Thursday, April 7, 2011

International Roma Day: A time to celebrate Roma heritage & condemn anti-gypsyism

April 8 is International Roma Day, an occasion when Romani culture and history are celebrated, but also when awareness of the issues facing the Roma people should be discussed.

In the Czech Republic, where I was brought up, the Roma comprise the largest ethnic minority. Across Europe, there are an estimated 10 to 12 million Roma. University of Texas Professor, Romani scholar and advocate Ian Hancock estimates as many as one million Roma live in the America.

As groups around the world honor the rich history and cultural heritage of the Roma communities, it must be emphasized that to this day, Roma all across Europe face intense discrimination and continue their struggle for human rights.

As the economic downturn hits harder and causes insecurity and inter-group friction, disturbing trends are emerging. The far-right across the European Union continues to grow more powerful and inconspicuous as seen in both mainstream (no longer fringe) politics and in the streets, where neo-Nazis meet, march, intimidate and even attack Europeans of color and immigrants with intensifying frequency.

Two years ago, a notable shift took place in European politics when during the biggest transnational vote in European history, the EU Parliament elections, far-right and anti-immigrant parties gained visibility and a significant amount of political power.

In Hungary, for instance, the far-right Jobbik ("For a Better Hungary") party performed stronger than expected. Jobbik, which blames the Roma, or Gypsies, for a perceived breakdown of law and order in the countryside, the BBC reported, took nearly 15%, giving it three seats in June, 2009.

Incidentally, I met a Czech Jew with Hungarian citizenship who unabashedly admitted she voted for the Jobbik party despite their fascist doctrine. When asked why, she justified her vote by insisting that Jobbik promised to "create order" in her home country of Hungary, an insightful, albeit disturbing and paradoxical window into the mentality underlying the rise of the region's ultra-right.

Nearby in the Czech Republic, controversial figures continue to be selected by policy makers as key advisers. One such person is Roman Joch, appointed human rights adviser to the Prime Minister. Joch is a neocon-Christian right ideologue, who denies that well-documented human rights violations against the Roma exist in the Czech Republic.

More recently, Minister of Education appointed a former leading candidate of the extreme-right National Party to be his adviser. The party, which no longer exists, reports, "profiled itself as anti-foreigner and anti-Roma. In 2009 their video advertisement for the EP elections even included the words 'final solution to the Gypsy question' ('konečné řešení otázky cikánské')."

In addition to ultra-right ideologues in key advising positions, blatantly racist policies from forced evacuations and raids to welfare reforms disproportionately affecting impoverished Roma communities are being proposed and implemented in towns and countries across Europe (in Italy, France and elsewhere).

And in the streets, right-wing extremists continue to flex their power. In Hungary just last month, 1,000 black-uniformed neo-Nazi vigilantes surrounded a 450-strong Roma community, rolling out a "law and order" mission in Gyongyospata, a Hungarian village of 2,800 people 80km north-east of Budapest. Some, as Al Jazeera reported, were reportedly armed with dogs, whips and chains. The local Roma's crime? Two hens allegedly stollen by a Roma from a non-Roma neighbor. Supposedly, one elderly non-Roma man killed himself because he thought Roma neighbors might move in. And it is said that some Roma in Gyongyospata beat a young female school teacher. But there is no proof, according to Al Jazeera.

It must be stressed that, as Al Jazeera reported, "there is no evidence that even petty crime has risen in Gyongyospata, but the financial crisis has driven up the significance of people's everyday possessions and the far right is only too happy for the chance to profit from the heightened sensitivity."

Incidents of racially motivated violence, though underreported, have significantly impacted Roma communities throughout the EU. In Hungary, attacks on the homes of Roma people, planned and carried out "with military precision" by neo-Nazis, have killed at least nine people in recent years. In the Czech Republic, Roma have been terrorized and injured by Molotov cocktails thrown into their families' homes.

