pogrom, Ukrainian neo-fascist paramilitaries such as C14, who boast of their cooperation with local authorities, posted videos on social media of their ‘cleansing operations’: armed attacks on Roma encampments, where the gangs destroyed and set fire to shacks, and set about beating and forcing Roma families to flee into the forests. In June 2018, one such midnight attack near Kviv claimed the life of a 24-year-old Rom stabbed to death by masked assailants, and left four others wounded, including a 10-year-old boy. As in the past, official collusion and inaction has created a climate of impunity.

Bulgaria and 'exceptionally insolent Gypsies'

In an era when far-right forces have been in the ascendant, antigypsyism is now ‘mainstreamed’, and it is no longer the preserve of Nazi sociopaths. Government ministers in Sofia get acquitted of hate speech charges for describing Roma as “brazen, feral, human-like creatures”, and suggesting that Romani women “have the instincts of stray bitches”. The minister in question, Patriot Front henchman, Valeri Simeonov, was actually appointed to head Bulgaria’s council on integration; his party previously called for the demolition of ‘Gypsy ghettos’ and the isolation of Roma in closed ’reservations’ that could generate income as tourist attractions.

In an era when far-right forces have been in the ascendant, antigypsyism is now ‘mainstreamed’, and it is no longer the preserve of Nazi sociopaths.

The ‘spontaneous’ attacks on Roma neighbourhoods in early 2019 were coordinated by a combination of far-right militants and football ultras. Deputy Prime Minister Krasimir Karakachanov, head of the extremist Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization party (IMRO), upped the tension during this unrest by calling for harsh measures “because Gypsies in Bulgaria have become exceptionally insolent”. This call was followed by the local authorities ordering the demolition of fifteen family dwellings in a Roma neighbourhood by the authorities as a form of collective punishment in January.

Video footage of the violence in Gabrovo showed the mob attacking houses, throwing rocks through the windows and demolishing their chimneys, while bystanders cheered and applauded. On the back of protests bizarrely billed as “say no to aggression”, Romani children were forced to stay home from school for their own safety, and some families fled to other towns to stay with relatives.

France and the ‘Gypsy hunt’

In France, government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux condemned the series of 25 attacks against Roma between 25 March and 9 April around the outskirts of Paris as an “absolutely unacceptable targeting of the Roma community”. This ‘Gypsy hunt’ was sparked by coordinated hoax reports on social media alleging that Roma people in a white van were abducting children and planned to rape them or sell their organs.

But many vividly remember that the official face of ‘the Gypsy hunt’ in France was former President Sarkozy, whose policy of dawn raids and demolitions of camps followed by swift mass deportations prompted condemnation from the European Parliament in 2010 for the “the inflammatory and openly discriminatory rhetoric lending credibility to racist statements and the actions of extreme right-wing groups”.

Critics from within Sarkozy’s own party described the policy as ‘shocking’. Jean-Pierre Grand even said the round-ups recalled the mass incarcerations of French Roma during the Nazi occupation, who were kept in internment camps for two years after the liberation. He was upset “that families have been split up by security personnel – on one side the men, on the other the women, and they are threatened with being split up from their children.”

Likewise in 2013, former Prime Minister Valls, then Interior Minister, declared that the majority of Roma “could never integrate” into French society, that Roma lifestyles were "clearly in confrontation" with French ways of life, and that “the majority [of Roma] should be delivered back to the borders. We are not here to welcome these people.” In France and across Europe, it is clear that ‘official antigypsyism’ lends legitimacy to violent acts against Roma perpetrated by extremist groups; it creates a permissive and enabling environment for pogroms, racist intimidation and terror.

In 2013, former Prime Minister Valls, then Interior Minister, declared that “the majority [of Roma] should be delivered back to the borders. We are not here to welcome these people.”

