Wednesday, June 24, 2009
The plight of Europe's Roma
Recent attacks in Belfast show that discrimination against Roma is on the rise and that Europe must act now to protect them.
Tuesday June 23 2009
They are not the smallest nation of Europe, but they are among its most discriminated-against people. Events in south Belfast last week pointed up once more the plight of the Roma, who face discrimination and violence in some half-dozen countries of the EU.
This month's European parliamentary elections saw the return of two members of Hungary's Jobbik party on a blatantly anti-Roma ticket ? though they phrase their appeal as being against "Gypsy crime". Though the Roma have inspired generations of musicians in Hungary, violence against the Roma community there has become steadily more pronounced since the end of the cold war. In the early 1990s a Budapest punk band used to strut its stuff to such lyrics as "The flamethrower is the only weapon I need / All Gypsy adults and children we'll exterminate".
Attacks on Hungarian Roma have been increasing and there have been seven gruesome murders in under a year. The Hungarian Guard, a paramilitary movement associated with Jobbik, is accused of a string of attacks on Roma including burning families out of their houses. Similar attacks have been reported in the Czech Republic, where Roma have been forced into some 300 ghettos in the past decade.
The BBC reported that several of the Roma women attacked in Belfast wanted to return to Romania as they believed they would get better treatment there. The problem is that the attitudes against the Roma have been hardening in eastern Europe as much as in western Europe. The European parliament has passed a powerful resolution to ensure equal opportunities and rights for the Roma, but with very little practical result.
The resolution passed by the Strasbourg parliament in November 2007 followed the furore in Italy after the wife of an Italian naval officer, Giovanna Reggiani, was raped and murdered as she walked from a suburban railway station in Rome. The following day police raided a number of Roma squats and camps on the outskirts of the capital and a 24-year-old Roma, Nicolae Romulus Mailat from Vurpar in Romania, was arrested and charged. Demands for the "return" of Roma to Romania grew, and when Silvio Berlusconi returned to office in May 2008 he proposed registering and fingerprinting anyone identified as a "Gypsy".
The following summer, thugs, abetted by Camorra gangster bosses, trashed Roma camps in and around Naples. One of the charges levelled against the "zingari" of Naples was that a Roma adolescent had broken into an apartment in one of the better-heeled parts of the city to seize a baby. Such charges against marginal social groups are very common, and in Italy it was seized on to justify raids on around 700 Roma encampments and shanty towns.
As the Belfast incidents illustrate, the Roma face irrational fear and prejudice. They are one of the most elusive cultures of Europe: loosely bound by a common sense of identity and a collection of common tastes and expression, most notably in wonderful music. No one knows how many there are, nor where exactly they came from. Estimates of their numbers vary between 4 and 12 million, because Roma are fearful of identifying themselves in official census returns, particularly in southern and eastern Europe.
Migrations of some of the Roma started from India and south-west Asia in the dying days of the Roman Empire ? hence the name "Roma", from "Rumelia", the old medieval term for the rump of the Byzantine Empire in the Balkans. One group was supposed to have hailed from Egypt, hence "gitanos" in Spanish and the English term "gypsy". The pattern is one of a mosaic, with no one dominant language, ethnicity, or even faith; some now arriving in northern Europe are Muslim, while others are Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant.
In Communist eastern Europe the Roma did relatively well in terms of state assistance, but in recent years they have fallen desperately behind. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia male Roma unemployment can be as high as 70%. Educational standards have dropped, and girls as young as 12 are still subject to forced marriages.
Some of the most serious prejudice is silent. The BBC persisted in referring to the victims of the Belfast bully gangs as "Romanian", not mention their Roma status for some days. Viktoria Mohacsi, a Roma member of the European parliament, says that the Hungarian police often refuse to recognise the recent attacks on her community as hate crimes. "They said it was illegal moneylenders or that it was Roma killing each other."
The Economist last year described the Roma as Europe's "bottom of the heap", pointing out that their treatment was both shameful and wildly impractical ? "excluding an Ireland?size group of millions from the labour market? is a colossal waste of human potential".
Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009
Posted by Morgan at 3:31 PM