- Nobody’s Problem: Everybody’s Scapegoat?
Throughout Europe, malignant racial hatred is being targeted against travelling communities. Sam Beale investigates.
Squall 11, Autumn 1995, pp. 64-66.
As if to knock the last of the romance out of the fiddle-playing, painted-wagon-dwelling, wide-open-road version of the travellers’ life story it is now becoming crystal-ball clear that many are travelling great distances to escape constant discrimination, oppressive legislation and increasing racist attacks and death threats.
For European Roma seeking asylum from racial hatred, as for British travellers leaving this country to escape harassment or prosecution under the CJA, there is a growing necessity to shift to pastures new. But for many travellers, particularly Eastern European Roma, there is simply nowhere to go. Many Gypsy asylum seekers are not even getting past the institutionalised racism in place at border control.
Earlier this year the editor of the Polish Romani newspaper R Rom po Drom warned of “a new wave of violence against the Romani population in Poland”. Right across Europe anti-Roma racist attacks are reported more and more frequently. “Gypsy people have not been in so much danger from racism and xenophobia since the war: the resurgence of hatred and discrimination is very strong”, says Peter Mercer, President of the Gypsy Council for Education, Culture, Welfare and Civil Right and member of the Presidium of the International Romani Union. While stressing that all Gypsies suffer prejudice, he believes that “no matter how badly off we think we are in England, we’re far better off than other gypsy people, especially in Eastern Europe”.
For generations Central and Eastern European Roma have lived with the highest rates of poverty, unemployment and illiteracy their countries have to offer. On these margins of society economic hardship takes its toll, crime rates soar and prejudices deepen. Often denied citizenships, Roma are perceived as a ‘suspect community’, considered outside the protection of the law. The European Race Audit, published by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), regularly reports cases of blatant discrimination against Roma by police and other authorities. “That’s why we don’t trust many people,” says Mercer, “it’s why we don’t trust many authorities and the police because legislation never benefits Gypsies.”
Since the collapse of communism a familiar pattern is emerging for Roma in Eastern Europe. Peter Mercer believes that: “Unlike the communist system which provided jobs for life there’s now the free for all which usually takes place in a capitalist society and Gypsy people in these countries are suffering resentment.”
On these margins of society, economic hardship takes its toll, crime rates soar, and prejudices deepen.
Liz Fekete of the IRR agrees: “A lot of the old racism was sat upon by the communist system. They pretended that everything was liberated and wonderful and all those things belonged to the past.” So, with the end of state control and increases in unemployment, economic hardship and crime come insecurity, a rise in nationalism and now all those old prejudices are re- emerging.
One recent Polish National Front leaflet, entitled ‘Poles Wake Up’ describes Gypsy people in predictably rabid and offensive terms. The leaflet incites Polish people to make “this riff-raff realise that they are not at home and they have to respect the wishes of their hosts.” It describes Roma as “an ethnical group devoid of any culture, without any religious and moral ideals”.
On the contrary, Roma have lived in Poland since at least the fifteenth century. They, like Gypsies throughout the world, have strong family ties, their own language, music and dances; moral, ethical and cleanliness laws; and a variety of religious beliefs. This is a rich culture which has been systematically crushed through forced assimilation and poverty so that parts of the Romani language or laws have been lost or abandoned. For many the desire to live a nomadic life has been entirely suppressed over generations through the implementation of mandatory settlement programmes.
Facing prejudice and intolerance with little or no support from governments or local authorities, many Roma families are seeking asylum in Western European countries, mostly Germany and France and increasingly the UK.
Polish Romani children Taisa aged 11, and her brother Tobias aged 9, have been in London with their parents, uncle, aunt and cousins for over a year. At a homelessness project in Central London Taisa straightforwardly informed SQUALL: “People wanted to kill us back in Poland, that’s why we came here.” She misses her grandfather and fears for him and the rest of her family still in Poland. “I’m frightened,” she whispered, “that the people who wanted to kill us in Poland will come here too.” Regardless of her fears it is doubtful that Taisa and her family will be granted permanent asylum in this country.
At the beginning of the 1990s the IRR warned that Europe is being effectively closed to asylum seekers by an international programme of immigration control. The Director of the IRR, A Sivanandan believes that modern European racism is about protecting prosperity. He says: “The point is to keep (Gypsys) out.... the democratic way of doing that is to criminalise them first - through the due process of the law.”
This is being achieved through the work of groups like Trevi (Terrorism, radicalism, extremism and violence), an international cabal of police chiefs and government ministers set up in 1976 to police free movement and exchange information to aid the ‘removal’ of ‘undesirables’. Its post- Cold War concern has been the perceived internal security threat posed by non-citizens seeking asylum in European countries. Roma are often stateless non-citizens for whom national boundaries are meaningless. Peter Mercer does not believe in borders “not where Gypsy people are concerned. We’re transcontinental”.
