In its biennial report for 2018-2020, the Council of Europe’s advisory body on national minorities warned that backsliding on minority rights weakens democracy. The rights of Europe’s largest ethnic minority - namely, the Roma - are forgotten and abused every day. On the occasion of the 51st International Roma Day on 8 April 2022, EDGE invites you to reflect on racism and discrimination against the Roma in contemporary European democracies.
by Serena D'Agostino
‘This is their way of life, and they’re not looking for help from anyone. We can offer them all sorts of assistance, but we can’t force them to take it.’ This is a statement made by Alain Kestemont, alderman for prevention and urban safety of the municipality of Anderlecht in Brussels. He was commenting on the recent municipal decisions to clear up some so-called ‘Roma camps’ due to the precarious and unhygienic conditions of the sites. Kestemont belongs to a Belgian political party (DéFI), which describes itself as ‘the party of social liberalism’ that embraces ‘progressive values’.
Kestemont’s declaration could be framed as one of the many examples of widespread political discourses that contribute to fostering anti-Gypsyism. Anti-Gypsyism is a complex phenomenon that exists all around the world. It concerns the historically rooted anti-Roma sentiment that translates into violent acts of discrimination against Roma people and their marginalization. Like any other kind of racism, anti-Gypsyism builds on long-established forms of oppression carried out and maintained by the most powerful and privileged classes. It manifests itself in many ways and at different political and societal levels.
Anti-Gypsyism is generally defined as a ‘specific’ form of racism. The term specific is nonetheless often misconstrued or abused. Politicians, the media, policymakers, as well as ordinary citizens use it to define the Roma as people with ‘specific’ culture and ‘specific’ behaviours – where ‘specific’ has a typically negative connotation. Over the centuries, this attitude has contributed to the reinforcement and diffusion of Roma stereotypes and anti-Roma rhetoric. The latter builds on the idea that the Roma’s way of life and culture, as well as their so-called inclination to act badly and to cause inconvenience, rightfully entitles us – the non-Roma – to act against them – the Roma – and/or to treat them differently. Thus it is not ‘we’ who marginalize them, but ‘they’ who violate our rights and fail in their duties. This ‘no-one-to-blame-but-oneself’ logic has determined what Huub van Baar somewhat provocatively frames as ‘reasonable anti-Gypsyism’: given the misbehaviours of the Roma, we are reasonably allowed to reprimand and exclude them.
‘Reasonable anti-Gypsyism’ reveals itself as considering and treating the Roma as ‘the other’ with primitive cultural practices, weird manners, low intelligence and/or criminal propensity. It is rooted in mainstream culture and is spread by individuals, mass media, politics and institutions. It can be translated into policies and laws, and this always leads to dangerous consequences. Several illustrations can be drawn from our past and recent history. For instance, in a bombing in Oberwart (Austria) in 1995, four Roma were killed. Until the non-Roma perpetrator of the attack was arrested two years later, the authorities thought that it had been a self-inflicted accident. We can also think of the Roma murders by neo-Nazi groups in Hungary in 2008 and 2009, or the expulsion of Romanian and Bulgarian Roma people from France in 2010. Another example: the overt threats to the Roma living in the so-called campi nomadi (literally, ‘nomad camps’) in Italy issued by Matteo Salvini, the former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior – who has recurrently and blatantly made statements such as: ‘But is it normal for a gypsy woman in Milan to say: “Salvini should be shot in the head?” Be good, dirty gypsy (zingaraccia), be good, for the BULLDOZER is arriving soon’ (Matteo Salvini’s official Twitter account, 1 August 2019, own translation from Italian).
Europe is steeped in blaming and stereotyping the Roma. Over the years, myths surrounding the Roma have been internalized by the majority populations to the point that people are now believing they are true. Hence, many of these myths have become plausible. Public opinion that declares ‘after all, the Roma deserve to be treated differently’ steadily reinforces and legitimates a reasonable anti-Gypsyism. Such myths and stereotypes have different origins.
