An Olympic hurdle few are willing to tackle

Racism in democratic Europe? On its own doorstep? Surely not? Yet human rights abuses continue to take place against the Roma, an ancient people unjustly vilified down the centuries and still struggling to survive.

Today, there are an estimated 10 to 12 million Roma living in Europe (approximately six million in the European Union). Roma people are the largest ethnic minority in Europe and the EU has repeatedly stressed the need to integrate them better. However, strong and effective measures are still not in place to tackle the deep-rooted prejudices they face in society and government.

The following comes from “Killing Time: The Lethal Force of Anti-Roma Racism”, an article by Bernard Rorke published 18 July 2012 on the Open Society Institute’s web site. I quote passages verbatim for those who do not ordinarily read horror stories.

“In the aftermath of the gun attack on a Roma family in Slovakia on June 17 by an off-duty policeman which left three dead and two wounded, there followed a surge of online support for the gunman. According to Irena Bihariová, from People against Racism: ‘Public discussions turned into mass glorification of the murderer and hateful responses towards the victims.’ She warned of heightened inter-ethnic tension where public debate styled the assailant as a hero and the victims as the guilty parties.”

“Earlier, in April 2012, in the neighbouring Czech Republic in the town of Chotěbuz, a Roma man was killed, shot in the head with a crossbow. The assailant claimed the victim was one of three men intent on committing a robbery, and that he had been aiming at their feet. The victim’s cousin alleged that he shouted, “You black whores, I’ll kill you,” before deliberately taking aim and firing. The attacker later expressed his appreciation for the rally of support by the extremist Workers Social Justice Party, and the 600 signatures on a petition organized by local people in his defence.”

“In January 2012, two Roma brothers aged 22 and 24 were shot, the younger killed, by a 63-year-old local retired businessman who happened to be by the railway tracks on the outskirts of the Czech village of Desna at 1:30 a.m. and carrying a firearm. State attorney, Lenka Bradáčová immediately ruled out a racial motive, and on June 18 announced that the man would not be charged as he ‘used a firearm to prevent an attack on him and not to cause injury or death’.”

“That same week in January, in the Prague 3 district of Jarov, three youths confessed to the brutal murder of a Roma woman, who was beaten, kicked and stabbed to death. According to local residents, the attackers, known for giving Nazi salutes in the streets, had been harassing and assaulting homeless people in the area for weeks prior to the murder. One of the perpetrators was remanded in custody.”

There is more in the full story. The racism comes to the surface in the form of denial, hate speech, desecrations, physical attacks, murders, and tragic events like the one in Norway just over a year ago. It represents a formidable challenge both to public attitudes to human rights and to the European Union itself, especially its well-intentioned “Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies”. The Framework includes many laudable policy initiatives, but lacks teeth and includes a weak argument about the potential economic benefit to the larger community:

“Greater participation of Roma in the labour market would improve economic productivity, reduce government payments for social assistance and increase revenue from income taxes… [T]he tax benefits of Roma integration in the labour market are estimated to be around € 175 million annually per country. All of these important economic and financial consequences of Roma integration could in turn foster a climate of greater openness to the Roma people with the general public and thereby contribute to their smooth integration in the communities of which they are part.” And pigs might fly.

Back to Bernard Rorke. According to Human rights of Roma and Travellers in Europe (2012), a report by the EU’s Commissioner for Human Rights, “The anti-Roma rhetoric from politicians and media has often preceded acts by vigilantes such as mob violence and pogroms, and ‘distorted minds’ can and do understand such messages as a call ‘for action’: ‘We see today a growing number of attacks on Roma committed by individuals mobilized by racist anti-Roma ideology. These are premeditated attacks, with the intent to kill, that target random individuals or families because of their ethnicity’.”

“In 1993 Vaclav Havel described the Roma issue as the litmus test for the new democracies. In 2012 it’s become a litmus test for democracies across the entire European Union. Today the reality for many Roma citizens remains one of dread and fear. The challenge facing Europe is to banish that fear, guarantee the safety and security of its citizens and ensure that the rule of law prevails without prejudice across all Member States.”


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