First they came for the Roma: is history repeating itself for the forgotten victims of the Holocaust?
´Gypsy scum. Thieving tinkers. Workshy beggars. Child stealers´. A worrying program of ethnic cleansing is being carried out by governments across Europe. But while six centuries of negative stereotyping persists, who will defend Roma from further persecution?
In what looks increasingly like a pre-planned ´clean-up operation´, thousands of European Roma – usually referred to by the derogatory ´gypsies´- are being subjected to terrible treatment at the hands of the state, not to mention many vigilante mobs. But with so many deeply-entrenched negative feelings about this ethnic minority in the collective European mind, most people don´t care very much.
In Italy, violent evictions of Roma camps have been taking place since 2008, despite a ruling by Italy’s high court that these government crackdowns are unlawful. In France, Roma camp evictions began last year.70% of camps were razed in 2012, displacing over 12,000 Roma, and in one city locals took matters into their own hands and set fire to a settlement.
Thousands more Roma families have been displaced this year, and the trend looks set to continue- even French media are printing headlines about a ´Roma overdose´, and a facebook page called ´adopt a gypsy´ was at the center of another row about Roma rights in August, with one blogger speaking of ´eliminating´ the ethnic minority.
In October, French students took to the streets to demand the return of a 15 year-old Romany schoolgirl who was detained and deported during a school trip. Leonarda Dibrani, of Kosovan heritage, had been studying in France while her family awaited news of their asylum claim It was rejected, so police stormed Leonarda´s school bus on a field trip, forcibly removing and arresting her. The handling of the case caused unnecessary public humiliation and trauma for everyone involved – even Leonarda´s teachers were distressed and crying.
The incident, and subsequent violent clashes on the streets between police and students (video) came after one French politician said that most of France´s 20,000 Roma do not want to integrate, and should go home.
But how can they integrate when they are hated- and where is home anyway? As Leonarda told a Kosovan news agency (in French) after deportation: “I’m frightened, I don’t speak Albanian. My life is in France. I don’t want to go to school here because I don’t speak any of the local languages.”
The European financial crisis has fuelled racism and given rise to neo-fascism across the continent, providing governments with a convenient reason (amid widespread public support) for the toughening-up of immigration laws. Roma are an easy first target: by many, they are feared (and therefore hated). As a result, too many people lack the empathy and understanding to recognize how unjust the current wave of anti-Roma policies really are- or to ask themselves why Roma are living in camps in the first place.
Comment threads on Roma-related articles show that most Europeans do not see any misplaced racism and prejudice. Non-Roma complain how ´gypsies´never work, how they are dirty and unhygienic, how their camps ruin the countryside and how their children never go to school. They complain that most Roma are drug dealers and pick-pockets without considering that with 90% of all Roma living below the poverty line, crime could be seen as a logical consequence of exclusion and desperation. Roma are also criticized for their tendency to live in very closed communities, their hostile attitudes towards the rest of society, and their unwillingness to integrate.
But Roma have been imprisoned, enslaved, murdered, and denied basic human rights for more than six centuries in Europe, so how can we expect them to show us any respect?
Historians believe this colorful tribe migrated slowly to Europe from Northern India, as refugees fleeing a Muslim invasion in the eleventh century. It is thought that the Roma might trace their ancestry back to the Banjara tribe of Rajasthan- a people known as ´The Gypsies of India´. Seeing their dark eyes and hair, native Europeans first assumed they were Egyptian and variations of this led to the word Gypsy. For 200 years they were reasonably well received, with a reputation for being highly skilled and very creative- traditionally many Roma were musicians, metalworkers and craftsmen.
But within a couple of centuries, laws were passed prohibiting marriage between Roma and non-Roma, and so began a horrific campaign of hatred against them which continues to this day. For 500 years Roma were sold into slavery, and in various countries Roma women were often forcibly sterilized (in the Czech republic this happened as recently as the 1970s). Millions of Roma were deported, their language and culture was criminalized, and they were hanged or otherwise executed in countries all over Europe, including the UK. Like the Jews, the Roma were implicated in Jesus´s crucifixion and accused of cannibalism. The myth that Roma like to kidnap white children began in the middle ages as a smear campaign and is perpetuated to this day through ongoing ignorance and segregation.
The Roma were also the forgotten victims of the Holocaust, with an estimated 500,000 gassed in Hitler´s concentration camps. Millions more were exiled, beaten and starved, with at least one case of a heavily pregnant Romany woman shot dead with her child still kicking inside her. At Buchenwald, 250 Roma children were used as guinea-pigs to test Zyklon-B. Historians estimate that two million Roma (between 25% and 70% of the entire population in Europe at that time) were murdered during World War 2.
Sometimes the darkest periods of human history serve as crucial lessons for future generations, helping us to build a more tolerant and progressive society. The horrific fate of Jews during the Holocaust is a case in point, and thankfully it is now impossible to imagine how widespread antisemitism could lead to the genocide of millions.
But for the Roma- whose Holocaust memorial was only opened in October this year- little has changed. And while the German chancellor Angela Merkel waxed lyrical about the horrors Roma had suffered at Hitler´s hands, local German governments were working hard to prevent Roma immigration and thousands of Roma children were being made homeless all over Europe. Not only that, but there were even some worrying cases of government-organized child abduction.
