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The Dangers Faced by Roma in Europe Today

Thursday, September 24, 2009

DESCRIPTION:
Rob Kushen, the Managing Director of the European Roma Rights Center, discuss human rights abuses against Roma in Europe today.

TRANSCRIPT:
ARIANA BERENGAUT: Welcome to Voices on Genocide Prevention podcast. This is Ariana Berengaut, your guest host for this week’s episode.

For centuries, Europeans stigmatized the Roma, sometimes referred to as gypsies, as social outcasts and scapegoats. When World War II broke out in 1939, the Nazi regime intensified its persecution of the Roma, transporting them to ghettos and concentration camps across Europe. While it is not known precisely how many Roma were killed in the Holocaust, scholars believe that the Nazis killed up to 220,000 Roma, which was around one-quarter of the entire population of European Roma. We’ve invited Rob Kushen to talk about human rights abuses against Roma in Europe today. Rob Kushen is the Managing Director of the European Rights Roma Centre. Hello, Rob, and thank you for joining our program.

ROB KUSHEN: Thanks for having me, and thanks for covering this subject.

ARIANA BERENGAUT: Can you give us some background on the Roma today. Where do they live and what types of discrimination and dangers they continue to face?

ROB KUSHEN: Sure. Well, they are, by most accounts, the largest minority group in Europe. The population numbers are not known with certainty, but the estimates range on the order of 10 to 12 million people and they live throughout Europe. There are large concentrations in Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and countries in Eastern Europe. But there are also an estimated 150,000 in Italy, a couple hundred thousand in France and in Germany as well. So they’re pretty much everywhere in Europe. There are some in the United States in addition, and in other parts of the world.

And as far as the kinds of discrimination they face, it is perhaps not quite as serious as the existential threats faced during the Second World War and the Holocaust, but quite serious indeed. And in fact, interesting to note that in the run-up to the European Parliament elections this year, a far right extremist party in the Czech Republic was running television advertisements calling for a final solution to the gypsy problem, deliberately evoking the effort to exterminate Roma as well as Jews during the Second World War.

For the most part, the problems faced by Roma in Europe are, they vary in intensity but they are similar. They face acts of violence, both state sponsored acts of violence, acts of police abuse, as well as violence by private individuals, extremist groups, skinheads and the like. They face deliberate segregation in schools and in housing, discrimination in employment. There is a legacy of coercive sterilization of Romani women, which unfortunately, there are still cases being reported of coercive sterilizations in countries like the Czech Republic and Slovakia. So it’s a wide variety of abuses, a lot of problems connected with forced eviction and being rendered homeless, having their property destroyed, being subject to physical abuse during the course of being forcibly evicted from informal settlements or illegal squats.

ARIANA BERENGAUT: Are Roma citizens of the countries that they reside in?

ROB KUSHEN: In some cases yes, and in some cases no and citizenship is certainly an issue for some Roma. There was a great migration of Roma out of the countries of former Yugoslavia and across the borders of countries within the former Yugoslavia as a result of the conflict there in the ’90s. And so you have a number of Roma who either are stateless as a result or have gone to other countries and do not have the citizenship of the country where they reside.

ARIANA BERENGAUT: You mentioned the TV ad in the Czech Republic. Is this sentiment broadly held and accepted sort of nationwide, or are the dangers really posed from far right fringe groups?

ROB KUSHEN: Well I think the far right groups in the Czech Republic, Hungary and elsewhere are, to some extent, reflecting a popular sentiment. To some extent, they are feeding a popular sentiment and kind of reinforcing it as a-- so I think there’s a kind of two-way feedback mechanism. I don’t think that if you poled people in the Czech Republic they would be advocating extermination of the Roma. But on the other hand, when you poll them and ask them if you want to live next to a Roma person, if you want work with a Roma person, if you want your children going to school with Romani children, the majority of citizens will say no. So the underlying discrimination and intolerance toward Roma is a widely held view throughout the region. And, again, I don’t want to just pick on Eastern Europe because the situation in Italy for example is just as bad.

