Europe’s State-Sanctioned Persecution of Roma People
This is the first part, in a three-part series on the Roma people in Europe. Roma, who are commonly referred to as “gypsies” though the term is often considered derogatory, face widespread and often state-sanctioned discrimination. Read part two here.
As the largest minority in Europe, Roma people continue to endure marginalizing and discrimination.
As anti-immigrant and nationalistic groups gain power and a degree of legitimacy across Europe, the Americas and parts of Asia, one of Europe’s most vulnerable and often forgotten minority groups, the Roma people, continue to be subjected to cultural prejudice, state-sponsored discrimination and economic inequality.
Who are the Roma People?
Roma people in Europe are commonly referred to as “gypsies” or another local equivalent, but this is a derogatory term that stems from the mistaken belief that Roma culture comes from Egypt. In fact, the Roma culture comes from the western part of the Indian subcontinent, and although they might not be as visible as some other minority groups, Roma are actually the largest ethnic minority in Europe, according to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Human Rights. This agency estimates that between 10 and 12 million Roma live in Europe.
Roma communities have arguably dealt with more atrocities, racism and prejudice than any other group in Europe, but many people are either unaware of this circumstance or choose to ignore the situation. Racism against the Roma is one of the last “acceptable” forms of bigotry in Europe, and it is not uncommon to hear slurs against the Roma in classrooms, business luncheons and even from the mouths of established politicians on both the left and the right.
Jonathan Lee, who works with the human rights organization European Roma Rights Centre, explained to Citizen Truth, “It’s hard to find the origins of anti-gypsyism because it is something that has grown with us in Europe, inside our societies. Discrimination against Roma is not just racism; when we talk about anti-gypsyism as a concept, it is a fundamental component of Europe, which has grown alongside European civilization. It’s the staggering, systematic depth of it that sets it apart.”
Lee also discussed the lack of access to basic services and overall lower quality of life that Roma individuals must face due to deeply entrenched systems of discrimination.
“It is the unequal access to clean water, to safe housing. It is the geographical segregation of Roma from non-Roma. The drastically lower life expectancy. The extreme unemployment. The horrific level of infant mortality. You end up with institutional prejudices in the police, judiciary, government, social care system, immigration authorities and health services. It is the fundamental condition in the collective European psyche that sees them as ‘gypsies,’ and therefore on a basic level, less than us.”
History of Roma People
Roma have faced intense persecution and prejudice since they first arrived in Europe during the 14th century. They were banned from the Holy Roman Empire during the 16th century, and as a result of this edict, any citizen of the Empire was allowed and encouraged to murder any Roma individual they encountered.
During the Holocaust, Roma communities were targeted to more or less the same extent as Jewish communities, and the Nazi genocide against the Roma people left nearly a quarter of Europe’s Roma population dead. However, in modern discussions about the Holocaust this fact is almost always either forgotten or only mentioned in passing.
Roma are normally stereotyped in the same way that other groups who face discrimination are portrayed: They’re depicted as thieves, drug dealers and criminals. The way that mainstream European society characterizes Roma culture is eerily similar to the way black Americans were treated during the Jim Crow era and to some extent now. These false racial stereotypes have extremely dangerous consequences for both communities. Law enforcement target the Roma and hold them accountable for crimes they didn’t commit, and vigilantes victimize them.
Fake News and Hate Crimes Target the Roma in France
In France radical news outlets and social media accounts have recently been spreading lies accusing Roma men in vans of kidnapping French children. This has led to numerous racially motivated attacks against Roma people occurring in the Paris suburbs. This situation has gotten so bad that the French police urged the public to stop spreading this misinformation.
The Paris Police Prefecture recently tweeted: “Rumors about kidnapping children with a van are completely unfounded. No abductions have been proven. Do not share this false information, do not incite violence.” Fake news and misuse of social media is a growing social concern, and the targets of these lies are often minority groups who are then forced to confront verbal and physical abuse as a result of bigoted individuals spreading falsehoods.
Like many countries in Europe, France has been involved in the mistreatment of Roma people for centuries. Louis XIV, who was the King of France during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, decreed that all Roma men be conscripted for forced labor and all Roma women be forcibly sterilized.
More recently, Nicolas Sarkozy’s government expelled tens of thousands of Roma from France during his presidency, a measure that was met with intense criticism from many human rights organizations such as the European Roma Rights Center. European Union law prohibits racially motivated mass expulsions, yet France deported Roma families due to their ethnicity for several years. French immigration officials also failed to individually review each case before beginning the deportation process, which also violates European Union legal codes.
Lee discussed the reluctance of European Union officials to initiate legal proceedings against countries like France, stating, “Increasingly it seems as if there is one rule for the big four of Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Italy, and another for the rest of the union.”
A leaked internal memo dated August 5, 2010, and signed by the chief of staff for then interior minister Brice Hortefeux reminded French immigration officials that “Three hundred camps or illegal settlements must be evacuated within three months; Roma camps are a priority. It is down to the préfect [state representative] in each department to begin a systematic dismantling of the illegal camps, particularly those of the Roma.” The memo also indicated that this plan was a “specific objective” President Sarkozy laid out.
