A Forgotten People: The Roma in Europe

 /  May 20, 2018, 10:28 p.m.

romani flag

“He who wants to enslave you will never tell you the truth about your forefathers.”                 - Romani Proverb

On April 4, the United Nations published a report urging France to do more to correct the “inhumane situation” faced by many refugees and asylum-seekers on its Northern coast. The report, however, stopped short of providing more information about the asylum-seekers. It is worthwhile to ask: who are these nameless, faceless refugees? Perhaps the most nameless and faceless of these are the Roma immigrants, present across Europe. The current persecution and oppression of the Roma isn’t unique; it has existed throughout their history.

Who are the Roma?

The Roma (or Gypsies) originated from India and are reported to have moved on from the area around 800 CE to the Byzantine empire and onwards to different parts of Europe for reasons that are still debated today. Almost immediately the Roma were met with discrimination due to their darker skin and unknown language, eventually being forced into slavery to finance the Crusades. As noted in Gheorghe Portra’s book in 1939, an observer named Wickenhauer, noted the Roma as “debased creatures, inferior even to the animals,” an attitude which eventuated circularly to a conception of the Gypsies as born slaves. Slaves were boiled alive in cauldrons and slowly tortured to death, while women were incessantly raped and after such brutal servitude, were made to pay tribute to the State and their owners. (read Roberte Roleine’s 1978 publication, reported on by Ian Hancock and J.W. Ozanne’s Three Years in Rumania) This slave system persisted for the next five centuries and has been largely forgotten by the books of history.   

After the abolishment of slavery in the mid-nineteenth century, the situation for the Roma didn’t improve much. Racial prejudice and poor economic conditions persisted through Europe, and some faced conditions so depraved that they returned to the owners from whom they had been liberated, as written by Anton Grauer in 1934 in Les mots tsiganes en Roumain. The Bavarian police established information services on the Romani as early as 1899 and recorded fingerprints, photographs and identification cards to surveil the Roma population. Reminiscent of the age of their slavery when they were forbidden access to recreational areas and were seen, according to Jeremy Noakes, a German historian (in his 1985 publication, Life in the Third Reich: social outcasts in Nazi Germany), as “asocial, a source of crime, culturally inferior, a foreign body within the nation.” The Roma were systematically identified and tested for the determination of the “purity” of their race. After such extensive studies, Dr. Robert Ritter, director of the Research Center for Racial Hygiene and Population Biology, concluded, as mentioned in Angus Fraser’s The Gypsies, that the “mental backwardness” of the Gypsies made them “incapable of real social adaptation.”

The Forgotten Holocaust

The mid-1930s onwards, the Roma were subjected to increasingly draconian racial laws, sterilization campaigns, and were forced into municipal and labour camps. Not only did the Nazis begin their campaigns against the Roma before the Jews, but they also utilised the Roma as an experimental population. As written by Ian Hancock in The Pariah Syndrome, one of the foremost scholars on Roma, “The subsequent classificatory treatment of Jews was in fact derived from, and patterned upon, those developed for the Romani population.”

Ian Hancock also writes that no Roma writer outlived the Porajmos (Gypsy word for the Holocaust), which makes it difficult to realise their sufferings. However, some information is available through Jewish testimonies: pregnant women’s stomachs were slit open, and women were buried alive with their fetus; children regularly died in medical experiments; twins were sewn together to resemble the Siamese twins and in one such case, their parents were reported to have killed them after giving them morphine; entire Roma camps were liquidated; those who tried to escape were made to sit in boxes and nails were driven through from the outside. These realities have been documented prominently by Edmond Paris’s Genocide in Satellite Croatia, Helen Davis’s Angels of Life, and Eugene Kogon’s The Theory and Practice of Hell. The Porajmos wiped out a little over a fourth of the entire Roma population at the time. Needless to say, this portion of the Holocaust has scarcely been mentioned in the books of history.

Post-War Treatment

The victors of the war proved themselves to have little more character than their enemies in regards to the Roma, who were ignored and denied the most elementary of rights. During the Nuremberg trials, not one Romani was summoned to testify by the Allied prosecutors. Because the Roma (due to the impacts of their everlasting persecution) were unable to galvanize, they were ignored by those ‘denazifying’ society; denazification was selective. The Roma were denied any compensation following the war not only because of ignorance but due to active prejudice: as noted by Donald Kenrick and Grattan Puxon in The Destiny of Europe’s Gypsies, the Interior Ministry of Wurttemberg on May 9, 1950 ruled they had been persecuted “not for any racial reason but because of an asocial and criminal record.” Such attitudes were prevalent throughout Europe. A 1960 British law (the Caravan Sites and Development Act) even allowed authorities to destroy existing Gypsy settlements, with a local politician speaking of the necessity to “exterminate” them. Nazi sentiments were well alive, only the victims were more acceptable.