This is, however, a highly vulnerable position as policies of all Western European countries are hostile to Gypsies. “In fact,” says Liz Fekete, “in most countries they are being repatriated en masse.”
Deportation agreements exist between European countries so, for example, Germany has a formal agreement with Romania (where there around two million Roma) which means that asylum-seekers are forcibly sent back to Romania in exchange for monetary assistance to the Romanian government. France has a similar agreement with Romania.
Co-operation over immigration between European countries means that genuine victims of persecution are simply being sent ‘home’. The ‘safe country’ policy in place throughout Europe ensures that refugees can be returned to countries pronounced ‘safe’ regardless of the persecution they fear. The IRR is clear that the intention of these initiatives is to declare most of the world ‘safe’ for asylum-seekers, whatever the reality.
Romania is therefore ‘safe’ for Roma despite increasing occurrences of lynchings, man-hunts and burnings of their homes.
In May this year Amnesty International published a damning report on the attitude of the Romanian Government to attacks on Roma. The report said that a “nationwide pattern of inadequate police protection” has “encouraged further acts of racist violence against Gypsies” and “the responsibility for these human rights violations ultimately lies with the Romanian Government and other national authorities”. At about the same time as this report was published the Romanian Government announced that Roma are now to be officially called ‘Tigan’ (which Roma find offensive) in order to “prevent any possible confusion between Romanians and the Gypsies”.
The British Refugee Council has noted that public recognition of Roma as an ethnic minority, as happened in the Czech and Slovak Republic in 1992, is primarily for show and, in reality, there is no increase in support and no change in their treatment. Deemed ‘safe’ by Western Europe, governments are free to openly deny that they have a problem with anti-Roma racism. In Liz Fekete’s experience “governments tend to be very hostile to any kind of monitoring” so little information comes out.
Earlier this year the MEP for Central London, Stan Newens, contacted the British Home Secretary, Michael Howard, and the Polish Prime Minister, Josef Olesky, about Polish Roma after he was approached by a delegation of asylum-seekers. The Polish Government, with one eye on their application to enter the EU, replied: “The attacks on [Polish] Gypsies are scarce and usually less violent than in many other European countries.”
The Press Attache at the Polish Embassy in London, Mr Kolczynski, told SQUALL: “There is no prejudice and there is no problem with Gypsies in Poland. I’m surprised that you are asking such a question.” He was of the opinion (given widely to deny persecution and justify repatriation) that Gypsies from all over Europe seeking asylum in Germany, France and the UK are doing so to “improve their standard of living”. He claimed to have seen no reports of attacks on or prejudice against Polska Roma: “Absolutely not.”
Often denied citizenship, Roma are perceived as a ‘suspect community’, considered outside the protection of the law.
Nonetheless in 1993 18,454 Roms and Pols (by far the majority Roms) were arrested during attempts to cross the Oder River into Germany. Currently there are 1,000 or so Polish Gypsies seeking asylum in Britain. 250 arrived in March last year. Some have been randomly held in detention centres, none have been given refugee status and it is extremely unlikely that they will be; Poland is ‘safe’.
The British Home Office response to Mr Newens’ inquiries included the less than water-tight opinion that: “Although it cannot be denied that there is prejudice against Gypsies in Eastern Europe, such prejudice and the consequences of it fall short of what would be necessary to be regarded as persecution either by the state or by ‘agents of persecution.” There was no mention in the Home Office letter about how much (or how little) is being done by either the Polish government or local police and authorities to curb attacks.
Mr Newens told SQUALL that he found this response “extremely disappointing but not perhaps surprising since refugees from places like Turkey, where torture is used on a routine basis and executions are common, are not being accepted as refugees either.”
For Gypsies remaining in or returned to ‘safe’ countries, official denials that attacks are racially motivated can only legitimise attacks and fuel twisted notions that they must have ‘asked for it’, and are indeed part of a suspect community. In Hungary, the Minister of the Interior did not identify racial hatred as t|ie reason for a pogrom against Gypsies in Ketegyhaza in 1992 when villagers threw petrol bombs into the homes of Roma and “burnt their horses alive in the stables” (IRR). The same minister described “most skinheads” as “honest Hungarians” whilst a member of the Democratic Forum in Hungary called fascists petitioning parliament “well-intentioned children”. In this way the mindless racism of the NF leaflet is reflected in high level mindful racism as such attitudes are institutionalised in European laws and regurgitated by politicians.
These views are in turn propagated through the media. The speed with which public opinion can be manufactured and prejudice turned into ‘fact’ is not news. In a very few years sometimes slack but more often grossly biased and poorly informed media coverage has led to all travellers in Britain being tarred with the same ‘marauding locust’ brush. Media stories about travellers and the prejudice these spawned were dragged up to justify measures to ‘deal’ with travellers contained in the Criminal Justice Act 1994.