Politics is at the core of the proliferation of anti-Roma sentiment. Although in Europe anti-Gypsyism has traditionally been considered a right-wing phenomenon, it goes far beyond right-wing extremism. Anti-Gypsyism is an ideology of oppression that is spread and practised by all kinds of people: moderate politicians, citizens, the police, policymakers, and even some progressive media channels. A ‘reasonable anti-Gypsyism’ is today omnipresent throughout Europe and widely shared and accepted across political divisions, representatives and votes of any party – as Kestemont’s statement shows. Anti-Gypsyism is the norm rather than the exception. This affects the Roma in general and addresses some groups more or less explicitly. Regarding Roma women, for instance, both politics and the media have significantly fueled the stereotyped image of the thieving, begging, illiterate, hypersexualized or even prostituted Gypsy. In 2007, a judicial case occurred in Romania against the former President Traian Băsescu, who referred to a Roma female journalist as ‘filthy Gypsy’ and ‘birdie’ – păsărică in Romanian, a pejorative term with demeaning and sexual connotations.
Current European policies aim to combat discrimination against the Roma by fostering their socio-economic integration, mainly through education, employment, health and housing. Further steps in this direction are surely needed. Yet, poor living conditions, segregated school systems (e.g. in Bulgaria) and unequal treatment in health structures should be understood as the effects of discriminatory behaviours and treatment, rather than their causes. Just think of the segregated maternity wards for Roma women in public hospitals and the many cases of forced sterilization recorded even recently in certain Central and Eastern European countries such as Slovakia.
Anti-Roma prejudice and stereotypes can also be diffused and consolidated through policy documents. Vaguely phrased and/or unclear policies are likely to foster stigmatization of the Roma. By way of example, in its 2018 ‘Diversity Barometer’ (Baromètre de la Diversité: Enseignement) the Belgian Interfederal Centre for Equal Opportunities, UNIA, repeatedly emphasizes how the ‘cultural diversity’ of the Roma and/or Gens du voyage affects their children’s education. Yet UNIA’s Barometer takes understanding of such a ‘cultural diversity’ for granted and does not provide the reader with any clarification of what it actually means. Given the damaging effects of the racial culturalization of the Roma over the centuries, the lack of accuracy and/or clarity in the way policies are formulated contributes to diffusing the preconception that Roma are by culture not inclined to scholarization, education or work.
A few years ago, in a tiny picturesque village of Southern Italy, a brawl broke out between newcomers from Romania and young natives. In the aftermath of the fight, signs were posted on the walls of the village bearing the slogan ‘VIA I ROM!’ (‘Roma out!’). A huge misunderstanding evidently took place. The local population was unaware that not all Romanians are Roma and that barely 16% of the European Roma actually come from Romania. This incident adds to the long list of mistakes, misinterpretations and myths about the Roma that have been bandied about in European societies since the Middle Ages – such as the frequently recounted legend that ‘Gypsies steal children’.
In 2000, Kathryn D. Carlisle – the then local monitor for the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) in Italy – aimed to debunk this myth in her piece Stealing Children: Institutionalising Romani Children in Italy. She shows that, for at least the past two hundred years, non-Romani state, church and charity authorities have been stealing Romani children from Romani families and remanding them into institutional care. On the other hand, the legend of Roma as kidnappers persists in Italy and in many other European countries such as Greece – where the story of the kidnapped ‘blonde angel Maria’ (deemed too blonde to be a Roma child) went viral in 2013. To date, there are no acknowledged cases in which Roma have been proved to have been involved in kidnapping.
These examples show that anti-Gypsyism is constantly fueled by prejudice and ignorance at all political and societal levels. Although it is framed as a ‘specific’ form of racism, anti-Gypsyism is not specific in nature. Like all racisms, anti-Gypsyism is about hate, oppression and marginalization. It is about unequal access to, and unjust dynamics of, power. As such, it can never be ‘reasonable’.
* This opinion piece was published in 2021 in the book 'Migration, Equality & Racism - 44 Opinions'. This book is the work of Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) think tank POINcaré and was created under the direction of Ilke Adam, Tundé Adefioye, Serena D’Agostino, Nick Schuermans and Florian Trauner. You can download the e-book and buy the printed version HERE.