In Warsaw on 21 October, representatives from key international organisations held the first European conference where anti-Gypsyism was the main issue.
A woman tries hard to wash a child with brown eyes and dark skin. Then, somebody hands her a pack of ARIEL washing powder. After another attempt, the child appears white and with blue eyes under the foam.
This was found on a Slovak website. Even if it is a fictitious advertisement, it nevertheless expresses a real idea: ‘Gypsies’, ‘Gitanos’ or ‘Zigeuner’ as they are commonly called, are dirty people, which one needs to get rid of. It is certainly not by chance that the authors of this ‘joke’ chose ‘ARIEL’ to fight against the ‘scum’, ARIEL sounding very close to ‘Aryan’ and ‘Aryanisation’. This summer, the owner of an Austrian campsite advertised that he would not welcome Roma. In September, in reaction to the establishment of 140 Traveller caravans on the soil of his municipality, the mayor of Emerainville wrote to the inhabitants that his commune would not become the dumping ground of the French Seine-et-Marne département.
Nearly two thirds of Europeans subscribe to such statements: they do not want Roma as neighbours. Approximately the same number of people have asked for a total separation of Roma from the main population in countries such as Slovenia and Romania. About half of the respondents to a Czech opinion poll in 1996 agreed that Roma should be driven out of the country. From Croatia to Greece, the opposition of non-Roma parents prevents the shared schooling of children and encourages the authorities to segregate Roma children in separate classes or special schools where they receive a sub-standard education – which, in turn, feeds the prejudice that Roma are not educationally gifted.
Reacting to the increasing activities of Roma NGOs on the issue, the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe), the Council of Europe, and the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia in Vienna organised their first international conference on the topic of anti-Gypsyism in Warsaw. (The subject has been included in conferences before, but as a ‘side issue’.) This was the first time that, under the aegis of three large international organisations, an entire conference was devoted to the issue of racism against Roma.
Some 170 people registered for the conference on the implementation of action plans set up to fight the marginalisation of Roma and measures against anti-Gypsyism. The largest number of delegates came from eastern Europe, where most Roma live.
For more than ten years, the situation of Roma in eastern Europe has drawn attention from the international community. In 1993, the heads of state and European governments adopted respect for human rights and the rights of minorities as entry criteria to the European Union. Since then, many action plans and political measures have been adopted. The legal framework has considerably developed with, in particular, the adoption in 1995 of the framework convention on national minorities by the Council of Europe and of the directives on the equal treatment in the field of employment and non-discrimination on the basis of ‘race’ – the so-called Race Directive, by the European Council in 2000.
The European Court of Human Rights has become the ultimate authority to redress human rights violations against Roma, as Lauri Sivonen, a member of the Office of the European Commissioner for Human Rights stated during his presentation. Indeed, many of these violations are committed by public authorities. Ambassador Christian Strohal of the OSCE noted that the implementation of action plans for the improvement of the situation of Roma are frequently held back by the persistence of prejudice against Roma from public officials.
Anti-Gypsyism is the problem
Some representatives of international organisations such as Henry Scicluna from the Council of Europe went even further stating that anti-Gypsyism was at the root of problems, commonly called ‘Roma problems’, such as discrimination and marginalisation in education, housing, employment and health. Sivonen said that the anti-Gypsyism constituted a danger for the whole of society because it prevented Roma from playing their full part.
Even when they used the term ‘anti-Gypsyism’, most representatives from public bodies still disassociated themselves from the term, confining it to the terrain of political activism. Arising first in the 1980s, the term ‘anti-Gypsyism’ covers a whole range of prejudices and acts against Roma, Sinti and related communities.
But, the designation of a new term appears to require justification. Why not simply use racism, some people say. It is not a scientific term, complain some. Others are concerned about the proliferation of terms. Others argue that since the term ‘Gypsy’ is itself a negative construct it should not be incorporated into a description of a specific type of racism against Roma.
In the camp of Roma rights activists there are no such qualms. The fact that anti-Gypsy prejudice and discrimination are so pervasive – across countries, are so tenacious and adaptable – across time, and the fact that anti-Gypsyism has not been touched by the same ideological taboo as anti-Semitism was after World War II, all point to the need for a special term.
Isil Gachet from the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), an independent expert body of the Council of Europe, emphasised at the conference that anti-Gypsyism was the kind of racism which was very often followed by concrete acts of hostility. She joined political activists by explaining that anti-Gypsyism is frequently legitimated on the basis of anti-Roma prejudices. She also pointed out that out of forty-three country reports carried out by ECRI since 2002 on racism in the Council of Europe member states, thirty-two mentioned the situation of Roma as a specific problem, including sixteen where it appeared under the category of ‘particular concerns’.
The need for collecting statistics
A study carried out by the National Roma Congress (RNC), one of the large international Roma organisations, in 2000, listed 4,500 racist attacks against Roma in eastern Europe and 5,800 in EU member states between 1990 and 1998 during which 1,756 Roma were killed and 3,500 injured. The RNC noted that the study contained only those cases brought to its attention – systematic monitoring and reporting does not exist.
The new report of the Commissioner of Human Rights of the Council of Europe on the situation of Roma in Europe carried out at the beginning of this year contains only one figure on racist violence: 109 attacks were registered in Slovakia in 2002. A former report carried out by the High Commissioner of Human Rights of OSCE also raised the issue of racist violence, the most extreme expression of anti-Gypsyism, but confined itself to reporting isolated incidents.
Quite often, representatives of international organisations (as Beate Winkler, director of the Vienna Observatory did at this meeting) explain away the failure of data-collection as the result of a reluctance within the Roma community to answer questions, based on their memory of experiments in the Nazi era which investigated habits and culture as a precursor to extermination.
This explanation however frees society from responsibility. There is every need today to monitor anti-Gypsyism. For example, whereas police press releases frequently mention the real or alleged Romani origin of a culprit or suspect, Romani victims of racist violence are seldom mentioned. And investigations into brutal acts of racism, such as the sterilisation of women without their knowledge and consent in Slovakia, where probably a few hundred Romani women were affected, face fierce opposition from public authorities.
The recognition of a renewed danger of anti-Semitism, two years ago, is mainly due to the fact that Jewish organisations did their own research and presented their findings to the public. Romani people have neither the means nor the finances to carry out such work and no donor is likely to finance research, which would ultimately show that social marginalisation of Roma is mainly rooted in practices meant to exclude them
Most of the public representatives in Warsaw confined themselves to presenting the programmes of their particular institutions. And it was evident that there was some distance between the perspectives of the Roma, who were insisting on participation and equal rights and the well-intentioned, but sometimes limited, views of non-Roma. This difference in focus did though have a humorous side – as when the representative of the German government insisted that the deportations of Roma, Ashkali and Kosovo Egyptians to Serbia and Montenegro including Kosovo were always done in accordance with German and international law. On a more serious note, the use of the term ‘Holocaust’ by a Czech Rom to describe the ethnic cleansing of Roma from Kosovo aroused an immediate rebuke from a non-Roma representative – who either forgot or simply ignored the fact that Roma, like the Jews, were victims of genocide under National Socialism.