People often think that this type of institutionalized racial hatred is almost nonexistent in western Europe and most developed democracies, but this is far from the case. France still has a long way to go before it can fully leave its past behind, and unfortunately many other European nations also need to make addressing these issues a priority.
Italy and ‘The Roma Question’
France isn’t the only European country that has engaged in racially motivated mass deportations. Matteo Salvini, Italy’s far-right Minister of the Interior, provoked a massive outcry last year when he announced his plan to expel all non-Italian Roma from the country after initiating a special census to determine which Roma people would be allowed to stay in Italy. He claimed that this would finally “answer the Roma question,” which brings to mind disturbing correlations to the Holocaust, which was labelled the “final solution to the Jewish question” in Nazi Germany.
Unfortunately, Salvini’s fascist leanings don’t stop there. He has also publicly praised former Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and there are many disturbing similarities between his leadership style and those of the late fascist strongman and Hitler ally. As far-right political views continue to increase in popularity among the Italian public, the future sadly does not look bright for Roma living in Italy.
Nationalist Fervor Stokes Racial Discrimination of Roma People
Eastern Europe has some of the highest populations of Roma people on the continent, but in an area troubled by issues such as poverty, corruption and extreme nationalism this huge population faces terrifying oppression, often by groups working for the government or at least operating with government approval.
The situation for the Roma population in Hungary is particularly dire, as the country’s far-right movement has recently enjoyed a huge surge in power and popularity. The country’s premier, Viktor Orbán, calls immigration “poison” and used his power to build a gigantic fence along Hungary’s Serbian border. Following the fence’s construction, he congratulated himself, claiming to have “stopped the migrant invasion.” He has become the darling of far-right demagogues worldwide, counting Marine LePen and Geert Wilders among his admirers and appealing so much to foreign white supremacist movements that neo-Nazis and other hate groups have called for a mass migration to Hungary, a “racially pure” country.
However, the right-wing message of Orbán’s Fidesz party, which was recently suspended from the European People’s Party, pales in comparison to the rhetoric of Jobbik, Hungary’s ultra-right political party. The party is particularly powerful in the town of Tiszavasvari, where non-police “gendarmes” patrol the streets with the goal of targeting Roma to suppress crime. These gendarmes bear an eerie similarity both in name and tactics to the Csendorseg, a national group responsible for the deportations of countless numbers of Roma and Jews during the Holocaust.
A Hungarian with Transylvanian roots who prefers to remain anonymous about the plight of the Roma in his country wants to learn more about the stereotypes and prejudices that fuel so much anti-Roma hatred in Hungary. He told Citizen Truth he believes the problem is a “two-headed monster,” and that “there are problems with the Hungarian government’s approach, but the gypsies cause just as many problems for themselves and others.”
He disclosed that most Hungarians are of the opinion that “Roma people don’t go to school, they rob and steal, they don’t ever work, and anything that they have they’ve either robbed, stolen, or gotten by trickery.” According to him, the only positive image most Hungarians have of Roma culture is a stereotypical pastoral scene of Roma children in front of a caravan dancing around their father while he plays guitar and their mother cooks.
He believes that most of the hatred Hungarians feel toward the Roma is a result of fear. He even said, “If I’m walking down the street at night, the last person I want to run into is a gypsy.” However, even he admitted that the association of Roma with criminal activity was a result of generations of poverty that leaves people with little choice but to engage in crimes and other antisocial behaviors so they can feed themselves and their families. “It’s a vicious cycle. Lack of opportunities leads to criminal behavior. What else are they going to do but commit crimes?”
Regardless of the causes, it seems as if the average Hungarian’s opinion of Roma is very negative. “A lot of Hungarians view gypsies as similar to a rat, cockroach or pigeon, a disease-carrying pest.”
This comparison of Roma to animals and insects was something that was brought up a lot, and brings to mind chilling recollections of other points in history where certain groups were deemed subhuman, leading to murder and genocide. Many Roma in Hungary and other European countries are also undocumented immigrants, which is a point that many Hungarians are quick to make.
The anonymous source said that Roma are “a population of people who have no desire to assimilate, no desire to speak the language, no desire to better themselves. They take advantage of the elderly, the sick, and the weak. The kids are basically like animals, they have no sense of right and wrong. Anyone born into a Roma family is being let down by their own culture.”
Although the source mostly expressed culturally prejudiced opinions about the Roma in Hungary, he seemed to think there was a way to improve the situation for everybody, ethnic Hungarians and Roma alike.
When asked about the government’s stance on the Roma, he responded, “The situation is not one of oppression but rather one of complete neglect. There is no effort to admit that the Roma even exist from a political standpoint. The government believes that gypsies are not their concern.”
He continued by saying, “Roma children need to have as many opportunities and resources available to them as other Hungarian children do. You need to be encouraging them in school, you need to be as inclusive as possible.” He then added, “The gypsies who want to better themselves need to be supported so they can become examples to their communities. That will start to chip away at the embedded prejudice.”
Animosity toward the Roma is part of the fabric of many European countries’ cultures. However, with education and an informed, accepting public, perhaps the situation can be turned around, and conflict can become harmony.