European racism and the ‘Gypsy Problem’

This is the second of two posts on the rise of the racist right in Europe. Our first post focused on attacks on Muslims, while today’s examines racism directed at Europe’s wandering peoples.

While the term “Holocaust” is usually taken to refer only to Hitler’s slaughter of European Jews, there were in fact three distinct Holocausts.

In addition to Jews, the Nazi extermination machine also targeted for extinction all Germans marked as radically inferior [ranging from the severely handicapped to alcoholics, the depressed, “habitual criminals,” and those confined in mental hospitals], as well as the Sinti, Roma, Travelers, and others commonly grouped together as Gypsies.

Dr. Josef Mengele, the notoriously sadistic Nazi doctor at Auschwitz, singled out the camp’s Gypsy population for some of his most gruesome experiments.

While the name “Gypsy” refers to the old belief that the Sinti and Roma originated in Egypt, subsequent research has shown that they began their wandering in India.

Well begin with a 25 June 2009 report from presseurop:

In Austria, Die Presse reports that data from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights indicate a 79.5% upsurge in racist violence and 87.5% growth in the number of anti-semitic incidents between 2006 and 2007. “Notwithstanding these dramatic increases, the agency’s director, Morten Kjaerum, is reluctant to lambast Austria, because the statistics may be due to the provision of better documentation and greater vigilance on the part of authorities.” Four other countries are reported to be experiencing difficulties with violence: Poland, Ireland, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Throughout the European Union, the main victims are always the same: members of traveling communities and African immigrants. The agency also noted a marked improvement in figures from Denmark, where the number of incidents involving racist violence declined by 63.5%.

The “traveling communities” are, of course, the Roma, Sinti, and Traveler cultures, who have been the targets of official action in Western Europe as well, most notably in France.

France targets the Roma

As we’ve been reporting for nearly two years, persecution of Gypsies has been a persistent problem for hundreds of years in Europe.

One of the worst offenders in recent years has been France, whose president, Nicolas Sarkozy — ironic, since his surname is quite common among Eastern European Roma populations. And given that the Roma often adopt the religions of the people among whom they live, it’s not far-fetched to consider that Sarkozy may have Roma ancestry. . .

Here’s a report on one of his actions from the 17 September 2010 issue of Eurocritics Magazine:

In August, President Sarkozy agreed the deportations of Roma to Romania and Bulgaria under the guise of a security clampdown. Despite assurances to the contrary, a leaked memo sent to police chiefs indicated that “300 camps or illegal settlements must be cleared within three months, Roma camps are a priority”. The French Interior Minister’s chief of staff had signed it. Clearly the Roma community were being specifically targeted.

In the last month, more than one thousand Roma have been deported to Romania or Bulgaria and over 8,000 have been deported since the beginning of the year. A total of 9,875 were deported in 2009.

The victimisation of the Roma clearly has echoes of the action of the Vichy regime against the Jews during the Second World War, a point made strongly by Justice Commissioner Reding.

Italy started deporting Romanians in 2007 under the guise of tackling crime following the murder of a woman in Rome, allegedly committed by a Romanian illegal immigrant. Romanians in Italy constitute about 1% of the population but are subjected to racist abuse and discrimination.

Right wing Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi is on record as saying that he “rejects the idea of a multi-ethnic Italy” and he is enthusiastic about the expulsions.

In Poland in July this year a crowd attacked the home of a Roma family in Limanowa, a small town in the South. A crowd gathered numbering around a hundred, some armed with petrol bombs, and tried to drag the family from their apartment. Only the arrival of the police and reinforcements from the anti-riot squad in Cracow kept the mob at bay. There were other similar cases.

And, of course, such stigmatisation of a minority population is very popular with the far right. In Hungary, the Jobbik party, a Christian Conservative Nationalist party, has a reputation for pro-Fascist and anti-Semitic politics and campaigns with violent nationalist rhetoric on the basis of “ethnic self-determination”. Not surprisingly, they applaud France’s expulsion of the Roma.

Read the rest.

