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Refugees Magazine Issue 113 (Europe : The debate over asylum) - Roma: Five centuries of discrimination ... and still counting

Refugees Magazine Issue 113 (Europe : The debate over asylum) - Roma: Five centuries of discrimination ... and still counting
Refugees (113, 1999)

1 January 1999
Europe's Roma face continuing persecution.

Europe's Roma face mounting hostility at home and a chilly reception abroad

By Lyndall Sachs

"I have no evidence of criminal acts committed by these people, but their situation is such that they cannot but be tempted to commit them if the occasion presents itself.... They cannot but be dangerous" - a 19th century Strasbourg magistrate writing about the Roma people.

Some things never change. When several hundred Czech and Slovak Roma sought asylum in Britain last year even so-called serious newspapers responded with headlines such as "Gypsies Invade Dover Hoping for a Handout" a sentiment apparently shared by many politicians and the general public. Notably lacking was any acknowledgement the asylum seekers might be fleeing persecution.

But history suggests the Roma have cause for complaint. Europe's eight million Roma are the largest minority group on the continent and in the 500 years since their arrival they have faced continuing mistrust and rejection. In 1496 a German edict declared Roma traitors to Christianity; in 1504 Louis XII forbade them from entering France and until late last century the Roma lived as slaves in Romania. The Nazis issued an edict which concluded: "Experience to date in the fight against the Roma/Gypsy menace, and the findings of bio-racial research, suggests that the Roma question must be treated as a racial one." An estimated 500,000 Roma were murdered under this policy.

Europe has moved on since then. In the half century since that infamous action, the continent has been the generous host to millions of the world's destitute and, despite a hardening of attitudes in recent years, it remains a beacon of hope to many others.

The "Roma Problem", however, remains a troubling blemish on this record. The Roma are scattered across Europe with the largest communities in central and eastern Europe, the former Yugoslavia, Spain and Turkey, but wherever they live they are branded as rootless wanderers, illiterate, dirty and even dangerous.

The situation worsens

The situation is becoming worse in some regions, fuelled by the fall of communism which has unleashed attitudes held in check by repressive regimes in eastern and central Europe. There have been instances of mob violence, assaults by skinheads, arson attacks, murder, police beatings and judicial indifference.

In Germany, thousands of Roma have been greeted with sporadic neo-Nazi violence. Austrian hostels housing Roma have been firebombed. Anti-Roma literature is common on the Russian internet. Czech laws deny several thousand Roma citizenship in that country, effectively making them stateless,. And in the Czech town of Usti Nad Labem recently there were fearful echoes of the Holocaust when city fathers considered building a wall around the Roma community. However, the government has begun to recruit qualified Roma into the police force and in schools and one young Roma woman has become a parliamentary deputy.

In Slovakia, a presidental announcement stated,'It is necessary to curtail the reproduction of this socially unadaptable and mentally backward population."

Despite such evidence, European immigration officials have been known to make blanket declarations that "The Roma do not appear to be under threat of persecution," as one British official recently declared. He apparently did not speak to Ladislav who fled Prague for England after "my daughter refused to go to nursery school because they called her 'nigger' and 'gypsy.'"

The Roma also face routine institutionalized discrimination. "Prospective employers would find out that I am a Roma and throw me off the building site," says Michal, a roofer. The extremist National Front launched demonstrations against the Roma arrivals in Britain last year and some men were put into detention to "prevent them absconding." Britain recently introduced visa requirements for Slovaks, possibly making it even more difficult for some Roma to seek sanctuary.

Possibly because of the cool reception awaiting them even in the liberal west, the number of Roma seeking asylum is surprisingly low. But it is still sobering to reflect that for those who do try to escape persecution their asylum claims may be judged, not on the merits of their case, but their perceived lack of 'likeability." The burden of five centuries of discrimination, hostility and persecution still weighs heavily in the balance against the Roma.

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 113 (1999)