Europe’s Roma discrimination shame
October 26th, 2012
10:17 AM ET

Europe’s Roma discrimination shame

By Fotis Filippou, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Fotis Filippou is regional campaign coordinator for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International. The views expressed are the author’s own.

A new memorial in Berlin to commemorate hundreds of thousands of Roma who were systematically murdered by the Nazis during World War II is an important official step towards marking the atrocities of the past. But given the treatment of Roma in today’s Europe, the monument near the Reichstag should give current political leaders pause for thought about the 12 million Roma who continue to face prejudice and persecution across the continent.

And we’re not talking about some vague sentiments here. Anti-Roma feeling in many European countries still translates into official policies that result in segregation of Roma from the rest of society, deepening and exacerbating their existing poverty and marginalization. In some instances, discrimination bubbles over into racist violence, when hatred espoused by extreme right-wing parties is acted out by youth mobs and vigilante groups.

Even as German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened the new memorial this week, local authorities in Germany have proposed measures that may block access to a fair asylum procedure for Serbian and Macedonian citizens – the majority of them Roma.

Across Europe, Roma who are often poor, socially excluded, and discriminated against are easy targets when governments carry out plans to clean up slums and informal settlements. More often than not, this is done while turning a blind eye to international obligations. Such requirements include proper consultation with residents ahead of an eviction, advance notice about any such plans and full arrangements for adequate alternative housing that meets basic international standards.

In the rare instances where Roma are provided with alternative housing, it is often segregated, poor, in the margins of cities, and next to garbage dumps, or industrial and toxic areas.

A string of recent operations to dismantle Roma camps across France continued to fall short of the international legal protections against forced evictions. In an op-ed earlier this year, the French minister of interior called for “firmness” in dealing with the settlements and an inter-ministerial meeting on the issue in August seemed to mark the government’s will for a new approach, but has so far failed to lead to new policies backing adequate consultation, notification and alternative housing for Roma facing evictions.

By dismantling camp after camp without providing sensible alternative housing solutions, the authorities are merely kicking the problem down the road.

Roma living in Italy face a similar situation. So-called “Nomad Emergency” legislation that came into effect in 2008 has allowed local authorities in Rome, Milan and other cities to be heavy-handed in closing Roma settlements. Such operations continue, despite a November 2011 ruling by the Council of State (Italy's highest administrative court) that the emergency plan is unlawful. The forced eviction of more than 350 Roma from the Tor de’ Cenci camp in Rome, completed just a few weeks ago, sends a signal that it’s business as usual.

In the cases when alternative housing is provided, it generally consists of moving families to another authorized camp on the false assumption that all Roma want to live in camps. Such settlements, like La Barbuta – a segregated Roma camp that opened alongside the noise and bustle of Rome’s Ciampino airport in June – are typically in remote areas with no easy access to services, cutting Roma communities off from the rest of society.

Elsewhere, forced evictions have other harsh ramifications. In Serbia’s capital Belgrade in April, city authorities forced more than 1,000 Roma out of the downtown Belvil settlement without giving a reason. Around 124 of the evicted families were moved into metal containers in segregated settlements around the capital, where they have no access to work. Another 133 families were forced to return to inadequate housing in poor municipalities in southern Serbia, while 94 families from Belvil still await eviction before construction of a new bridge funded by the European Investment Bank.

Many Roma experience discrimination from a young age – thousands of Romani children across Slovakia,for example, remain trapped in substandard education as a result of widespread discrimination and a school system that keeps failing them. They often face outright segregation in special schools for children with “mild mental disabilities” or are ethnically segregated in mainstream schools and classes, sometimes even being locked in separate classrooms or corridors to prevent them from mixing with non-Roma pupils.

The new national government, in power since March, has dropped previous references to ending such segregation and now talks of setting up separate boarding schools for "marginalized communities".

In neighboring Czech Republic, very little progress has been made to guarantee Romani children equal access to education, five years after the European Court of Human Rights found that the country discriminated against Roma by placing them in special schools without the necessary safeguards.

In some parts of Europe, stigma against Roma has become a pervasive part of public office. Before winning a landslide election victory in June, the new mayor of Baia Mare in northern Romania stated that “dismantling Roma shacks” in five informal settlements was his main campaign priority. He previously built a wall to partition one of the town's Roma housing estates.

And in Hungary¸ the discriminatory attitudes of the far-right party Jobbik has allegedly on more than one occasion stoked intimidation and violence against Roma communities. This included in August, when police were accused of standing by while some 1,000 people on a march organized by Jobbik and vigilante groups violently attacked the homes of Roma families living in the western village of Devecser.

