Archive for Roma

The Struggle for Equality: When Will European Roma Human Rights Finally be Respected?

By Larissa Peltola, a staff writer for RightsViews and a graduate student in the Human Rights MA Program. 

The Roma, pejoratively referred to as Gypsies, are Europe’s largest and most marginalized and disenfranchised ethnic minority.  There are an estimated 10-12 million Roma in Europe, making up 5 percent of the population. The Roma are most concentrated in Italy, Spain, France, and the UK, according to Amnesty International, but have settled in every country on the continent. Originally migrating to Europe in the 9th century from Northern India and what is now Iran, Turkey, and Armenia, the Roma have faced discrimination, racism, xenophobia, and inhumane treatment in every country they have settled in. They were forced into slavery in most of Europe leading up to the 19th century, were the second-largest group targeted for extermination by the Third Reich (an estimated 25-75% of Europe’s Roma population were decimated in WWII), and were targeted for murder and rape during the conflict in Kosovo. 

Photo copyright: Archiv C891 Ungarische Zigeuner-Familie, Roma, unter deutscher Besatzung, 1940er https://www.flickr.com/photos/65091855@N03/24650497476

Today, the Roma are still described using the most common negative stereotypes: gypsies, thieves, criminals, savage, lazy, intellectually inferior, and other derogatory descriptions. A majority live in slums without access to running water or electricity and are at near-daily risk for violence committed by non-Roma European citizens. In 2019, six French men were arrested in a plot to burn down a Roma camp near Paris due to their belief in the baseless accusation that French Roma had been involved in a kidnapping ring in poor Parisian neighborhoods. Despite this failed attempt, anti-Roma sentiment and violence in France spiked soon after these racist and unfounded allegations circulated on social media. According to the New York Times, over several days Roma men were beaten and threatened according to advocacy groups. In Rome in 2017, three young Roma girls aged 4, 8, and 20 were burned alive when their camper-van was set on fire in an intentional attack on the camp. These are merely a few of countless examples of physical violence against the Roma.

European citizens are not the only ones guilty of inciting violence against the Roma. Government officials from several countries have used their influential platforms to call for violence against the Roma. French National Assembly Member Gilles Bourdouleix remarked in 2013: “Maybe Hitler didn’t kill enough of them.” Hungarian ruling Fidesz party co-founder Zsolt Bayer declared: “A significant part of the Roma are unfit for coexistence. They are not fit to live among people. These animals shouldn’t be allowed to exist. In no way. That needs to be solved — immediately and regardless of the method.”

Repeated violence and discrimination against the Roma continue to have a detrimental effect on their communities throughout Europe. Currently, 90% of Roma are at risk of extreme poverty, are subjected to forced evictions and deportations, face educational segregation, and on average, have lifespans that are ten years shorter than their non-Roma counterparts. Over 77% of Roma and Travellers (a similar nomadic but ethnically distinct group mainly living in Western Europe) in the UK have been victims of racially motivated attacks and hate crimes and in the UK, 70% of Roma experienced discrimination in seeking education, nearly 50% were refused employment due to their ethnicity, and 30% cannot access proper healthcare. Moreover, there are few recent reports on the overall status of the Roma in Europe as a majority of countries choose not to collect or take part in data collection.

This begs the question: why, in practice, have the rights of the Roma been left out of human rights discourses in Europe? This is a question that can only be answered honestly by confronting over a thousand years of racism, negative stereotypes, and xenophobia. Much of the discrimination they face has to do with the perception of their culture. Many Europeans view Roma culture as one that has a collective identity based upon a nomadic lifestyle, a group full of fortune tellers, beggars, thieves, child snatchers, people that are too lazy to work or get an education and instead choose to be a drain on society. Many believe that Roma lifestyles not only contradict, but are also inherently dangerous to the European way of life. These ideas emerged from a series of stereotypes imposed on them shortly after their enslavement in the 13th century. Consider the character of Esmerelda from the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Cher’s popular song Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves, or the reality show My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding which follows teen “Gypsy” brides. Each of these examples perpetuate the stereotypes of Roma girls as sexually promiscuous, Roma men as predators, and the Roma in general, as criminals. These myths were further perpetuated during the Holocaust and continue to spread throughout Europe today, made worse by social media. The Roma are continually scapegoated and are blamed for social, political, or economic problems facing the state.

