Europe’s Forgotten People

Government policies are fueling rather than combating anti-Roma discrimination in Europe.

In October 2013, the Irish Police, or Garda, made a statement regarding a minority group living under its jurisdiction. It was not declared openly by one of the organization’s representatives, but tacitly by the actions of its officers: “You, the Roma, do not belong here.”

Having observed a fair-skinned, fair-haired child in the care of Romani parents, the Dublin police removed the seven-year-old from the couple’s care. The liberation from her supposed abductors was short-lived, however: DNA testing revealed that what had actually taken place was a state-sanctioned kidnapping of a child from her parents.

Worse still, while the Dublin case was yet unresolved the Gardaí chose to repeat their mistake in Athlone. Reports followed that same week of a two-year-old boy taken into protective custody under similar circumstances. He, too, was returned to his family when DNA testing revealed the mistake.

The events in Ireland, of course, took place against the background of a news story from Greece in which another young and fair-skinned girl (she was born with albinism) had been found in the care of a Romani couple. Ignoring the fourteen other children they encountered (their complexions were darker), the authorities had taken the young girl, known only as Maria, into custody. DNA tests, on this occasion, confirmed that Maria and the couple were indeed unrelated. Maria was retained in protective care amid fierce denunciations of the Roma community by the European media.

It was subsequently reported that, owing to extreme poverty, Maria’s mother gave her away to another family while the child was still very young (the insinuation has always been that the mother sold her daughter, though there still appears to be no supporting evidence for this).

At present, both sets of parents are still being investigated, which seems reasonable — there needs to be an explanation of how Maria ended up in the care of a couple to whom she is not related, and why there is no paper trail documenting the transfer of custody. But the demand that the authorities’ suspicion does not extend to the rest of the Romani community must take aggressive precedence. Neither popular protest nor the media made this demand loudly enough. History has shown the consequences of such silences to be grave.

Retributive attacks against the Roma are nothing new — indeed, in comparison to other European examples over this past decade, the actions of the Gardaí were fairly mild. In Ponticelli, Napoli, on the evening of May 102008, a Napolitan woman returned home to find a sixteen-year-old Romani girl in her apartment holding the woman’s baby in her arms. Snatching the baby from the intruder, the woman screamed for help. Her father arrived and grabbed the teenager on the stairs, preventing her from fleeing.

A crowd soon gathered after news of the disturbance spread and tensions quickly escalated. According to a report from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), timely police intervention was all that prevented a lynching. The girl was charged with attempted kidnapping and unlawful intrusion into a private home, and was afterwards kept in custody in a correctional center for minors.

In the days that followed, individual Roma in Ponticelli were attacked on the streets, beaten, and, in one case, stabbed. The reprisals escalated. On the afternoon of May 13, a group of 300 to 400 locals led an attack against one of the biggest Romani camps. Armed with wooden and metal clubs, they pulled down the camp’s fence, shouting insults and threats, throwing stones at shacks and homes and upturning cars.

Supposedly for reasons of “protection,” the local authorities rounded up Roma living in isolated camps, transferring them to larger settlements. That night, sixty Romani men, women, and children were evacuated from one camp and housed in a school on the other side of the city.

As the light faded, a number of the abandoned dwellings were set alight. A crowd quickly congregated to cheer on the burning shacks and jeer the efforts of the firefighters. The few remaining Roma at the settlement were taken away under police escort amid chants of “we’ve won” and “away, away.” There were no reports of groups present in solidarity with the Roma or to protest their treatment.

According to the FRA report, “(b)y the end of May 15, all Roma residents had been forced to leave the Ponticelli camps to go to camps and a school in other districts.” Blame for the arson attacks was speculatively aimed at the Cammora, the Napolitan crime syndicate.

The Italian police’s response to the attacks was manifestly lackluster; politicians’ response was actively hostile.

“The people do what the political class isn’t able to do,” said Umberto Bossi, the leader of the Lega Nord, Italy’s far-right coalition partner to former President Silvio Berlusconi’s Popolo della Liberta. The Minister of the Interior, Roberto Maroni, was reported in the Guardian newspaper to respond, “That is what happens when Gypsies steal babies.”

Less than two weeks later, on May 21, the Italian Government issued a decree declaring a state of emergency. They invoked Law 225 of February 24, 1992, that empowers the government to declare an emergency in the event of “natural disasters, catastrophes or other events that, on account of their intensity and extent, have to be tackled using extraordinary powers and means.” In practice, the decree gave the Italian government the power to treat the Roma with impunity.