ARIANA BERENGAUT: Could you actually speak about the situation for Roma in Italy and particularly the role of the Italian Government in sort of perpetrating the...

ROB KUSHEN: Yes. Well, I think Italy is a very a disturbing situation because precisely of the role of the government. This is a country where a year ago, the government essentially declared Roma a security threat and has dealt with Roma in that context and passed a number of emergency decrees and laws, both at a national level and at municipal levels, to try to stem the flow of Roma into the country, to try to force or persuade Roma to leave the county, and to in general make life very difficult for them. And this is a deliberate government policy which continues unabated to this day. The government has been actively engaged in forcibly destroying Roma settlements, rendering many people homeless. And under the guise of so-called census activity, trying to identify Roma that may not have adequate legal status to remain in Italy and expelling them and trying to create a climate, again, that would discourage any other Roma from other parts of Europe from migrating to Italy.

ARIANA BERENGAUT: Has there been any sort of international pressure on Italy to abate...

ROB KUSHEN: There has been some. And the European Roma Rights Centre together with the Open Society Justice Initiative and also the OsservAzione and some other groups in Italy have been pressing the issue and encouraging the European Commission to look at violations of European law that Italy has committed through its laws, policies, and practices directed against Roma. But I would say, up until now, the response from the international community, from other governments in particular, has been weak. And the reason for that is that they-- there’s, I suppose, a certain sympathy both for Italy’s efforts to deal not just with Roma migrants, but with migrants from other countries that are considered undesirable, as well as a specific sympathy with dealing with the Roma. And so I think the response from Europe has not been as strong as it should be.

ARIANA BERENGAUT: Has the E.U. provided any sort of guidance?

ROB KUSHEN: No. And that’s, as I said, that’s where we’ve been looking because for example, what Italy is doing calls into question its commitment to allow free movement of European Union citizens. As many of the people, Roma in Italy, first of all, many of them are Italian citizens and they’re being affected as well. But those who are not, many of them are from E.U. member states. And so it does not seem that Italy is interested in living up to its commitments to allow E.U. citizens to come to Italy and live there and work there. It’s also, in our view, violated the commitment to ensure data privacy through its census activity of finger printing and photographing of Roma citizens, and also violated antidiscrimination provisions because their-- many of Italy’s actions are directed specifically at Roma populations. In fact, you know, the laws refer, in many cases, to so-called nomads, which is widely accepted as a term that refers only to Roma. And it preserves the mythology that Roma are not really-- that this is not a settled sedentary population, that these are nomads, which happens to be factually wrong, but also makes clear that the people that Italy is really targeting with many of its actions are Roma.

ARIANA BERENGAUT: Have any states been particularly successful at protecting Roma rights?

ROB KUSHEN: Well, I think some states have made strides. I think a number of the Scandinavian countries have done a better job, and they tend to do a better job with addressing the rights of minorities and migrants in addition to the Roma population specifically. I think that in Eastern Europe there’s been a certain amount of progress made in governments adopting at a very high level, broad, policy-- from a broad policy perspective, adopting favorable policies against discrimination and in favor of inclusion and integration. But those policies tend to be ineffective, not implemented, and have little impact.

ARIANA BERENGAUT: Are you optimistic for the future, or do you see the overall situation as just deteriorating?

ROB KUSHEN: Well, I suppose if you’re in an advocacy position, you have to be optimistic.

ARIANA BERENGAUT: Absolutely.

ROB KUSHEN: But I think that in the short term, the situation is not good. I think it has deteriorated. I think the economic downturn does not help, and it just exacerbates tensions. It makes resource allocation questions much more fraught at the level of domestic politics, and unfortunately, in the last year, in certain countries we’ve seen both a rise of violence and a rise of extremist politics, which is quite disturbing.

ARIANA BERENGAUT: Absolutely. Well thank you so much for your time and for speaking with us today.

ROB KUSHEN: Thank you again for covering the topic. I appreciate the opportunity to let more people know about the issue.

NARRATOR: You have been listening to Voices on Genocide Prevention, from United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. To learn more about responding to and preventing genocide, join us online at www.ushmm.org/genocide.
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