Despite a large population, there is no central Roma authority since there is not one single Roma identity but instead a variety of unique cultural and linguistic groups throughout the continent. Moreover, there are few powerful Roma figures and very few politicians or others that can lobby on their behalf. The lack of advocacy on behalf of the Roma also comes from a lack of reliable data on their communities. On average, European countries do not dedicate enough resources for the collection of disaggregated data, which is essential in order to develop programs tailored to the needs of the community. Without this necessary data, financial resources cannot be allocated by the European Union, European Commission, and state governing bodies, thereby trapping the Roma into continued cycles of poverty. 

Incorporating Roma rights into the broader human rights framework necessitates an assessment of the legacy of colonialism in Europe that has gone unacknowledged and unaddressed. International organizations like Open Society Foundation, founded by George Soros, and Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s National Democratic Institute, have committed millions of dollars to advancing Roma rights throughout Europe, with varying degrees of success. However, many European politicians have pushed back on allowing for greater Roma participation in the social, cultural, and political field. Some countries have been accused of not distributing funds specifically allocated by international funders and the European Union for the advancement of Roma rights and community projects.  

The Roma have been victims of mass atrocities and genocide throughout history and continue to experience cultural genocide. Each European country where the Roma live has a legal and moral obligation to address the multitude of human rights violations against the Roma. States are responsible for correcting racial injustices by

  • integrating Roma children and adolescents into schools and putting in place mechanisms to prevent educational segregation, 
  • increasing access to the healthcare sector, 
  • developing discrimination and harassment training programs in all levels of society, especially for the police, prosecuting crimes against the Roma as hate crimes, and 
  • sentencing perpetrators of these crimes to the full extent of the law. 

If European countries continue to promote the idea that they are the defenders of human rights and that they fully embrace the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, then they must do more to protect the most vulnerable and disenfranchised population on their continent.

It is time that Roma citizens be treated with the dignity and respect under the law that is afforded to all other Europeans.

Roma Communities in the EU Continue to Lack Access to Equal Education Opportunities

By Claudia Kania, guest blogger from Reavis high school

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) released a statement in 2000 that acknowledged “the place of the Roma communities among those most disadvantaged and most subject to discrimination in the contemporary world.” Such socially and institutionally-accepted xenophobia is perhaps most clearly epitomized by the European school system. Although academic institutions are often portrayed as “the great equalizers,” a system founded on the principles of ignorance and prejudice frequently separates Roma, one of the largest minority groups in Europe, from reaping the benefits of education.

The right to education is universally established as a fundamental guiding principle within international human rights discourse. It is recognized as a human right by Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as Articles 28, 29, and 40 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. To further contextualize the premise of academic equity, UNESCO put forth the 1960 Convention against Discrimination in Education, an international legislative framework adopted to promote “the ideal of equality of educational opportunity without regard to race, sex or any distinctions, economic or social.” This convention recognizes education as not only a right in and of itself, but also as an intrinsic vehicle in realizing other rights. It is an instrument vital in securing a life free of financial hardship, disenfranchisement and social exclusion.

A report released in 2016 detailed the true scope of the expulsion of Roma communities to the fringes of European society. For example, while approximately 17 percent of EU citizens are at risk of poverty, that number is more than four times higher for Romani individuals. In the month prior to the study, only about 30 percent of Romani households received paid work. The Office for National Statistics further revealed that out of 60,000 individuals who identified as Roma, 60 percent had no formal schooling. Moreover, Roma individuals are often the victims of hate crimes and police brutality.  

Interior of container school for Roma children in Slovakia // Amnesty International

Segregation remains one of the primary obstacles standing between Roma pupils and equal education opportunities. Although prejudice is sometimes blatantly propagated by biased media and political campaigns, such instances present a gateway to other less conspicuous modes of discrimination. For instance, lower expectations for Roma students subsequently led to higher dropout rates within their communities, which substantially decreases the prospects of secondary and tertiary education for Roma individuals. This, in turn, translates to higher unemployment rates and hinders the participation of Roma in the democratic process. Thus, the cycle continues.