European court blasts Sarkozy’s ethnic cleansing

From Laurens Lavrysen of the Strasbourg Observors:

In a decision of 28 June (COHRE v. France, no. 63/2010), which was only recently made public, the European Committee of Social Rights has found the French zero tolerance policy towards East European Roma living in illegal camps to be in violation of the European Social Charter. The case, which was lodged by the NGO Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), concerns the eviction and expulsion measures announced by French president Sarkozy in the summer of 2010. Hundreds of illegal camps were dismantled and thousands of Roma were expelled to Romania and Bulgaria. Most expulsions took place on a “voluntary” basis, in exchange for the payment of 300 euro per adult and 100 euro per child.


The Committee considered that France had failed to demonstrate that the forced evictions were carried out in conditions that respected their dignity, or that the Roma were offered alternative accommodation. Furthermore these evictions took place against a background of ethnic discrimination, Roma stigmatisation and constraint, in the form of the threat of immediate expulsion from France. The Committee  attached considerable weight to the fact that a particular ethnic group was explicitly singled out. Therefore the Committee ruled that the evictions constituted a clear and direct discrimination, in violation of Art. E in conjunction with Art. 31, § 2 of the Charter.


According to the Committee, the use of standard forms or orders to leave the territory with identical content suggested that France did not take the individual circumstances of the persons concerned into account. The Committee further considered that “in practice these so-called ‘voluntary’ returns are disguised forms of forced collective expulsions.” This resulted from the fact that these returns were “accepted” subject to the constraint of forced eviction and the real threat of expulsion from France. The involuntary nature was further demonstrated by the willingness to accepts such low payments, which revealed a

“situation of destitution or extreme uncertainty (…) in which the absence of economic freedom poses a threat to the effective enjoyment of their political freedom to come and go as they choose.”

Read the rest.

Anti-Roma sterilization campaigns

One of the bleakest legacies of the past haunting Europe was the forced sterilization of Roma women, often carried out in hospitals after giving birth.

From the BBC, a report on the campaign carried out in the Czech republic:

There are allegations that coercive sterilisation was used to curb the traditionally high fertility rate among the Roma.

Many were offered money, though that was not official policy. Similar cases have been reported in neighbouring Slovakia.

The practice officially ended in 1990 after the collapse of communist Czechoslovakia, but a number of doctors are said to have continued the operations on their own initiative.

The complaints sparked an official inquiry. The Czech ombudsman – Public Defender of Rights Otakar Motejl – investigated the cases and issued a report in December 2005.

“The problem of sexual sterilisation carried out in the Czech Republic, either with improper motivation or illegally, exists,” he said, recommending state compensation for women affected between 1973 and 1991.

During that period social services had offered some Roma women financial incentives to undergo sterilisation “even though the state issued no instruction,” he concluded.

The communist authorities had practised an assimilation policy towards Roma which “included efforts by social services to control the birth rate in the Romani community,” he said.

But human rights groups say the last recorded case happened as late as 2003.

“Sterilisation was used as a means of birth control,” says Kumar Vishwanathan, head of Life Together, an Ostrava-based NGO for Roma rights.

Read the rest.

When news of the sterilizations became public, the Czech government was forced to issue an apology.

From a 29 November 2009 report by Tom Clifford of the Prague Post:

The government expressed its regret to Roma women who were sterilized without their consent but admitted the practice may still be taking place. Human Rights and Minorities Minister Michael Kocáb told The Prague Post the decision to address the issue had the complete backing of the Cabinet, but it was just a small step on the way to ensuring full human rights for all citizens.

“The situation will not change tomorrow or the day after, but this is a step, a small step, in helping all minorities in the Czech Republic,” he said. “This government saw something wrong and tried to change it. It may be a caretaker government, but we knew we could act on this issue.”

As Prime Minister Jan Fischer issued the official statement at Government House just after 3:30 p.m. Nov. 23, Roma women who had traveled from Ostrava for the occasion burst into applause. They arrived in Prague at 11:30 a.m. for a series of meetings with Fischer, Kocáb and other government ministers. Lunch was put aside (though tea and coffee were served in abundance) due to the intensity of the meetings, and the enormity of what was about to happen – a public state acknowledgement of the abuse they suffered at the hands of medical staff – became apparent.

Fischer spoke the words that the women, their families, supporters and many other people had been longing to hear: “We would like to express regret for what happened. It was a huge failure.”