On May 30, further orders were issued granting powers to identify Roma, including minors, by the forcible taking of fingerprints, in what was perceived by many in the international community to be nothing less than an ethnically-targeted census. The state of emergency was declared to last for a period of one year, until May 31, 2009 (it would last until November 2011, when Italy’s supreme court declared it illegal), and the plans for the census were immediately put into action under the supervision of Maroni.

On July 10, the European Parliament passed a resolution urging the Italian government to cease their actions. It stated that fingerprinting “would clearly constitute an act of direct discrimination based on race and ethnic origin” and that the European Parliament “[c]ondemns utterly and without equivocation all forms of racism and discrimination faced by the Roma and others regarded as ‘Gypsies.’”

The actions of the Italian government, it went on to say, represented a clear “derogation from ordinary laws.” Then-Secretary General for the Council of Europe Terry David joined the EU in their criticism: “This proposal invites historical analogies which are so obvious that they do not even have to be spelled out.” UNICEF likewise expressed concern.

A week after the resolution was passed, an incident occurred that was to reveal the success with which the sense of “otherness” of the Roma had been reintroduced among the population.

On a beach outside Napoli two Romani girls — Cristiana, 13, and Violetta, 11 — took a break from selling trinkets to tourists and went into the water. Neither could swim and, under heavy waves, the girls drowned.

The girls’ bodies were recovered by lifeguards and laid on the beach, each covered by a towel, while the lifeguards waited for an ambulance to take them to the mortuary. A crowd gathered around their corpses. But whatever concern there was for the girls’ lives quickly dissipated, and beachgoers soon got back to focusing on their holiday.

The event might have gone unnoticed by the world were it not for a photograph taken while the bodies lay on the sand, their feet poking out from underneath the towels. Behind them, a matter of yards away, sat a couple in their swimwear enjoying the sun. Seeing no reason that the death of two Romani children should interrupt their day, they had returned to their towels to sunbathe.

The dehumanizing influence of the state of emergency then spread to the coast guard. In 2009, a boat of seventy-three Eritrean migrants left the coast of Libya with the intention of landing in Italy. The boat, however, wasn’t properly equipped to make the trip. They were adrift for twenty days, apparently without any help from the several vessels that passed. Only five reached Italy alive.

The event prompted then-Commissioner for Human Rights for the Council of Europe Thomas Hammerberg to write to Roberto Maroni to inquire whether the “security package” set out in the emergency legislation did not play a role in Italy’s actions. In July 2010, the commissioner wrote again seeking an explanation as to why Somalian and Eritrean migrants trying to enter Italy had been sent back to Libya, where they had been subject to human rights violations.

As a result of Italy’s actions, in February 2012 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the government had violated the Human Rights Convention. Italy, the report found, was guilty of ignoring its obligation to secure the rights of refugees within its jurisdiction, that it had, “in full knowledge of the facts, exposed [the refugees] to treatment proscribed by the convention,” and was guilty of carrying out a “collective expulsion.”

Recent tragedies off the coast of Lampedusa did little to convince international organizations that a change of government in Italy signaled a change in their policy, and the denial of international human rights responsibilities has continued. In one such incident in October 2013, more than 300 migrants lost their lives when an overcrowded boat caught fire and sank while crossing from Libya. Familiar reports of distress signals being ignored by passing boats have yet to be properly answered.

The Italian record is not unique. Legislation throughout Europe is persistent in its equivalent levels of Roma intolerance.

Under Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency, France saw wholesale expulsions of Roma and closures of Romani camps. This reached its peak in the summer of 2010, a period in which Sarkozy was keen to appease voters in a move that ostensibly sought to address “public safety.” An incident in July in the Loire Valley had seen a group of Roma armed with metal bars and hatchets attack a police station in retaliation for the shooting of a Romani man who had failed to stop at a police checkpoint. The night before, in a separate incident, there had been rioting in Grenoble after police killed a man during a shootout. In response, Sarkozy called an emergency ministerial meeting at which it was decided to forcibly evacuate 300 Romani camps within three months. Anyone found during raids to be living in France illegally was deported.

Contrary to the French government’s claims of simply seeking to root out crime, the subsequent raids and repatriations were clear instances of ethnic profiling. On September 9, 2010, a vote in the European Parliament declared the mass expulsions to have “violate[d] EU law as they amount to discrimination on the basis of race.” The resolution stated that the Parliament “deeply deplores the late and limited response by the [European] Commission, as guardian of the Treaties, to the need to verify the consistency of Member States’ actions with EU primary law and EU legislation.”

