By Cathy Nugent
During 2000, hysterical media debate about asylum seekers targetted gypsies, specifically Roma people from eastern Europe.
The Roma people share the same roots, but are made up of many culturally diverse groups world wide. Not all gypsies are Roma. Roma asylum seekers in Britain are generally fleeing from persecution in the Balkans and eastern Europe.
The persecution of Roma is centuries long and acute. For example, Roma were kept as slaves in the Balkans right up to the 19th century. And the Nazis built on Europe-wide “pass laws" (compulsory ethnic registration) for gypsies, to attempt to solve the “gypsy problem”.
The Nazis claimed Roma were an inferior race and should be gassed to death — somewhere between 200,000 and half a million gypsies lost their lives through starvation and disease in concentration camps or through murder.
European society is still scarred by the effects of this genocide against the Roma. It has scarcely been acknowledged as an historical fact, still less recognised as the enormous tragedy it was. Consequently, virulent racism against Roma is thoroughly acceptable and commonplace. Racism against Roma and gypsies in Europe is found even among people who would regard themselves as “liberal", or even anti-racist. Roma are seen as irrevocably “different”, perennial troublemakers and habitual criminals. They deserve whatever “retaliation" comes their way…
In a world still riven with national division, the Roma people seem destined to be forever punished — for not “fitting in", or conversely, for “standing out". They are accused of not wanting to be part of this society but then they are stopped from participating in it. Without a homeland of their own — and in the past they had no aspirations to one — the Roma have struggled to maintain their existence as a peculiarly marginalised national minority in many different countries.
When Roma from the Czech Republic first came to Britain in 1987 they received a very hostile reception from the British press. “Gypsies Invade Dover Hoping for a Handout" screamed one headline. The papers touted the line of British immigration authorities (a line still maintained today) that there is no evidence of discrimination in the Czech Republic, and therefore Roma are not entitled to asylum.
This is an outrageous lie — the facts about discrimination against Roma are well known. Unfortunately, successive UK governments have been keen to preserve their relationship with countries like the Czech Republic — where Roma face some of the worst persecution.
The common — racist — complaint in the press hysteria is that gypsies have “alien” customs and life-styles (begging for instance). Such racist attitudes are built upon long-time prejudice against Roma and other travelling people in the UK (Irish travellers are not Roma but are treated in the same way).
These racist ideas state: gypsies have always refused to integrate into a “host society"; this is wilfull, unreasonable behaviour; these people are sly; they want to be “foreign". Labour Minister Paul Boateng demonstrated this unthinking racism when he told the media that Romanian Roma could not expect to keep their culture (of begging) when in Britain. With his articulate barrister tones he said: “They can jolly well think again."
Paul Boateng wouldn’t dream of adopted such as stance towards any other group. Such attitudes are more extreme in eastern Europe where there are large communities of Roma.
In Europe, the Roma have been decreed illegal residents in their own property (Austria), banished beyond municipal boundaries (Czech Republic), been subject to racist discrimination in schooling (Serbia), hounded and beaten up by the police (Romania, Bulgaria).
A recent OSCE report highlights physical attacks on Roma: in Croatia, a 49 year old man is thrown onto rocks and kicked; Molotov cocktails are thrown into the bedroom window of three sleeping children in the Czech town of Tanvald; a 16 year old Macedonian girl and her brother are attacked outside their school; and so on, and so on.
In many instances of skinhead violence police are reluctant to investigate the crimes as being racially motivated and when these cases are prosecuted the courts do not automatically return the appropriate verdict — even when people have been murdered. Yet the courts do not hesitate to mete out punishment against Roma. Sentencing policies against Roma are often especially harsh.
Racist attacks are most prevalent in the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and the Slovak Republic, but they have also occurred in Albania, Austria, Bosnia, Croatia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Russia, Ukraine and Serbia.
Violence is also meted out by the police.
Roma can be excluded from public schooling. In certain countries of central and eastern Europe, Romani children have been put into “special schools" for the mentally disabled. The effect is to automatically disqualify Romani children from admission to certain secondary and tertiary educational institutions. Of course a large percentage of Romani children avoid school because they are made to feel unwelcome. For the same reason parents will keep their children out of school.
Rates of unemployment, poverty, illiteracy, poor health (e.g., tuberculosis) and infant mortality are extremely high among Roma. The ghettoisation of Roma into “settlements" only serves to exacerbate these problems.
High unemployment among Roma does not just occur in the poorer central and eastern European countries. In the Czech Republic, where the general unemployment rate is 10%, 70% of Roma are unemployed. Roma communities have been particularly hard hit by the collapse of Stalinist command economies and the transition to market economies. As state industries and agricultural concerns closed or were privatised, Roma tended to be the first to lose their jobs.
Politicians are often very blatant about repeating the racial stereotyping. For instance a former Prime Minister of the Slovak Republic, Vladimir Meciar referred to the Romani communities relatively high birth rate and publicly evoked the spectre “that this [population] ratio will be changing to the benefit of Romanies. That is why if we don’t deal with them now, then they will deal with us in time..." There is a dreadful paranoia being stirred up here. In the end such remarks do — in the minds of brainless idiots — legitimate racist attacks. Indeed the so-called criminality of “gypsies" has been used to excuse criminal attacks against them.
When 18 year old Slovakian Roma Mario Goral was beaten unconscious, doused in flammables and set alight and died, Ján Slota, the leader of the Slovak National Party, dismissed the crime as a reaction to “high Gypsy crime rates".
The labour movement in Britain needs to make itself aware of the dangerous situation for Roma in Europe, to arm itself with the arguments against the politicians who stir up hatred against all asylum seekers, to expose racism against all gypsies, and to be prepared to organise solidarity — particularly with those Roma seeking asylum in Britain.