Addressing Roma inclusion must be a priority on International Roma Day
8 April is International Roma Day, in commemoration of the first World Romani Congress that was held in Orpington in 1971. Yet there is little to celebrate as many of the 10 to 12 million Roma people across Europe continue to be denied their basic human rights and to be the victims of racist attacks, widespread discrimination and hate speech.
EU Member States were meant to adopt specific strategies for the inclusion of Roma by December 2011, under a European Union agreement. The UK government has still to produce a coherent strategy. Instead it was left to the Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities themselves in the UK to draft their own situation report and recommendations on how Roma might be better included in UK society ‘Experts by Experience’. This was launched in Parliament in 2014 but has been largely ignored by the British government.
Fortunately, at the European level there is an acknowledgement that Roma discrimination needs to be tackled. The new European Commissioner for Justice, Vera Jourova, recently said “Our common goal is that Roma people are treated equally, just like everyone else. I want to see Roma enjoy equality in schools, at their workplace, in housing. To see them get healthcare when they need it. To see children play together, Roma and non-Roma, without fear or prejudice on either side. Unfortunately, this is not the situation we live in today. Many Roma are discriminated against. And many Roma experience intolerance and hatred, some on a daily basis. This phenomenon exists everywhere in Europe. In most cases, it's an individual problem. But sometimes, local authorities create barriers for Roma integration. Sometimes even government ministers have prejudices against Roma.”
One way of addressing anti-Roma prejudice is to acknowledge and shed light on past abuses and persecution of the Roma minority in Europe. As the previous Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg has underlined, current discrimination are “a continuation of a brutal and largely unknown history of repression of Roma, going back several hundred years. The methods of repression have varied over time and have included enslavement, enforced assimilation, expulsion, internment and mass killings … A full account and recognition of the crimes committed against the Roma might go some way to restoring the trust of Roma communities in society”.
These measures are more than necessary given the current situation for Roma across Europe. Walls are being built in cities throughout Eastern Europe to separate Roma from the rest of society. Anti-Roma marches are often used to mobilise voters by populist and far right groups and parties in European countries, including Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and protesters regularly try to destroy Roma houses where families and children live. Roma children are de facto segregated in inferior schools and classrooms in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Greece and Slovakia. In Italy, many Roma are forced to live in isolated and segregated camps set up by the municipalities, making it extremely difficult for them to access basic rights to education, employment and healthcare.
The EU has started legal proceedings against some of these Member States. However, the generalisation of anti-Roma discourse within some political parties and by some politicians in Europe is not only fuelling deeply entrenched negative stereotypes towards Roma among the European population. It also leads to an increase in incidences of discrimination and violence against Roma.
It is now urgent to step up the efforts across the European Union to dispel prejudices and tackle deeply rooted structural and institutional racism so that Roma can finally be fully included in European society.
Alan Anstead, UK Race and Europe Network (UKREN)
Juliana Santos Wahlgren, European Network Against Racism (ENAR)
This blog first appeared on Migrants' Rights Network