Hard Times, Hardening Attitudes

The following originally appeared in European Voice. Open Society co-sponsored the European Roma Summit.

On March 2, thousands of Hungarians gathered in the small Hungarian village of Tatárszentgyörgy to attend the funeral of a father and his five-year-old son, the latest victims in a wave of firebomb, grenade, and gun attacks that have targeted Roma across Hungary this past year.

Robika and his father Robert were gunned down on February 23 as they fled from their blazing home. This appalling murder occurred against a backdrop of widespread anti-Roma sentiment, increasing intimidation, and far-right paramilitarism, fueled by prejudiced media reporting. Tension has been especially high in Hungary since the murder of well-known Romanian handball player Marian Cozma in Veszprém on February 8. At the memorial for Cozma there were cries of “death to Gypsies!” even before police announced that two of the suspects in the attack were indeed Roma. Zsolt Bayer wrote in the daily Magyar Hírlap that “a huge number of Gypsies have given up on coexistence and given up on their humanity.”

Vladimír Špidla, the European commissioner, was right when, in response to the killing of the Csorbas, he said that “Roma have become the target of organized racist violence—fed by political populism, hate speech and media hype... and are being made scapegoats for wider societal problems.”

These attitudes are not confined to Hungary. Last November, a pitched battle broke out in the Czech Republic as riot police prevented a 500-strong neo-fascist mob from attacking a Roma neighborhood in the outskirts of Litvínov. Last month, the leader of Bulgaria's main opposition party referred to Roma, Turks, and others as “bad human material.”

UN Special Rapporteur Miloon Kothari has warned against the “undeniable growth of anti-Romany sentiment” across Europe, noting that “the actions of many public authorities—particularly at the local level—have been to acquiesce in this intensification of anti-Romany hatred.”

The situation has been particularly troubling in Italy. The brutal murder of an Italian woman in November 2007 sparked a wave of arson attacks and mob violence directed against Roma living in camps. Tensions intensified leading up to the April 2008 general election, as Silvio Berlusconi's campaign promised a clampdown on “Roma, clandestine immigrants, and criminals.” Meanwhile, his coalition's candidate for mayor of Rome pledged the expulsion of “20,000 nomads and immigrants who have broken the law.” In the wake of the burning of an illegal camp in Naples, the head of the right-wing, anti-immigrant Northern League party, Umberto Bossi, argued the attack was understandable, saying: “People are going to do what the political class cannot.” While the Italian interior minister's plans to fingerprint all Roma living in camps, including children, drew fire from EU politicians and human-rights groups, powerful politicians are increasingly committed to racist anti-Roma policies.

Anti-Gypsyism must be recognized by all member states as a distinct and long-established species of racism prevalent across Europe. In 1938, Hannah Arendt wrote: “That the Jews are the source of anti-Semitism is the malicious and stupid insight of anti-Semites.” As though nothing was learned from these dark times of the twentieth century, today we again hear a strident populist chorus blaming Roma for the discrimination they endure and the hatred and prejudice heaped upon them.

Hard times beget hardening attitudes, and there is a danger of increased tension and polarization in society. Speaking for the EU, Špidla has stated that “we must deliver on our commitment” made to the Roma in September. Then, at the first-ever European Roma Summit, the prime ministers of ten European countries pledged to close the gap between Roma and non-Roma in health, education, housing, and employment. That call for an end to the stigmatization of Roma needs to be heard more forcefully in this time of crisis.

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