Sunday, September 12, 2010

Europe’s most persecuted people?

"Europe’s most persecuted people?" is the provocative title of a provocative article by Ben Judah about the plight of the Roma, or Gypsies. From the perspective of Europe as a whole—as opposed to localized situations in specific countries—the answer to the question posed by that title might well be yes.
President Sarkozy’s controversial roundup and deportation of thousands of gypsies currently living in France has been condemned by many quarters—the Pope, the president of the EU Commission and a UN committee. The Roma in question are EU citizens who had every right to move to France, but not to stay indefinitely without a job. Yet despite the high-level criticism of Sarkozy’s move, his policy signals a gathering tempo of persecution of the Roma people in Europe. Last week seven Roma were killed by a gunman in Slovakia, before he turned the weapon on himself. Eight similar killings have taken place in neighbouring Hungary over the past 18 months, and 30 firebombing attacks have been reported. In Rome, the mayor has begun demolishing shanties in effort to push the migrants out of the city. In both Serbia and Kosovo there have been ethnic stabbings of large numbers of Roma, who were driven out by Albanians after 1999 and are not welcome to return. Closer to home, Roma have been driven out of Northern Ireland in racist attacks. These developments should worry us all. As history has shown, the widespread maltreatment of a large, stateless minority can have devastating consequences.

Experts believe that there may be up to 11m Roma people in Europe today, making their population greater than Austria’s or Sweden’s. While fertility rates are dropping to record lows in the new EU member states, Roma numbers are exploding. If the numbers hold, 20 per cent of Hungarians and 40 per cent of the country’s workforce will be Roma in 2050—compared to just 6 per cent in 2006. In the coming decades, the danger is that a large proportion of the EU’s population could effectively end up being deemed second-class citizens.

A report by the EU regional policy division emphasises that “the integration of the Roma is a precondition for sustainable long-term growth in many central and eastern European regions.” [....] In 200[5], an initiative by 12 European countries declared this to be the decade of “Roma inclusion,” but NGOs note dryly that the high-point of Roma outreach was in the pre-accession phase of many new member states, especially Romania. After that, persecution mounted, and the socioeconomic facts speak for themselves. [....] These are the numbers of misery.

Europe will continue to see greater Roma migration and persecution unless concerted efforts are made to turn these statistics around. [....]
In a post at Harry's Place, Judah sums up the prospects this way:
[T]he next few decades will see a vicious cycle of migration and expulsion deepen – perhaps catastrophically – unless the EU seriously takes steps to integrate its most persecuted people.
This situation reminds Judah of the intensifying crisis of eastern European Jewry at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century—a period when something like a third of the Jews in eastern Europe, including my grandparents, fled to other places where they were not always welcome. And in some respects the analogy is illuminating.

=> The Economist recently published its own useful and informative article about Europe's Roma Problem (see below) by Adam LeBor. It doesn't have quite as urgent a tone as Ben Judah's article, but its basic message is similar. Some highlights:
Between them the Slovakian shootings and the expulsions from France highlight the difficulties faced by Europe’s largest stateless minority. An ingrained underclass, Roma are the victims of prejudice, often violent, at home in eastern Europe. Thousands have migrated westward to seek a better life, particularly as the expansion of the European Union has allowed them to take advantage of freedom-of-movement rules. Yet although conditions may be better in the west, the reception has rarely been friendly and politicians like President Sarkozy have ruthlessly exploited hostility towards the newcomers.

But the demagogic instincts of western leaders pale in comparison to the negligence of their eastern counterparts. Roma don’t vote much. No government in eastern Europe with a substantial Roma minority has done much to deal with the discrimination they face or the hopeless poverty that keeps them excluded from the mainstream, says Rob Kushen of the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Centre. [....]

This year marks the halfway point of Europe’s “Decade of Roma Inclusion”, launched in 2005 at a riverside hotel in Budapest. Five years on, say activists, most Roma are still worse off than under communism, which, for all its faults, at least guaranteed work, housing and welfare, and stamped down on hate crimes. [....]

Yet the Roma also suffer from problems of their own making. Ambitious youngsters are often held back by their intensely patriarchal and conservative societies. Girls are married off in their teens and boys put to work at an early age rather than study. Weary of the hostility they face from the outside world, Roma communities are prone to cut themselves off from society and its laws. [....]

In recent years, under the EU’s rules on freedom of movement, a torrent of cheap workers from the east have found work in the west. But most Roma leave their homelands in search not of work but of freedom from destitution and persecution. Little wonder that France, egged on by Italy and others, has been keen to “Europeanise” the issue [....]

Europeans would be swift to condemn the plight of the Roma were they in any other part of the world. However, eastern European governments are unlikely suddenly to tackle a problem that dates back centuries just because Brussels tells them to. [....]
=> Judah reports that this situation has begun to produce efforts at Roma political activism in eastern Europe and elsewhere. But so far these amount to little more than "tentative beginnings," and it will not be easy to move beyond them.
It would be a mistake to think of the millions of Roma in Europe as all wanting the same things or living in the same way. Roma (like Jewish) identity exists on a spectrum of cultural identification. Different groups of Roma practice different religions, speak different languages, and tribal sentiment far outweighs any wider sense of unity. It is also worth remembering that a tradition that rejects the essentials of modernity—a settled life, careers and education—will probably continue to hold the Roma back more than right-wing bigotry and persecution. But for myriad reasons, the journey these communities face in the 21st century will be a tough one. They are waiting for their own Herzl, whose task will be even harder. Perhaps impossible.
That reference to Herzl indicates one respect in which, it seems to me, Judah has let a careless use of his historical analogy lead him astray. In his discussion, Judah correctly notes that the general crisis of eastern European Jewry around the end of the 19th century played a crucial role in giving rise to Zionism as a serious political movement. But whatever forms pan-Roma political activism might or might not take in the future, they're not likely to follow anything close to the Zionist model. History is full of surprises, but I think it's safe to rule out the possibility that Europe's Roma will ever get a nation-state of their own. Furthermore, and in some ways even more to the point, Zionism was only one of the major political and ideological responses to the crisis of eastern European Jewry. (For me, the best overview of their rich variety remains Jonathan Frankel's Prophecy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism, and the Russian Jews, 1862-1917 ... though people with more expertise in that area will probably tell me that there has been more recent work I should prefer).