Troubling is the reality that neo-Nazi groups cooperate across borders on recruitment, message crafting and political organizing strategies as is the case with Czech neo-Nazis working with their German counterparts. Just this spring, the international neo-Nazi organization Blood and Honor launched a new website in the Czech Republic.

As reports, the designers of the new website have posted the information that C18, a militant white supremacist group the site is endorsing, "is doing its best to 'destabilize the system and unleash race war' in the Czech Republic. C18 is said to have been behind several actions in recent months 'and will commit many others again soon.'"

Last fall, Ian Traynor of the Guardian wrote about the xenophobic tensions cropping up all over the EU in his article, Economic gloom fuels far-right growth in Europe:

"The backdrop to the backlash is economic gloom, austerity packages, and public spending cuts, with voters worried about their jobs, living standards, and children. Mainstream leaders are desperate to shore up support, and extremist populist mavericks resort to scapegoating immigrants in a time of troubles on everything from lost jobs, soaring welfare bills, social housing, and crime rates. The far-right is benefiting from the failures of mainstream politics."

Although the Roma, whose ancestry is Indian, have called Europe their home for centuries, they are seen as the perpetual foreigners and scapegoated by whites. For further blatant examples of this we need to look no further than my country of birth last month when approximately 500 right-wing extremists marched through the Czech town of Nový Bydžov, intimidating, even physically attacking members of the local Roma community, rendering one victim unconscious.

The Workers' Social Justice Party, which organized the above march, says its mission is to stand up "against rising crime." The group's messages have consistently targeted and intimidated the Roma community, against whom the mayor and residents of Nový Bydžov unleashed what some have called "a war on Gypsies" by collectively libeling this ethnic group following a rape of a 21-year-old woman in November 2010 by a suspect who was allegedly a Roma.

Another neo-Nazi march is expected in the Czech city of Brno on May Day and this Saturday in Krupka, a town with a sizable Roma community. Fears of a pogrom have led activists to call for a non-violent protest to come out against ultra-rightwing The Workers' Social Justice Party (Dělnická strana sociální spravedlnosti - DSSS).

The organizers of the counter-demonstration writer in their press release:

On the basis of similar marches held by the same groups..., it is our opinion that there is a risk of violence and that the entire action could culminate in a pogrom against the Roma people living in Krupka. This is unacceptable to us.

Our Initiative will actively and non-violently come out against the DSSS march... We believe in the democratic principles of the Czech Republic, which include respect for dignity and human rights. These values are now in jeopardy. We have an opportunity, and essentially we also have the obligation, to stand up for the defense of these values, as indifference just gradually moves the boundaries of the permissible past the point of no return.

Human rights activists and organizations such as Amnesty International as well as the occasional politician warn that more needs to be done to protect the Roma and to ensure equal access to housing, education, health care and jobs. But to those from the Roma community whom I know, words are not enough.

The pressing question is what needs to happen to ensure safety for the Roma communities in Europe? The European Roma Rights Center lists three demands in its petition urging for the protection of the Roma from racially motivated violence.

They call the European Union and national governments to:

• Swiftly and clearly condemn all acts of anti-Roma violence, recognising and denouncing their racial motivation;
• Ensure prompt State response to protect Romani European citizens against threats to their security and to conduct effective investigations and prosecutions to deliver justice to victims of violent attacks;
•Implement a “zero tolerance policy” for public officials engaged in hate speech or other violations of the rights of Roma.

The deeper question, perfect to pose on International Roma Day, is: what will it take for white Europeans to see the Roma as their fellow citizens; human beings who merit nothing short of a life of equal opportunity, and freedom from fear and discrimination? Part of the answer could be more opportunities for inter-group dialogue and programs (including affirmative action) which purposefully engage majority and minority group members in interactions and collaboration. As many European societies stand now, segregation is a reality for many Roma. This needs to change.

[Photo credit: Image from protest against neo-Nazi march in the Czech town of Litvinov. The cardboard sign reads: "We must employ all possible strategies against Nazism" or in simpler terms, "Down with Nazism."]