It is imperative for governments across Europe – at the local, national and EU levels – to set about changing public attitudes and policies that fuel the ongoing human rights violations against the Roma. EU member states have yet to follow through on promises made in Brussels earlier this year to improve the lives of Roma children, women and men – the EU Commission must weigh in and make things right.

During the opening of the Roma Holocaust memorial, German Chancellor Merkel paid an emotional tribute to the victims, stating that: “Every single fate in this genocide is a suffering beyond understanding. Every single fate fills me with sorrow and shame.”

Commemorating the horrendous abuses suffered by Roma during the Holocaust is a key step, but Europe’s politicians must also be ashamed about the racism and discrimination that continues to affect millions of Roma today.

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Topics: Europe • Human Rights

soundoff (33 Responses)
  1. Jack Jenkins

    Why is CNN allowing the Obama campaign to use part of the 60 minute enterview with Obama and Romney to be used as a political ad against Romney. Thats sinking pretty low. I would not think Scott pelley would allow himself to be used this way, Maybe he is in favor of the obamanation, but I think your ad is turning more people off then helping your man. People aren't as stupid as you at CNN think, we can see your bias, nothing new there. I think people are seeing a lot of what your doing, so keep up the good work, means more votes for Romney......

    October 26, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
  2. j. von hettlingen

    It takes two parties to make things happen. The Roma people should also try to make an effort to make things work. In Western Europe we see Roma parents make their children beg the whole day, even in Winter. Some of these children break in and steal. They can't be prosecuted as they are minors. It's a sad story, the Roma population! But many of them don't want to be helped the way we want to.

    October 28, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  3. Oskar Dobrovodsky

    Because of my personal experience, I must say, there are two sides of this problem. From my childhood, I have lived in the peaceful district of Slovak city Malacky. One day, group of 40 Roma people were moved by the city committee to the house neighboring with mine. Then, the hell started. They don't know hygiene, all of them hate me and all of our neighbours, children often throw stones on us... Once, some of them attacked me and I had to go to hospital for two weeks. Of course, no punishment for them. I was forced to leave my home without chance of selling it, because of my roma neighbours and the psychical terror I was experiencing daily(along with everybody living on the same street). In Slovakia, Romas often build their settlements on land belonging to others, and then, state takes this land from the first owners and gives it to romas. There were many projects of romas moved to normal tenements. After few months, they tore out all cables, and completely destroyed the tenements, selling the iron for alcohol and drugs.

    October 30, 2012 at 3:24 am |
  4. TAS

    "thousands of Romani children across Slovakia,for example, remain trapped in substandard education as a result of widespread discrimination and a school system that keeps failing them."

    I'm an American teaching English in Slovakia. Perusing Slovak news lately, I've found a common theme of blaming slovak schools, which I find simplistic and innaccurate. I've taught a handful of gypsies who made it into the schools where I teach. With students in general a teacher has to prove he/she cares about them, but with gypsy students there's the additional gulf of mistrust between races that must be bridged. Gypsies feel it just as strongly as whites, and it's something that has to be unlearned before any education can take place.

    It's true gypsies face discrimination, with teachers often complaining, and sometimes making jokes in private about their accent. We also complain about the white students, and for good reason – they're surly teenagers, filled with angst, impatience – everything that you remember when you were a teen. But, whenever we get a decent, hardworking student, my coworkers and I put our all into helping that student succeed, regardless of skin color. For my part, I've done years of free tutoring for my students, gypsy or not, when needed.