On August 31, ten days before the European Parliament’s vote, the European Commission called two French Ministers, Eric Besson and Pierre Lellouche, to Brussels to explain French actions and policy regarding the Roma camps.  The Ministers gave assurances that France’s actions did not target any particular nationality or ethnic group and the Commission, it appears, accepted these assurances. When the European Parliament’s vote criticized the Commission the following week, there was no comment from Viviane Reding, Vice-President of the European Commission, responsible for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship.

However, on September 12 (twelve days after the Commission met with Besson and Lellouche and three days after the European Parliament vote), an administrative circular issued by the French Government appeared in the French press contradicting the assurances of the Ministers. The memo from the Ministry of the Interior to police chiefs set out a systematic initiative to dismantle illegal camps and stated that “the priority is the Roma.” Reding, whose previous silence suggested that criticism from the European Parliament warranted no reply, felt compelled to respond. On September 14, she finally called the French Government to task:

[T]his is not a minor offence. . . this is a disgrace. . . I personally have been appalled by a situation which gave the impression that people are being removed from a Member State of the European Union just because they belong to a certain ethnic minority. This is a situation I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after World War&nbspII.

Commenting on French policies towards the Roma over the past decade, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants François Crépeau noted that “the ultimate objective seems to be the expulsion of migrant Roma communities from France.”

The French government took little note of any such criticism and have resolutely continued with their policy of Roma discrimination. However, in October last year, a popular movement succeeded in doing precisely that which the European Commission and the UN had failed to do: embarrassing the French government into making a public apology and political u-turn.

The case in question was that of the deportation of fifteen-year-old Leonarda Dibrani.

Police removed Dibrani from her school bus while on a day trip in October 2013. In front of her peers, she was escorted to a waiting police car and then driven to meet her family. They were under arrest, their request for asylum having been repeatedly rejected. The family was then deported together, joining the father who had been deported the previous day. The family had lived in France for five years.

Dibrani’s deportation triggered mass student protests around France condemning the deportations. Students blocked the entrances to a number of schools in Paris and in other cities around the country. The Paris local education authority reported that fourteen schools in the region were “disrupted” by the protests. (The high school student union reported that figure to be thirty.)

The pressure exerted on President Hollande and Manuel Valls, then interior minister, forced them to slightly capitulate, but to no one’s satisfaction. In a televised address, Hollande offered Dibrani the opportunity to return to France. The offer, however, was not extended to her family. Dibrani declined.

In 2005, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) acknowledged the “specific nature of the racism directed towards the Roma” and in doing so highlighted three qualities that characterized the prejudice: “it is persistent both historically and geographically (permanent and not decreasing); “it is systematic (accepted by virtually all the community)”; and “it is often accompanied by acts of violence.” When one considers the size of the Roma diaspora, the scale of this prejudice reveals itself.

Estimates for the Romani population in the whole of Europe range from eight to fifteen million. Between 80 and 85 percent are thought not to be itinerant but sedentary. That a permanent population of that size is unequal before the law is the result of centuries of institutionalized discrimination. This peaked most notoriously during the Porajmos, or “Roma Holocaust,” carried out by the Nazis, a period in which an unknown number of Roma where murdered — estimates vary widely from 300,000 to 1.5 million. We should know more about this genocide than we do, but Romani history is still being ignored.

The Dibrani case is a reminder that governments will continue to ignore international pressure until ending Roma discrimination becomes a priority for the public at large, not just the province of international watchdogs. Fear of being found in violation of human rights is clearly insufficient motivation for European governments to uphold to those rights. That motivation, therefore, will have to come from elsewhere. Public protest has been shown to be one such route. There will need to be more.

A “Decade of Roma Inclusion” was launched in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 2005 describing itself as “an unprecedented political commitment by European governments to eliminate discrimination against Roma and close the unacceptable gaps between Roma and the rest of society.” Nine years into that decade and the abject failure of that “elimination” is galling. That failure was predictable: neither Italy, France, the UK, Germany, nor Ireland ever signed up, nor offered any explanation for their refusal.

Equally damning is the lack of integration to be found between top-down European initiatives and grassroots Romani organizations. These organizations are one of the few areas in which genuine progress towards ending Romani oppression is still being made, especially at the local level. That such progress is possible when the efforts are still fragmented is reason for confidence. Among these organizations are some that include the unification of Roma grassroots movements in their manifestos.

They have given themselves a difficult task. If successful, however, these movements are likely to pose the greatest difficulties to governments who persist in their refusal to acknowledge their obligations to Roma equality.