Read the rest.

European court rules on Slovak sterilizations

On 17 November of this year, Lourdes Peroni and Alexandra Timmer of Strasbourg Observers reported that the European Court of Human Rights had issued a ruling in one of the cases, occurring in Slovakia:

The Court has recently ruled in V.C. v. Slovakia, a case brought by a Roma woman who complained that she was sterilized without her informed consent. The judgment is no doubt a landmark decision with crucial implications for women belonging to minority ethnic groups. In this post, we argue the Court’s reasoning is spot on in several respects and outline the reasons why.

Outline of the judgment

The applicant’s forced sterilization was in violation of Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment) and Article 8 (respect for private and family life). The Court condemns the Slovakian government in strong terms. The violation of Article 3 is mainly because of the “gross disregard” of the Slovakian government to the applicant’s autonomy and choice (paragraph 119). The sterilization procedure was not an imminent necessity from a medical point of view and, what is more, the applicant did not give her informed consent. She was just asked to sign the typed words “Patient requests sterilization” while she was in labor and shortly before performing a Caesarean section. In sum, the Court thought that the sterilization procedure, including the way she was asked to give consent, was liable to arise feelings of “fear, anguish, and inferiority and to entail lasting suffering” (paragraph 118).

The violation of the applicant’s right to respect for her private and family life is mostly due to the failure of the Slovakian government to meet its positive obligations, which in this case essentially meant putting in place effective legal safeguards to protect the reproductive health of, especially, Roma women. Reports indicate that it is mainly women of ethnic groups, in particular Roma women, who are particularly affected by the practice of forced sterilizations. In other words, there are “systemic shortcomings” in the procedures concerning sterilizations and, as both the Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner and ECRI showed, these shortcomings are likely to affect members of the Roma community the most.

Positive aspects of the judgment

Condemning paternalism and requiring meaningful consent

The Court strongly expresses its disapproval of the way V.C. was treated by the hospital staff: ‘The way in which the hospital staff acted was paternalistic, since, in practice, the applicant was not offered any option but to agree to the procedure which the doctors considered appropriate in view of her situation. However, in similar situations informed consent was required, promoting autonomy of moral choice for patients.’ (paragraph 114).

Read the rest.

More Czech violence against the Roma

Romea.CZ is a website that reports on the European Roma population, and they’ve been paying close attention to racist attacks on Roma communities.

Here’s a report from 12 December:

In August of this year, a pogrom was attempted on the Cervenák family in the town of Nýrsko na Klatovsku. Seven people have been charged in relation to the incident so far. Two aggressive ultra-right extremists chased the Romani family’s children through the streets, burst into their apartment and attacked them with a baseball bat. The family, understandably, defended themselves. In addition to charging the skinheads, criminal justice authorities have now filed charges against some of the Romani family members over the incident.

“It is very strange that charges have also been filed against those who were merely defending themselves against this brutal, racist attack. We will be following every detail of the course of this trial,” Zdenek Ryšavý, executive director of the ROMEA association, told news server

Police did not initiate prosecutions in the case until now, four months after the crime was committed, reportedly because it took them that long to obtain expert witness evaluations as to the seriousness of the injuries suffered by those involved in the skirmish. “We have charged two men with committing racially motivated violence against members of a particular group and another five with rioting,” Antonín Šmíd, head of the criminal investigation police in Klatovy, told the daily Právo. Should they be found guilty, the racists face up to three years in prison. Their five Romani victims could receive up to two years.

The Cervenák family have lived in harmony with their neighbors for 30 years in Nýrsko, but in August the otherwise placid atmosphere on Tyršovo street was transformed into a bloody battlefield. The two racists attacked the Cervenák home armed with a baseball bat. After almost half an hour of brawling, the perpetrators fled after receiving a thrashing. However, they subsequently sent a message to the Romani family that they would avenge themselves and that everyone in the family would “croak”. The Cervenáks, fearing for their lives, locked themselves in their home and haven’t left it.

Read the rest.

And another report from the same site posted on the same day from Turin, Italy:

An enraged crowd burned down a Romani camp near the Italian city of Turin over the weekend. Agence France-Presse and the web server of The Guardian newspaper report that the mob violence was sparked by the false claims of an adolescent girl that she had been raped by two Romani men.