    The biggest barriers to gypsy schooling in Slovakia are:
    1. Gypsy parents who aren't interested in educating their children. Gypsy families need money immediately. Educating children is a longterm investment, requiring hard work and trust. Then there's the question whether a good gypsy student would ever get into university, or get a decent job. It's a gamble some parents aren't willing to make, when their kids could be gathering firewood, digging through garbage bins, or picking berries in the woods. You can see all of this daily, just traveling around the country. The American stereotype of a welfare mom is well known here, but it's worse. I've heard people speak of gypsy mothers who injure their infants heads to make them mentally handicapped, in order to get additional money and benefits from the state. These stories must be investigated thoroughly.
    2. Slovakia consists of many small villages, far too small for their own school. Students travel daily to larger towns, some living in dorms to attend schools in larger towns. All students have to pay for their travel and board, when required, as well as their own books for most subjects. This disproportionately affects Roma who are poorer, and live outside of bus routes. If you're a gypsy and don't have a car, you might have to walk many miles each day to attend school.
    3. Slovak high schools are small and specialized. From 1st grade, young students have to work hard and earn good grades to get to the best high schools – one town might have five, most of which are public schools. The best students get into the best high schools, and most are white. It's a system that encourages students to work hard from the beginning, and it's something I'd encourage in America. American mega schools are a mistake. But, with the first two problems I mentioned above, naturally it becomes harder for gypsies.
    4. University education is no longer free here, creating an even bigger barrier to gypsy education. With every €1,000 they add to the cost, the risk becomes that much greater.
    5. The lack of respect between Gypsies and whites is mutual and fuels the fire. Gypsies speak their own language, which is neither standardized nor taught in schools. Imagine refusing to teach Spanish in America. Whites refer to themselves as Slovaks, while gypsies born and living here are not. In Europe, people like to think of their national heritage as an ethnicity. It's not enough to be a citizen. I could become a citizen, but it wouldn't make me Slovak. With this lack of respect come horror stories on both sides – tales of sterilyising gypsies, and tales of gypsy crimes, some of which I've witnessed personally. Just the other day a gypsy tried to rob me in a parking lot, but I didn't have any cash in my wallet.
    6. Blacks in America were oppressed for over 400 years. Gypsies have been oppresssed for 4,000. I don't know what steps it'd take for a gypsy Martin Luther King to step forward, but that's what's needed. Unfortunately, too many gypsies are content to live up to the stereotypes, just to thumb their noses.

    January 6, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
    • H

      Please can ppl stop using 'gypsies or gypsy' it's rascist. It's roma or traveller.

      October 22, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
  5. TAS

    Oh, I forgot to mention:
    1. a lot of the segregation in schools has to do with the segregated communities/villages. When all the gypsies live in one place, they walk to the closest school, where they learn together. Choosing another school would involve a long commute.
    2. I can't recall students being put into different rooms unless lice was an issue, which it often is. It's a health concern.

    January 6, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
  6. Christian

    Well Europeans integrated, even the Dark Haired ones. So not all 'white' but that is relative.

    I compare Old Scandanavians/north europeans mostly light skinned and light haired. But Italians, Portugese, Spanish have alot of dark skin and dark hair. Not all but alot.

    And even today more Arab/Persian/Otoman blood in France, Spain, Italy, Germany.

    I think the Roma are not typical because they were forced to leave India for military reasons, SLAVES and lowest kasts.

    The new india benefits with a very fast growing economy and opportunties. But don't Roma dont have this, or do they choose to be separate. Roma are very separated from the Mainstream Europeans, even after 1000 years. How much longer will people accept, I think they dont want to anymore. People are tired of 'Political correctness'.

    Even if they are descriminated against (like most new immigrants or poor, in every country and culture in the world, no exceptions) they have not changed in 1000 years, versus other cultures have adapted to their new homes or assimulated into the new society.

    United states is an excellent example of the Multicultural society, with Asians, Africans, Europeans, Middle eastern, Indian subcontient, Latin americans, Pacific Islanders, etc. And it work relatively well. and Europe also is almost as good, so Is it really Europeans or the ROMA? It not like new economic immigrants and poor have it easy to integrate, their are waves to each prospering country all over the world. But really 1000 years of discrimination or is it that ROMA get there reputation and stereotyping because 'People are not blind' and want to speak out at this double discrimination. Are law abiding and CITIZENS demand that either they Change or they are not welcome, what is wrong with that?

    Again, 1000 years and honestly I have no problems with anyone as a neighbor except ROMA. I am and most people are tired of 'Political correctness'.

    October 21, 2013 at 9:13 am |
    • Mark

      You don't speak for "most people" so take your stupidity back over to the right-wing boards.

      October 21, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
      • Christian

        well maybe are totally oblivious, probably American living in the White tracks in USA, with security fences, and a few guns? Get a Global view and reality check.

        October 21, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
    • Mohmaya

      You had to use America as an example of a multi-cultural society. You can see multi-cultural societies in India Whelchel has somehow integrated Islamic, Jewish, Zoroastrian immigrants to the point they have become Presidents etc.

      How come its so hard to find such an example in Europe (like the US and India)? Perhaps it isn't the Roma, but its the right wing European?

      October 21, 2013 at 7:00 pm |
  7. H. B.

    I've been opposed to hate and prejudice all my life – and I have ACTED based on that principle.

    Marginalizing people is a nice word for "holding down." Another word for oppression. Such people are systematically denied education and jobs. When the marginalized people WANT education and jobs, they ARE marginalized. But what does it mean when they go to great lengths to AVOID those things? Then they aren't pure victims, because they contribute to their own marginalization.

    We now call gypsies "Roma." Fine. We're getting good at coming up with pre-sanitized names and labels, but it doesn't do any good, nor does it change any realities. For many centuries, gypsies have been known to be nomadic and thieves. It is in their culture. Europeans have known of them for many centuries, and do not trust them. If distrust is acquired by them EARNING it, is it still discriminatory and unfair?