A 2015 report by Amnesty International illustrates discriminatory placement of Romani students in remote classes separating students from their non-Roma peers. A UNICEF report, specifically noting a 2002 case in Hungary, states that, in general, all-Roma classrooms typically lack fundamental resources otherwise available to students not of the Roma ethnicity, including experienced teachers and up-to-date curricula. More recently, the European Commission specifically targeted discrimination within Hungarian schools. Although EU member states are expected to abide by equal education frameworks, legal directives such as the Racial Equality Directive and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights oftentimes have little impact on institutionalized forms of ethnic discrimination.

In 2012, The Slovakian Regional Court condemned the segregation of Roma in its schools. Although the ruling sent a message to the Slovakian Ministry of Education regarding the country’s international obligations to provide impartial access to education, it did little to prevent ethnic-based segregation. Not only do schools continue to run all-Roma classes, but Slovakian Roma pupils are faced with the prospect of being sent to “container schools,” schools made from material resembling shipping containers, and isolated from the rest of Slovak society. When the guardians of Roma students attempt to enroll their children in non-container schools, their pleas are refused by school board officials who argue that their schools do not have the capacity to accommodate Roma pupils. The “convenient” construction of substandard learning institutions within close geographic proximity to Roma settlements is nothing other than an arm of ethnic discrimination and social exclusion, as noted by Amnesty International.

The European Roma community also faces another kind of widespread segregation: Roma pupils are frequently placed in learning disability schools, regardless of scholastic comprehension. A 2013 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights remarked that Hungary’s systematic misdiagnosis of learning disabilities violated the European Convention on Human Rights. In addition, a 2012 report by the Roma Education Fund highlights the prejudicial nature of such entrance level examinations, which focus specifically on cultural and linguistic biases.

A young student // Daniel Mihailescu/Getty

Cases of outright denial to enroll Romani children to academic institutions continue to remain prominent. The mayors of several French municipalities, for example, refused to enroll Roma children in public schools on the basis of their lack of certification. Certification, however, is not easily achieved by Roma parents, as informal settlements are almost never recognized by government officials. As identity documents remain largely inaccessible to Roma individuals, most families remain stateless. Thus, admission, in most cases, is granted only after the intervention of the French Ombudsmen. A recent article by the New York Times highlights the bureaucratic obstacles Roma students face when attempting to gain access to French schools. The country has made headlines due to the forced evacuation of hundreds of Roma families.

Former Columbia Law professor Jack Greenberg linked the Roma battle for equal education to the American Civil Rights Movement. Both groups have experienced the harrowing realities of slavery, societal disenfranchisement, and discrimination, propagated in part by stereotyping in a biased media. Schools today segregate non-Roma students from their Roma peers, providing the latter with substandard educational resources. The case of Horváth and Kiss v. Hungary bears a striking resemblance to Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Although both rely on the concept of strategic litigation, the successful implementation of anti-discriminatory education policy is currently a far reach for contemporary Europe. It will require not only the willingness of policymakers, but also the active mobilization of Roma civil society.

Locally, individual schools should engage in active redistricting in order to achieve ethnic diversity within academic institutions, as well as incorporate Romani culture into standing curricula to promote diversity and ethnic tolerance. It is well within the means of any school within the EU to guarantee an environment based on social inclusion and academic equity. Likewise, it is crucial that international bodies, such as the European Commission and European Union,  apply political pressure on national governments to uphold international and national legislative standards of equality. The implementation of such standards and their effects on academic institutions should be monitored by national bodies, benefiting from the interests of both grassroot NGOs and international donors.

Claudia Kania is a contributing researcher for the University of Cambridge Centre for Governance and Human Rights research project, “ICTs and Human Rights,” as well as featured writer for the Oxford Human Rights Hub. Her research interests include minority rights, women’s rights, and education policy.