So that particular analogy strikes me as, on balance, more misleading than illuminating. Nevertheless, Judah is on to something significant. Political Zionism represented, among other things, a revolt against mainstream Jewish traditions and a repudiation of key features of Jewish historical experience. It shared those characteristics with almost all movements of national or ethnic "awakening" and self-emancipation. Whatever forms any future pan-Roma political activism might take, to be at all effective they will have to involve internal transformations in Roma society and culture as well as changes in external conditions. That's always hard.

--Jeff Weintraub

==============================
Economist
September 2, 2010 | Budapest
Europe's Roma
Hard travelling

Scapegoated abroad and the victims of prejudice at home, eastern Europe’s Roma are the problem no politician wants to solve
By Adam LeBor



SLOVAKIA is in shock; France in uproar. The cause of both nations’ turmoil is the Roma (gypsies), or, rather, what is being done to them. This week a gunman in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, killed seven people and injured 14, before shooting himself dead. Six of the victims were a Roma family, killed inside their apartment; they appear to have been deliberately targeted.

In France the expulsion of hundreds of Roma immigrants, whom Nicolas Sarkozy’s government says were in the country illegally, has galvanised opposition from the pope, French churches, a UN committee and even several ministers in Mr Sarkozy’s own government. Yet further tough legislation is promised.

Between them the Slovakian shootings and the expulsions from France highlight the difficulties faced by Europe’s largest stateless minority. An ingrained underclass, Roma are the victims of prejudice, often violent, at home in eastern Europe. Thousands have migrated westward to seek a better life, particularly as the expansion of the European Union has allowed them to take advantage of freedom-of-movement rules. Yet although conditions may be better in the west, the reception has rarely been friendly and politicians like President Sarkozy have ruthlessly exploited hostility towards the newcomers.

But the demagogic instincts of western leaders pale in comparison to the negligence of their eastern counterparts. Roma don’t vote much. No government in eastern Europe with a substantial Roma minority has done much to deal with the discrimination they face or the hopeless poverty that keeps them excluded from the mainstream, says Rob Kushen of the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Centre.

One of the biggest problems is schooling: Roma children are routinely placed in institutions for the mentally handicapped. A new survey by Amnesty International says that in Slovakia, Roma make up less than 10% of the school-age population but 60% of pupils in special schools. Unsurprisingly, many leave school early, without the skills they need to compete in the job market. Instead they drift into collecting scrap metal, begging or petty crime.

Straightforward prejudice plays its part. This week an MEP from Jobbik, a far-right Hungarian party, called for the mass internment of Roma. Last year Hungarian police sought help from the FBI after a series of attacks on Roma settlements in which six people were killed, including a five-year-old boy, Robika Csorba, and his father, Robert. Gunmen firebombed their house and lay in wait as they fled, before opening fire. A few weeks later, six Roma teenagers arrested in the Slovak town of Kosice for allegedly stealing a purse were forced to strip naked, kiss and hit each other, as police filmed their humiliation. In western Europe Roma migrants have faced firebomb attacks in Italy, pogroms in Belfast and forcible evictions in Greece.

This year marks the halfway point of Europe’s “Decade of Roma Inclusion”, launched in 2005 at a riverside hotel in Budapest. Five years on, say activists, most Roma are still worse off than under communism, which, for all its faults, at least guaranteed work, housing and welfare, and stamped down on hate crimes. Today conditions in Roma settlements on the edges of town and villages rival Africa or India for their deprivation.

Yet the Roma also suffer from problems of their own making. Ambitious youngsters are often held back by their intensely patriarchal and conservative societies. Girls are married off in their teens and boys put to work at an early age rather than study. Weary of the hostility they face from the outside world, Roma communities are prone to cut themselves off from society and its laws. Four years ago in Olaszliszka, northern Hungary, a driver who clipped a Romany girl with his car (she was unhurt) was dragged from the vehicle by a mob, many of them related to the girl, and beaten to death in front of his daughters.

In recent years, under the EU’s rules on freedom of movement, a torrent of cheap workers from the east have found work in the west. But most Roma leave their homelands in search not of work but of freedom from destitution and persecution. Little wonder that France, egged on by Italy and others, has been keen to “Europeanise” the issue, urging Brussels to go to greater efforts to get the eastern countries to integrate their Roma. Yet now that those countries are safely inside the EU it is far harder than in the pre-accession years for Eurocrats to tell their governments what to do.

Europeans would be swift to condemn the plight of the Roma were they in any other part of the world. However, eastern European governments are unlikely suddenly to tackle a problem that dates back centuries just because Brussels tells them to. Perhaps self-interest may prove a more powerful motivator. Roma families are far larger than those of the mainstream population: the pool of deprivation is only going to grow. In addition, a recent World Bank study estimates the annual cost of the failure to integrate Roma in Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and the Czech Republic at €5.7 billion ($7.3 billion). As the report notes: “Bridging the education gap is the economically smart choice.” If humanitarian arguments fail to carry the day, perhaps economics and demographics might.

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