The Gypsies received similar treatment elsewhere. The US Holocaust Memorial Council, established in 1979 by Jimmy Carter, comprised 65 individuals, but not a single Roma. In 1984, Gypsies travelled to the Memorial to protest in person, but Seymour Seigel, executive director of the Council at the time, dismissed Gypsy representation as a “cockamamie idea.” When new appointments were made to the Council in 1986, despite substantial efforts by the World Romani Union and the US Romani Council, no Gypsy representative was appointed. In fact, White House spokesman Linas Kojelis is reported by Ian Hancock to have told a World Romani Union representative that Gypsies would have received more acknowledgement if they were a more powerful population. The Roma were simply not important enough.

The Kosovo Conflict and Continued Suppression

One of the most significant limitations of historical analysis is the inability to travel backwards in time and experiment with the situations of the past; sometimes, however, history is kind enough to do this for us. The Kosovo war has overwhelmingly been documented as the conflict between ethnic Albanians and Serbs—the victims of the genocide were numerous enough to galvanise the struggles for Albanian rights. Unfortunately, the Roma weren’t, and as always, the weak suffer what they must. The Roma were most pathetically ignored.

As Rainer Schulze reports, the population of the Roma in Kosovo changed from 5 to 10 percent to 1.1 percent after the conflict. The European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) reported the rape, abduction, torture, burning and looting of Romani houses and inadequacy of the actions by the Kosovo Force (KFOR). In fact, they wrote to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees Protection Officer Dietrun Gunther on July 4, 1999 that the Roma still stuck in Kosovo were in dire need of security measures. Gunther’s reply was that she was “preoccupied” with the returns of ethnic Albanians. The ERRC correctly reported that these weren’t unfortunate events, but the “failure of legitimate authorities to protect against abuses and provide remedies when they occur.”

Furthermore, the refugee camps set up by the UN for the victims of Kosovo were alongside lead-smelting plants, known to be a source of environmental contamination since the 1970s, which expectedly caused severe lead poisoning among children and diseases from gout and dementia to autoimmune and cardiovascular disorders. A Human Rights Advisory Panel of the UN report as late as 2016 made astounding discoveries. Not only were the camps contaminated, but also had living conditions devoid of running water, electricity, a consistent food supply, and even proper healthcare. Though the horrid conditions of this camp (documented even by the World Health Organisation) were blatant and reports by the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) found unacceptable levels of lead contamination, the camp remained open until 2013, because UNMIK and KFOR were “unwilling to move again into secondary displacement.” Moreover, in a move which would impress even the most repressive totalitarians, the UN tried to pass laws exempting the Kosovo Force (KFOR) and UNMIK from any legal process.

In 2017, Secretary General Antonio Guterres offered nothing more than “profound regret” to the victims, unable to offer any concrete plans to better the Romani situation in Europe. The STP reported the Kosovo conflict to be “the worst Gypsy pogrom since 1945”:  indeed, when the refugee camps intended to bring victims much-needed safety are devoid of proper living conditions and even actively poisonous, it is impossible for victims to find respite.