Internationally, fascist violence has been used to justify the need for legislative controls on immigration. In 1991, on a visit to Luxembourg, John Major said: “If we fail in our control efforts (of refugees) we risk fuelling the far Right.”
Let’s just get this straight: We, as a nation, are to refuse requests for asylum from people who face daily prejudice and increasing threats from fascists, because it might encourage fascism? Gypsies are, according to this tired argument, the cause of racial hatred and the Gypsy-haters, the Gypsy-maimers and the Gypsy-murderers are not to be offended by the sight of those they hate or wish to maim and murder. The extension of this argument is, as Sivanandan has observed: “No refugees equals no fascism.” So, if there are no Gypsies then no-one hates Gypsies. Does it follow that, if there are no women then no women are raped and if there is no justice then no-one is unjust?
In fact the result of current European immigration policies is most likely to be increased racism in the countries Roma wish to leave. Dr Thomas Acton, Reader in Romani Studies at the University of Greenwich, told SQUALL: “There is always the danger that localised violence might fuel right-wing parties proposing expulsion or even genocide as a so-called solution, and if countries in the West insist on repatriating Romani refugees from Eastern Europe by force that will make that genocidal situation more likely”.
When Roma flee a country, fascism obviously does not disappear but finds other targets. Liz Fekete believes that when Roma are repatriated “they will return with the stigma of being people who the West don’t want and the fascism will intensify. The East is embarrassed by Gypsies fleeing to the West so they will hate them even more”.
European Gypsies are between the rock of intolerance and lack of support in their own countries and the hard place of indifference from abroad. Governments within ‘fortress Europe’ ignore Eastern European Roma whilst legislating against their own travelling communities. The process of Gypsy marginalisation continues as illegal immigration becomes the only escape route. All travellers are haunted by their image as a suspect community which few seek to understand much less support: they are nobody’s problem and everybody’s scapegoat.
Positive initiatives to promote Roma culture, language and education do exist and funds are being made available for research and education via the European Union and independent sources such as the Soros Foundation. However, until anti- Roma persecution is internationally recognised as such and governments call a racist a racist and a refugee a refugee, there can be little optimism. Gypsy and traveller sites are being legislated out of existence and education systems acknowledging Gypsy culture are barely on the agendas of European governments.
Travelling communities remain among the scapegoats for the current European economic and political malaise, it is left to the efforts of the international Gypsy community and anti-racist organisations to put pressure on governments and encourage travellers to “speak with one voice,” as Peter Mercer says. Despite these new coalitions, the road to respect, tolerance and equality for Gypsy people is still likely to be long, hard and uphill.
RACIAL ABUSE OF EUROPEAN ROMA IN 1995
• An internal inquiry into the Bologna state police has revealed frequent use of violence against Roma.
• In Poland earlier this year a Romany man and woman were shot while they were sleeping. Apparently their son had been involved in a car accident in which two people died. Revenge may be the motive.
• Earlier this year a hospital near Rome refused to treat a two-month old Roma baby suffering from bronchitis because the parents did not have the 6,000 lire (£2) it would cost. The baby died.
• In South West France local authorities regularly refuse travellers the right to use campsites, electricity, educational facilities or medical care. A systematic expulsion policy against travellers is also in operation in some municipalities.
• In January residents and police attacked Bulgarian Roma, including children and elderly people. After complaining to their mayor the Roma were attacked again by police who raided their homes and fired gunshots into the air. Four people received gunshot wounds. Fifteen were severely beaten. Several Roma were arrested.
• A Padua police officer has been sentenced to one year, five months and 10 days’ imprisonment (with a conditional suspension of the sentence) for shooting dead an 11-year old Roma child who was being held illegally. Tarzan Sulic and his 13 year old cousin Mirja Djuric were detained with no food or drink for five hours. Despite protests there is to be no appeal and the case is closed.
• In Italy the White Brotherhood claimed responsibility for a grotesque attack on two Romany children from the former Yugoslavia. The two children aged 13 and 3 were begging on the Pisa-Florence motorway. A car stopped and they were handed a package which looked like a toy doll. When they opened it it exploded. Sengul Demirovska lost her right arm and three fingers from her left hand in the explosion. Her body was peppered with metal fragments and she needed plastic surgery. Her little brother lost the sight of one eye and needed plastic surgery to his face and hands. Three men have been arrested in connection with the attack. They have links with a 20 year-old Italian arrested for an attack in January on a five year old boy Matteo Salkanovic who was seriously injured when a book of fairy tales exploded.
The European Race Audit is published quarterly by the Institute of Race Relations, 2-6 Leeke Street, King’s Cross Road, London WC1X 9HS.
Wishes For Zuzana - Sam Beale was recently invited to a Romany christening. She reports on the vibrancy of European Gypsy culture - Squall 12, Spring 1996. (not yet online).
Mending The Mirror - Romany history is oral, music and dance- based. Sam Beale dicovers both myth and legend in the Gypsy story - Squall 12, Spring 1996. (not yet online).