Only a few thousand Roma in Germany survived the Holocaust and the Nazi concentration camps. They faced enormous difficulties when trying to build their lives again, having lost so many of their family members and relatives, and having had their properties destroyed or confiscated. Many had their health ruined. For years, when some tried to obtain compensation, their claims were rejected.
For the survivors, no justice came with the post-Hitler era. Significantly, the mass killing of Roma people was not an issue at the Nürnberg trial. The genocide of the Roma was hardly recognised in public discourse.
Neither were the crimes that the fascist regimes committed against the Roma during the same period in other parts of Europe. In Italy a circular in 1926 ordered the expulsion of all foreign Roma in order to “cleanse the country of Gypsy caravans which, needless to recall,
constitute a risk to safety and public health by virtue of the characteristic Gypsy lifestyle”.
The order made clear that the aim was to “strike at the heart of the Gypsy organism”. What followed in fascist Italy was discrimination and persecution. Many Roma were detained in special camps; others were sent to Germany or Austria and later exterminated.
The fascist “Iron Guard” regime in Romania started deportations in 1942. Like many Jews, about 30 000 Roma were brought across the River Dniester where they suffered hunger, disease and death. Only about half survived the two years of extreme hardship before the
The history of European repression against the Roma precedes the Nazi and fascist era. In fact, it goes back several hundred years – following the Roma migration from the Indian subcontinent. The Roma were the outsiders used as scapegoats when things went wrong and the locals did not want to take responsibility. The methods of repression have varied over time and have included enslavement, enforced assimilation, expulsion, internment and mass killings.
Truth commissions ought to be established in a number of European countries to establish the truth about the mass atrocities against the Roma people. Ideally, this should be a Europe-wide undertaking. A full account and recognition of these crimes might go some way to restoring trust amongst the Roma towards the wider society.
Not surprisingly, many Roma continue to see the authorities as a threat. When required to register or to be fingerprinted they fear the worst. This is all the more understandable when they explain how they see similarities between much of today’s anti-Roma rhetoric with the language used in the past in Europe by Nazis and fascists and other extremists.
The Roma have been collectively stigmatised as criminals in strikingly sweeping statements also in recent times. One example is France where the government in July-August 2010 decided to deport Roma migrants from other EU countries, if necessary by force. The government campaign was accompanied by blatant use of anti-Roma rhetoric. The Roma community as a whole was linked to criminality. Their presence was described as a threat against “public security” – a legal term which is normally used for extraordinary situations when the peace and survival of the state is considered to be at stake.
The alleged link between the Roma and crime is an often repeated
refrain in the hate speech. It can be rebutted and the misunderstandings sorted out – if the minds are open for a rational exchange. Of course, some Roma have been guilty of theft. Some have also been exploited and instrumentalised by traffickers. Socially marginalised and destitute people are in most countries over-represented in criminal statistics – for obvious reasons. It is also true that they tend to be disadvantaged in the current justice system which in turn affects such data.
These problems offer no excuse for stigmatising all Roma – the overwhelming majority of whom are not in conflict with the law. It is a crucial ethical principle that a whole group should not be blamed for what some of its members might have done.
The consequences of xenophobic statements by leading politicians should not be trivialised. Some distorted minds may understand such statements to be authorising retribution and even physical attack. The unfortunate rhetoric by some candidates in the course of the 2008 Italian election was followed by ugly incidents of violence directed against Roma individuals and camps. The cold-blooded murder of six Roma, including a 5-year-old child, in Hungary in
2008-09, was committed in an atmosphere fuelled by hate speech.
Anti-Gypsyism is now again being exploited by extremist groups in several European countries. Mob violence against Roma individuals has been reported from, for instance, the Czech Republic and Hungary.
The state representatives whom the Roma tend to meet most often are the police. During my missions, I have been struck in several countries by the signs of bad relations between Roma communities and the police. Many Roma have given specific examples of how the police failed to protect them against assaults from extremists. Even worse, there have been cases where police officers themselves have initiated violence.
Anti-Gypsyism continues to be widespread throughout Europe. In times of economic problems, it appears that the tendency to direct frustration against scapegoats increases – and the Roma appear to be one of the easy targets. Instead of fishing in murky waters, national and local politicians should stand up for and speak out on behalf of principles of non-discrimination and respect for people from different backgrounds. At the very minimum, politicians must avoid anti-Roma rhetoric themselves.
A number of concrete steps can be taken. Past atrocities against the Roma should be included in history lessons in schools. Key professions, such as the police, should be trained about the need to protect Roma against hate crimes, and be disciplined if they themselves misbehave.
Most important is the need for elected politicians to demonstrate moral leadership: they must encourage, and live out in practice, a commitment to respect and promote human rights for everyone.
I hope this review of the policies towards Roma in Europe today will encourage a constructive discussion on what must be done in order to put an end to discrimination and marginalisation.”