Child snatching by the state
A fair-haired little girl called Maria hit headlines around the globe when she was seized from another organized raid at a Roma camp in Greece, also in October. Her dark-skinned parents insisted they had adopted her- but with no papers to prove it, Maria was assumed to be a victim of kidnapping. She was removed from their care, and a worldwide hunt for her real parents was launched. Extensive media coverage of the event, in which Maria was dubbed ´the blonde angel´, exposed a deep and widespread mistrust, ignorance and stereotyping of Roma people across Europe- if not in the articles themselves, then certainly in the comment threads below.
But the Greek family were telling the truth- a Bulgarian Romany woman´s DNA tests proved that she was Maria´s biological mother. She explained how she had given her baby to the Greek couple because she was too poor to raise a child. Despite the fact nobody has any evidence to suggest little Maria wasn´t perfectly happy and settled before the raid, and despite the fact informal adoption is perfectly normal in Roma culture, Maria was never returned to the care of her adoptive parents. Instead she was taken- terrified and alone, only able to understand Roma- to a ´crisis centre´ to await adoption (with a white family, no doubt). Meanwhile, Maria´s adoptive Greek Roma parents have been charged with child abduction and are in prison awaiting their trial.
In Ireland, also in October, ministers were embarrassed after ordering similar raids on Roma camps and seizing two blonde- haired children who they also assumed had been kidnapped. But in these cases, DNA tests showed the Roma parents were in fact biological. This led to a much-needed debate about blatant racism – would the same wild assumptions have been made if a dark-skinned child had been found living with a white family? Pavee Point, an advocacy group for Irish Roma, referred to the incidents as a clear case of ´state abduction´.
Whether we like to admit it or not, that´s exactly what they were. And other events (such as the attempted abduction of a blonde Romany boy in Serbia in 2002) add to the evidence that what we are witnessing now is simply an explosion of centuries-old, deep-seated collective racism and a sense of white superiority.
Roma children in schools for the mentally disabled
And so the prejudice continues, with the life expectancy of an average Romany 10 to 15 years lower than that of other Europeans. Eastern countries are traditionally home to most Roma communities, but discrimination there is even worse. In Serbia, city authorities have forced more than 1,000 Roma out of a settlement without giving a reason, moving many families into segregated metal containers scattered around the capital.
In the Czech republic, 91% of citizens admitted to having negative feelings towards Roma. This widespread culture of discrimination could account for the fact that 75% of all Roma children there are sent to schools for children with learning difficulties. This problem- labelling Roma children as retarded simply because they speak another language and dress differently- is echoed throughout Eastern Europe, with Romania, the Czech republic, Hungary and Slovakia all accused of maltreatment of Roma children through both ethnic segregation (pupils are prevented from mixing with non-Roma children) and the tendency to give Roma children a sub-standard education in schools for the mentally impaired.
In Hungary, Roma families regularly suffer violence from vigilante mobs, but victims are unlikely to find sympathy from the Hungarian police because 54% of officers believe criminality to be a key part of Roma culture. This kind of institutional racism makes it acceptable for even politicians to make vile remarks. One mayor of a town in Slovakia reportedly said: “I am no racist … but some Gypsies you would have to shoot.”
Hatred of the other is born of fear and ignorance, and this kind of unhelpful comment is a huge barrier to mutual understanding and eventual integration. But while it´s true that many Roma don´t want to be part of our society, who can blame them considering the horrific things inflicted on them throughout their tragic history? Bearing that in mind, shouldn´t the responsibility to reach out and find common ground lie with the oppressor, not the oppressed?
So what´s the solution? Integration begins with acceptance, which over time can lead to eventual celebration of minority culture. Roma language could be taught in schools where Roma communities exist for example, in the same way Spanish taught in American schools can act as a bridge between Latino immigrants and the native population.
Spain´s mainstream Gitano culture: an example to the world
Spain is home to an estimated one million Roma, and is an excellent example of how integration is possible. In fact, the traditional image of Spain: soul stirring flamenco guitar, dark-skinned exotic dancers with long frilled skirts- is in reality Roma culture. Native Roma identify themselves as Gitanos (Spanish for gypsy, and not an offensive term in this case). Their native tongue is Spanish, and dating and marriage between Roma and non-Roma is perfectly normal. Nearly all Roma children in Spain finish primary school, and although in 1978 three-quarters of Spain’s Roma lived in substandard housing, today just 12% do.
Why? Because Gitano culture- largely through flamenco music- was accepted in mainstream Spanish society, to the point where Gitano culture became Spanish culture, particularly in Southern Spain (a region called Andalusia). In fact, celebrated Spanish (non-Roma) poet Federico García Lorca once said: “The Roma is the most basic, most profound, the most aristocratic of my country, as representative of their way and whoever keeps the flame, blood, and the alphabet of the universal Andalusian truth.”
The unique situation in Spain should give us hope, not hatred. It demonstrates how acceptance and celebration of a different culture gives Roma pride and a sense of self-worth- resulting in high social achievement and natural inclusion.
Note: In this article I use Romany (singular) and Roma (plural), as these are the terms usually used to distinguish European Roma, but the terms Romanies or Romanis are also frequently used. This article was first published on True Activist here, with some comments kind of proving my point. If you want to comment here, please be thoughtful!