    As we go through life, we all encounter individuals, here and there, who have earned our distrust. We respond by avoiding them. When groups of people wander everywhere, settle nowhere, and when they arrive in your area, things start going missing, is it unfair to those wanderers to dislike and avoid them? Should we offer them education? Their wandering is, at least in part, to avoid having to enroll their children in school. The other major reason is that once an area has locked itself down to avoid the sticky fingers, they move on to another, where it will take time for the people to lock themselves down, and meanwhile, they can pick off lots of stuff.

    It's the culture they've developed. Now, if feeling negative about a culture is automatically "bad," don't you think it's unfair to people who have learned the hard way to distrust them? Do the rules of thumb that apply to evaluating an individual's trustworthiness cease having applicability when applied to an entire culture, whose untrustworthiness is earned in the same way? Whether a whole culture of people or one individual, untrustworthiness is the same thing.

    And, if the negative feelings people have against the "Roma" have been EARNED, is it fair to call it prejudice?

    The view people have of gypsies has been earned for centuries. And their behaviors have been very consistent. If one of them should decide to change their life for the better, it shouldn't be all that hard to do. If one family decided to cease roaming and enroll their kids in school, that would indicate a family which is deviating from the culture of roaming and theft. They should then be given every possible opportunity, because to apply the dislike of other gypsies to that individual or family would indeed be prejudicial. They're seeking something better, and are willing to work for it.

    Are we, in order to be regarded as non-prejudiced, required to welcome and trust the gypsies? And when the usual consequences result, will we be acknowledged for our openmindedness? We'll simply be labeled as fools. Which we are. Thieves do not merit trust. Among gypsy groups, theft is a way of life. If they're marginalized for being thieves, why should we think of THEM as victims? How does that make US the bad guys?

    I'm a liberal, but I realize there's such a thing as taking egalitarianism too far. And there's also such a thing for marginalized people as trying to EARN some respect and trust. They're not rocks, who are systematically hated and avoided, no matter what. THEY, too, can improve their own lot in life, if they're willing to reach for it. To remain in a culture in which nomadism and dishonesty are basic roots means they LIKE it. There ARE ways out, you know.

    October 21, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
  8. Louis Cypher

    That thing of rscism is stupid, discrimination is no longer about race, it is about how much money you got.

    October 21, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
  9. Frank N Candid

    From this slanted article one might get the impression that Gypsies want to integrate into society. What is with all of these camps? This is where they set up shop so that they can send their young kids into the nearby towns and villages and cities to beg, to pickpocket, and to steal. Often, these kids are forced into this. The women go into these towns to beg. The men stay in the camps and play cards. Crime is part of their culture. How do you fix that? Any answers? Their language, is it even written anywhere?

    October 23, 2013 at 1:49 am |
  10. M.N.

    To declare Slovakia discriminates Gypsy makes me always angry. Im from North Slovakia and I wasnt racist until I started living in the centre of the town. Some gypsy told in TV he couldnt attend a school because he is black- it is LIE! They are too lazy to attend a school or work, want money, but they dont work.
    When I go home from work, late at night, tired and exhausted, Im threatened by groups of Gypsies, who just steal and attacks people. The state gives them everything- they get higher social benefits than is a salary of ordinary human. Thousands of young people work hardly to pay expensive living, they even cannot buy their own flat and house is a dream. But for gypsies are built new houses every year, the land usually pays the community- town or village. In following year they completely destroy it (sell radiators, cables from walls, windows and so on and ask new houses).
    Who owns a shop, musts accept the fact Gypsies will steal his stock- and police is desperate. My friend worked in shop and catched that thief, but police couldnt arrest him, he just had to pay some fine (of course, he doesnt have money- and they cannot deduct it from his social benefits). He just laughed, and has threatened her, so she even couldt sleep from fear of coming to the job.
    Everyday you come through the town, you will meet very intrusive individuals who beg money (stop you and threaten that if you will not give him euro, you will have problems).
    They move in groups. If they dont like someone, they thrash him right on the street with no punishment.
    They usually live in the centre of the town (given them the most expensive ones) and while ordinary people think about how to sustain one child, they have 12-15 children and state finances them (for the money they will buy alcohol and cigarettes). They cry they are discriminated, but I know, WE, ORDINARY WORKING PEOPLE ARE DISCRIMINATED!!!

    October 31, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
  11. ubadavid

    I think we should just have to part with this racism thing and move forward because we are all human created by the same heavenly father the Amighty God.(

    February 21, 2014 at 9:49 am |
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