Europe’s Forgotten Citizens

Three years ago, there were 10,000 Roma living in Germany. Today, there are only 7,000 left. Out of the approximately 2,500 who returned to Kosovo and Serbia in accordance with the 2010 re-admission agreement between Germany and Serbia, only 35 did so voluntarily.

I am, whatever you say I am

Numbering approximately 10 million people, the Roma constitute Europe’s largest ethnic minority. The European Commission uses the name “Roma” as an “umbrella term including groups of people who share more or less similar cultural characteristics and a history of marginalization in European societies”. They include Roma, Sinti, Travellers, Sahkali and Kalé, among others.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia, © 2011, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia, © 2011, some rights reserved.

In Western European countries, the Roma are commonly associated with begging on street corners, playing music on trains and trams, or for cleaning the windshields of cars stuck in traffic. Many citizens of Western European countries tend to associate the Roma with laziness and illegality, such that in 2009, France closed a number of what it deemed illegal Roma camps and expelled their inhabitants.

Overall, 10,000 Roma were sent to Romania and Bulgaria from France that year. As seen above, Germany followed suit and so did Denmark, albeit on a lower scale. Finland threatened similar expulsions in 2010 as well. As a result, according to Thomas Hammarberg, Commissioner for Human Rights to the Council of Europe from 2006 to 2012, “Roma migrants are returned by force to places where they are at risk of human rights violations”.

Violence and discrimination

Since 2008, the European Roma Rights Centre has registered 48 violent attacks on Roma in Hungary, 19 in the Czech Republic and ten in Slovakia. In 2012 and 2013, Greece witnessed a series of pogrom-like attacks against a Roma community in Etoliko, a village in western Greece. Amnesty International reported that one such attack on the 4th of January 2013 included 70 people, who threw Molotov cocktails, stones and wooden planks at Roma homes.

The Czech Republic is even known to have constructed walls around Roma communities to contain the security threat they allegedly pose to neighboring communities. Furthermore, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia are known to have permitted the practice of forced sterilisation on over 90,000 women to date (including those cases which occurred before the break-up of Czechoslovakia in 1990).

Outbreaks of violence and instances of discrimination are accompanied by an increased prominence of political parties on the right-hand side of the political spectrum. In Hungary, Jobbik, an extremist party with an anti-Romani platform, won four seats in the European Parliament in 2009 and 47 in the national elections of 2010. That same year, Teodor Baconschi, the Foreign Minister of Romania, went on record suggesting that the Roma were genetically predisposed to criminality.

The Roma expelled from Germany in recent years have similarly found themselves in a hostile environment in Kosovo. Large numbers of Roma now live in a makeshift camp in Mitrovica, situated in close proximity to an old lead mine. Contaminated soil and leaking toxins cause headaches, stunted growth, high blood pressure, epilepsy, diarrhea, vomiting and hysteria, among other symptoms, among camp inhabitants. According to Isabel Fonseca of The Guardian, children born in the camps inescapably suffer from brain damage.

The “litmus test”

Vaclav Havel, the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic, once argued that the fate of the Roma would be the “litmus test” for Europe’s new democracies. It could not be any less obvious that Europe has failed, shamefully so, to pass this test and that it continues to project this failure into the future.

The aforementioned instances of discrimination, the deportations from Western Europe and the violence in Central and Eastern Europe, have been repeatedly criticised by the European Union (EU) and the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding went so far as to label the expulsions of Roma from France a “disgrace”.

Yet instances of mass expulsion of Roma from Western Europe and of the construction of walls around their communities in Central and Eastern Europe have at no point elicited the term “ethnic cleansing” or a similar reference to United Nations General Assembly Resolution 47/80 of 1992 from a state member or an official representative of the European Union. Neither has forced sterilisations, which clearly represent an instance of Art. 2(d) of the 1948 Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, elicited the term “genocide”.

To be fair, the EU rightfully points to its 2004 Free Movement Directive, which provides every EU citizen the right to reside in any other EU member state for only three months without any requirement other than a valid passport. It has also invested €275 million from its Structural Fund on projects targeting the Roma between 2000 and 2006, in addition to a further €1 billion on vulnerable groups including the Roma.

Shame on the EU

Yet these measures are clearly not working. For stays that exceed three months, EU citizens are required to prove that they are not a burden to the state. Many Roma cannot fulfill this requirement and the investments of the Structural Fund have achieved little in this regard. What is more, the EU is fully aware of the “implementation gap” that afflicts EU legislation prohibiting discrimination on grounds of ethnic origin. Yet, in response, the European Commission argues that, “Responsibility for most central areas for Roma inclusion lies primarily with Member States”.

To date, 77% of EU citizens believe that being Roma is a disadvantage in society, on par with suffering from a disability, which 79% of EU citizens believe to be a disadvantage in society.[1] And indeed, life for the Roma is more difficult by most indices on health, education, employment, and housing.

The plight of the Roma has hardly featured in any of the campaigns for the upcoming European parliamentary elections in May and it is shamefully unlikely that this is about to change in the future. The Roma are and remain, in the words of Equal Opportunities Commissioner Vladimir Špidla, “Europe’s forgotten citizens

IPF Reposted

[1] Note that it is „in“ not „to“.

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