The pogrom took place on Saturday in the Vallette suburb of Turin. The 16-year-old girl told her parents she had been harmed by two Romani men. “Two Gypsies raped me when I entered the building,” she said.

Several hundred enraged people took to the streets to protest the crime. A group of about 50 people, armed with Molotov cocktails, rocks, and sticks left the demonstration, headed for the Romani encampment, and set fire to caravans, sheds and tents there.

The girl later confessed that she had not been forced into sexual intercourse and that she had invented the rape story because she had just slept with her boyfriend. She lied in order to escape the wrath of her family. Italian daily La Repubblica reports the girl had promised her parents she would remain a virgin until her wedding. Police officers had to bring her brother to the scene of the pogrom to explain everything and calm the crowd.

Read the rest.

Housing discrimination in Sweden

As has often been the case with ethnic minorities, finding housing can be a real problem — even in a relatively egalitarian state like Sweden.

From the Swedish website, The Local:

A woman from Sweden claims to have lost her rental property after the contract was already signed and keys had been exchanged, following pressure from the other tenants to not let a member of the Roma people live in the building.

“The other tenants would move out if I moved in,” said Tuija Svart to Sveriges Television (SVT).

Svart and her teenage daughter had returned to Sweden after staying for a year in Finland, and had been looking for a flat near her other daughter.

She went to look at an advertised apartment and decided that she liked the flat.

According to SVT, she then signed a contract, got the keys and changed her address over the internet. But while in the moving van, the landlord rang her and said that she couldn’t move in after all.

“He said that I had a different background,” Svart told SVT.

Svart told SVT that it was the first time she felt discriminated against in Sweden for being a member of the Roma people.

Her daughter Samira was also upset about what happened.

“Mainly I felt angry. And sad as well. It felt a bit like if my dreams were crushed,” she told SVT.

Fearing what would happen otherwise, Svart returned the keys to the landlord. But she also reported the incident to the police and to the Equality Ombudsman (Diskrimineringsombudsmannen, DO).

Then the landlord changed his tune and said that the reason he didn’t want to accept her as a tenant was that she didn’t have a valid passport, that her car was registered in Finland and that she had no previous address in Sweden, according to SVT.

However, despite the legal experts at the local authority finding in Tuija Svart’s favour, their hands are tied as Svart sent back the keys without coercion.

Read the rest.

Racism flourishes in times of economic turmoil

As we’ve written repeatedly, racism surfaces when times are tough and people are looking for scapegoats to blame for the crisis that threatens their lives.

In a world where challenging the powerful culprits who are really to blame can lead to violent repression, it’s much easier — and much more tolerable for the powers that be — to direct outrage at those least able to resist.

The recent rise in European racial violence can be attributed directly to the economic crisis, and the outbreak of attacks on Muslims and wanderers can come as no surprise.

And while Jews were once deemed acceptable scapegoats in Western Europe, many racists now consider them allies against what’s perceived as a more ominous threat, the rise of the Islamic world as the industrial might of the West fades.

The Sinti and Roma, lacking both a nation state and a powerful military, remain easy prey, and convenient targets for unscrupulous leaders like Sarkozy and his recently departed BFF Silvio “Bunga Bunga” Berlusconi.

Another historical note: The Nazis and the Slavs

A fourth group was also targeted for genocide as currently defined by the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

We refer specifically to this definition from the Convention:

Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.

Most of the Slavs who survived the war were to be driven across the Urals into Siberia to fend for themselves, cut off from the rest of the world, while the “better stock” would be treated as serfs and forced to till the soil and perform menial tasks for German peasant farmers.

The implicit assumption was that starvation, famine, disease, and war would dispose of the majority of the population

Heinrich Himmler, Germany’s racial czar, described his policies toward those few permitted to remain in a 5 May 1940  document titled “Some Comments on the Treatment of Foreign Nationals in the East:”

For the non-German population of the East there can be no type of school above the four-grade rudimentary school. The job of these schools should be confined to the teaching of counting (no higher than up to 500), the writing of one’s name, and the teaching that God’s commandment means obedience to the Germans, honesty, industry and politeness. Reading I do not consider essential.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s