The Realities of the Present

Tragically, but expectedly, the situation hasn’t improved much for the Roma. One would think it to be a truism that after a horrific pogrom such as the one in Kosovo, the victims would be rehabilitated; however, this wasn’t the case for the Roma. Just as after the Porajmos, they suffered pathetic treatment following the incidents of Kosovo. Many Roma fled the pogrom to countries in Western Europe such as Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, etc. From 1999 to 2010, 51,000 Roma were forcibly returned to Kosovo. The reasons for such weren’t unpredictable. For example, Germany claimed to adhere to the UNMIK’s “Readmission Policy” (decided on January 1, 2008) and the UNHCR’s report of May 2009; German policy makers incidentally (or willfully) neglected the part of the report which stressed that the victims need extensive assistance from their host countries and must only be returned voluntarily. The positions of the other countries weren’t much different.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) described the approach of such countries as “short-sighted,” an unforgivably lenient term in the context: those being forcibly returned faced difficulties with basic human rights such as access to education, healthcare, employment, social and welfare. 40 percent of the Roma in Kosovo lived in extreme poverty at the time, alive on less than a dollar a day. This doesn’t even begin to estimate the emotional trauma it must take to return to a place where one was the victim of a genocide. German authorities defended their actions as the returns were “phased and responsible,” even though they were returning the Roma to places were basic human rights were unavailable. HRW even speculates that the poor treatment of such refugees by Western governments is to encourage those threatened with deportation to voluntarily leave with small financial compensations. In fact, like the Roma Ashkhalia Documentation Center’s report from August 2009 finds, the treatment of the Roma following the Kosovo conflict violates almost every legal agreement, including the UDHR, the Kosovo constitution (Articles 25, 29, 58, 156), and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Another dramatic example is the treatment of Romani women in Slovakia. In 2003, the Center for Reproductive Rights reported that health providers in Slovakia are “complicit in the illegal and unethical practice of sterilizing Romani women without obtaining their informed consent.” Romani women, including minors, were threatened, intimidated, or misinformed into sterilization: in some cases, they were not even informed regarding the procedure they were to undergo. Moreover, Romani women were forbidden to use the same toilets or dining facilities as their white counterparts in hospitals and were insulted and abused if they showed any indignation. In some instances, doctors and nurses were found to beat Romani women. Such practices have their ideological roots in Nazism, and this was evidently reflected in the rhetoric post world-war in Slovakia, whose Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs called the Roma “culturally substandard,” “abnormal”, and termed their children “genetically damaged.” A number of institutions, including the UN Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review, have called on Slovakia to make appropriate amends, until the government’s own Human Rights Council in 2009 suggested introducing compensation. Yet the government rejected the motion. A similar bill was submitted in February 2015 and rejected in September 2015 without explanation. The Health and Human Rights Journal reported in December 2017 that to the date the government had refused to accept its crimes; moreover, although the Prime Minister encouraged women to seek trial, he stated that the costs could be borne by NGOs, a grave relinquishment of responsibility.

The situations outlined above are barely the tip of the iceberg. The Roma still face further difficulties availing of elementary services such as healthcare and social welfare. Unemployment figures among the Roma are appalling, Romani children face severe segregation in school despite judicial rulings against such practices, and women are excluded from any kind of meaningful role in society. To provide a striking example, the Roma in France were forcefully (and illegally) deported to Romania and Bulgaria a few years ago and their settlements destroyed. They were paid no meaningful compensation and were made to sign documents stating they would never return to France before forcefully being loaded on planes. And because the Roma were perceived as criminals beyond the French social culture, the authorities haven’t apologised for, and even took pride in, their actions.

More frighteningly, a supremacist rhetoric has grown to be increasingly fervent against the Roma across Europe in recent years, a frightful return to the darkest ages of humanity. The Roma are still seen as criminals, robbers, uncouth, undeserving of basic amenities and uncivilised. In 2015, a Gypsy memorial in Berlin was desecrated, with a spray-painted Swastika and the message: “Gas them.” Such instances aren’t singular; the harbingers of the future are ominous.

Prospects for the Future

Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci wrote, “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.” Indeed, all historical knowledge about the Roma allows for little except substantial pessimism. Due to the continuous oppression they’ve faced, the Roma have grown to be an insular community and are unable to integrate into the societies in which they live. As activist Valeriu Nicolae put it, the Roma “tend to live in close clusters in order to protect themselves from the social stigma of being ‘Gypsy.’” (read Antiziganism: What’s in a Word?, Rainer Schulze, 71) Due to this vicious, self-silencing circle, few know about the Roma history, or their rich, vibrant culture. The institutional efforts to prevent the telling of Roma history have, in turn, forced the Roma into an apparent apathy, the effects of which we can see to this day in their living conditions.

Our most elementary imperative is to acknowledge the Roma. It is easy to forget that the Roma, even though forgotten and oppressed, are people. In 1984, during the protest for representation in the US Holocaust Memorial Council, Lloyd Grove reported an encounter with an old Gypsy man, who said rather heroically: “We have big parties. We play the violin. We tell stories. And we dance.” Despite the unimaginable suffering they’ve undergone, the Gypsies are people like any others, with vibrant cultures which merit the same respect, inclusivity and understanding which other cultures do. They are people who deserve the same civil rights as those who inhabit Europe with them. Another protester said, “The cries and whispers of our people in Europe have been floating in the air for forty years.” The same cries and whispers are still floating in the air: it is time to work towards a more civilized society.

Atman Mehta is a Contributing Writer for the Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons and has been released into the public domain by the photographer. The original image can be found here.

Atman Mehta


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