Europe should recognize its atrocities committed against the Roma people, writes the Council of Europe's outgoing commissioner for human rights in this European Voice commentary.
During the economic crisis there has been an increase in anti-Roma rhetoric in Europe. Prejudicial generalisations about Roma and Travellers are now repeated in country after country, often by politicians.
The consequences of such statements should not be trivialised. Extremist political groups are using them to stir up xenophobia. Worse still, some distorted minds may understand them as authorising harassment and physical attacks. Mob violence against Roma individuals has been reported in recent years from countries including the Czech Republic, Hungary and Italy.
Such phenomena are a continuation of a brutal and largely unknown history of repression of Roma, going back several hundred years. The methods of repression have varied over time and have included enslavement, enforced assimilation, expulsion, internment and mass killings.
During the 1930s and 1940s, Roma and Travellers were targeted for extermination. Hundreds of thousands were executed by fascist forces from the Baltic to the Balkans. In Germany, only a few thousand Roma survived the Holocaust and the Nazi concentration camps. Significantly, the mass killing of Roma people was not even an issue at the Nuremberg trial against the Nazi leaders.
The collective stigmatisation of Roma and Travellers continues. Children are often segregated and bullied in schools. Adults face discrimination in the job market or when seeking healthcare. In many cases, Roma families have to dwell in slum areas. Thousands of European Roma are still stateless and many of them do not even have personal identity papers to prove who they are.
A number of them have been evicted from their shacks without having been offered an alternative habitat. In many cases, the local authorities make clear that they want them just to go away. When migrating, they are not welcome anywhere in Europe. Governments are not keen to recognise that Roma migrants have been denied human rights in the countries they come from; they do not want to send a ‘signal' that might encourage others to come.
One sad example is France, where, in the summer of 2010, the government decided to step up expulsions and deportations of EU citizens of Roma origin, including by force. The government campaign was accompanied by the blatant use of anti-Roma rhetoric. Their presence was described as a threat against “public security” – a legal term that is normally used for extraordinary situations when the peace and survival of the state is considered to be at stake.
Not surprisingly, many Roma tend to see the authorities as a threat. When required to register or to be fingerprinted they fear the worst. They see the similarities between much of today's anti-Roma rhetoric and the language used in the past in Europe by Nazis, fascists and other extremists.
The systematic discrimination and marginalisation of Roma is a scandal for Europe. At long last, governments are now asked by European institutions to produce strategies and action plans to address these problems. This is positive, but such initiatives must yield results that add up to something more than just words.
It has to be understood that the root of the problem lies in the attitudes among the majority population. To tackle deep-rooted anti-Gypsyism, it is necessary to increase public awareness about the past mass atrocities against the Roma people.
A Europe-wide truth commission should be established for this purpose. A full account and recognition of the crimes committed against the Roma might go some way to restoring the trust of Roma communities in society.
Thomas Hammarberg was the Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights. His last report before completing his mandate on 31 March was on the “Human rights of Roma and Travellers in Europe.”
This article, originally published on March 29, 2012, was reposted with permission of the European Voice.