The Crime of Being Roma
By Zeljko Jovanovic
Collective guilt, vigilante justice, and the scapegoating of entire ethnic groups have no place in an open society.
These points are painfully obvious. But they are worth recalling now, as hate speech, violence and scapegoating of Europe’s most repressed people, its 12 million Roma, gain popular currency again. As someone who is proud to be of Romani decent and has worked for social justice for 15 years, I fear that reactions to the news from Greece of an alleged child abduction by a Roma couple could, when inflamed by irresponsible politicians and media, easily provoke widespread violence in the days ahead. Innocent people will pay the price for this careless spreading of myths and prejudice.
Some of the visible and reported consequences have already emerged. Prompted by events in Greece, the police in Ireland this week seized a young Roma girl from her family because she had blue eyes and blonde hair; a two-year old Roma boy was also seized from his parents in another part of Ireland. Both have been handed back to the Roma parents after DNA tests proved they were in fact their children as the parents had claimed. This unfair targeting of us Roma—something hard to imagine happening to another ethnic minority in Europe—though shocking for being carried out by officials of the Irish state, is only one example of a growing tide of anti-Roma sentiment.
The Roma have been and are still being scapegoated in countries all across Europe, including Italy, France, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania. Perhaps the worst of all is Hungary, where attacks on Roma villages, firebombings of Roma houses, and serial killings of Roma picked at random by right-wing extremists have occurred. Roma living for decades in neat houses in quiet neighborhoods have awakened in the morning to find leaflets in their mailboxes warning them that they will be burned out and sent to gas chambers. In Bulgaria, a fatal traffic accident was enough to produce nights of street disturbances by young Bulgarians venting their rage against “criminal gypsies.” In the summer of 2012, an off-duty police officer in Slovakia killed three people from a Roma community. Partisan media outlets continue to whip up hatred. Some elected officials and government employees have compared Roma with “animals.” Others have declared that Roma are incapable of coexisting with other Europeans. One of them was France’s minister of interior, a Socialist. This is not to be tolerated or allowed to pass without comment. Where appropriate, prosecution for violations of laws against hate speech should be undertaken.
It is a foregone conclusion that hatemongers and political leaders determined on scoring cheap points are going to seize upon incidents like those in Greece to continue to campaign against the Roma. With elections happening across Europe over the coming months and the European Parliamentary elections due to take place in May 2014, the political stakes are high. From France to Hungary, anti Roma rhetoric is already reaping political rewards for some parties. Inevitably, with the blessing of political legitimacy, anti Roma violence follows.
Only six decades ago hate mongers and political leaders sent more than half a million Roma to their deaths for the ‘collective crime’ of simply being Roma. It seems today Europeans have not yet learned these lessons.
Today in Europe, millions of Roma must navigate their way through life suffering illiteracy, unemployment, segregation in education, forced evictions and on average ten years lower life expectancy than the mainstream population due to hunger and malnutrition, squalid housing, and substandard medical health care. This is not the life of their choice. This is the life they are kept in.
For us Roma this case and others like it represent lessons, confirmations and reminders that we face fundamentally the same problems across Europe and that we must act together to demand justice, dignity, respect and fairness for every person. European elections are an opportunity to demonstrate that.