Italy: ‘those bastards must burn’

There is a clear link between Matteo Salvini’s talk of deporting irregular Roma and “a mass cleansing street by street, piazza by piazza”, and the later events in the rundown Torre Maura suburb of Rome. Screaming “those bastards must burn”, a 300-strong far right mob, backed by neo-fascist groups CasaPound and Forza Nuova, set fire to dumpsters and cars to prevent the placement of 70 Roma in a local reception centre. Riot police were forced to intervene as the crowd blocked firefighters at the scene. While CasaPound claimed a victory against “ethnic substitution”, the blame for the wider upsurge in anti-Roma violence lies squarely with the former interior minister Matteo Salvini.

This came soon after Italy’s intelligence agency warned of a possible rise in attacks on minorities in the run-up to the European elections, by a far right characterized “by a pronounced vitality”, and an increase in xenophobic propaganda. According to the European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR), much of the propaganda and lies emanate directly from the authorities.

A decade earlier, Prime Minister Berlusconi’s ‘Emergenca Nomadi’ with its demonization of Romani people, heralded a prolonged period of harassment, expulsions, mob violence and pogroms against Roma communities. In Ponticelli near Naples, in May 2008, after a 16-year-old Romani girl was charged with attempted kidnapping of a child, a 300-strong mob armed with baseball bats and Molotov cocktails razed the largest camp forcing Roma families to flee without their possessions through a gauntlet of violent locals. Images of burning camps and frightened faces of Roma children on pickups watching their former homes in flames made international media headlines.

Dismissing international criticism, Umberto Bossi stated that “People do what the state can’t manage” and Minister of Interior Roberto Maroni stated, “that is what happens when gypsies steal babies, or when Romanians commit sexual violence.” According to the results of a poll by the national Italian newspaper La Repubblica conducted in May 2008, 68% of Italians wanted to deal with the “Roma Gypsy problem” by expelling all of them.

Condemning government plans to fingerprint Romani children in June 2008, Amos Luzzato recalled the 1938 legal census of all foreign-born Jews which prepared the ground for the racial laws: "You start like this then you move on to the exclusion from schools, separated classes and widespread discrimination … I remember as a child being stamped and tagged as a Jew … Italy is a country that has lost its memory."

“I remember as a child being stamped and tagged as a Jew … Italy is a country that has lost its memory."

Europe’s shame 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz

What is especially troubling about the wider phenomenon of anti-Roma violence in recent years is the indifference and ambivalence of many majority populations towards the victims. Worse still, acts of violence often prompt open support from sections of the wider public for those who would mete out rough and ready “justice” and inflict collective punishment on Roma.

Beyond the violence, the beatings, burnings and murders, it is the everyday racism, the routine segregation in schools, towns and villages; the policies that forcibly evict and push Roma beyond the city limits, out of sight and out of mind, that cultivates complete indifference to their privations and suffering. This indifference, borne of decades of institutional discrimination and centuries of antigypsyism, amounts to complicity and nourishes what some have dubbed the “last acceptable form of racism” in Europe.

The February 2019 European Parliament resolution calling on member states to recognize and resolutely condemn antigypsyism as a particular form of racism, and to combat it with concrete measures was welcome. More than ever, it will be vital for the newly-elected Brussels parliamentarians to follow fine words with determined deeds, and show that there can be no place in European politics for the racist politics of hate and fear.

On the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, it is Europe’s shame that so many Romani citizens live lives of dread and fear in democracies whose leaders will solemnly proclaim ‘never again’.

On the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, it is Europe’s shame that so many Romani citizens live lives of dread and fear in democracies whose leaders will solemnly proclaim ‘never again’. Anti-Roma violence occurs where local and national politicians speak openly of the need to deal with “gypsies,” and often condone violent excesses as “understandable.” To this day, many nativist right-wing politicians both in government and opposition stand accused of incitement to racial hatred against Roma.

As we commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz on 27 January, democratically-elected governments must be mindful that their Romani citizens are survivors of a Holocaust that sought to wipe them off the face of the earth; and be reminded that it is the primary responsibility of those who govern, to combat anti-Roma racism, protect lives, promote respect and end the segregation and discrimination that blights so many Romani lives.

For more on collective punishment see the winter edition of Roma Rights Review

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