Roma – often portrayed in fiction as mystics and fortune tellers, sometimes even Egyptians (The Hunchback of Notre Dame – Victor Hugo)
Kicked off with a keynote speech by speculator & philanthropist extraordinaire George Soros, over 400 Government (EU and National) and Civil Society Representatives gathered in Brussels for the European Commission’s (EC) first ‘EU Roma Summit’
Although Roma inspired the French term Bohemian, this meeting was not to discuss the future of the Boho-look which will no doubt have its influence on some runways at Milan’s Fashion Week, which was held immediately after the summit.
Often shunned and stereotyped in their adopted lands, issues facing the Roma population of 15 million (roughly equivalent to that of Belgium or Greece) are regularly ignored. This summit aims to put a spotlight on these issues and allow for sharing of initiatives that have proven effectivity with panel discussions such as:
- Time to Act – Building a Strong Partnership for Roma Inclusion
- Global Responsibility
- Policies that Work: A Can-Do-Approach to Inclusion
- Rights Based Perspective
- The Way Forward – Towards Concrete Steps for Improvement
With the enlargement of the European Union in 2004 and 2007, the Roma are now the EU’s largest ethnic minority with a history of over 7 centuries on the continent.
In 2004, the ascension of Slovakia with 550,000, Hungary with 450,000 – 1,000,000, the Czech Republic with 220,000 – 300,000 and Poland with 15,000 – 50,000 brought an estimated total between 1.25 million to 1.9 million Roma into the EU.
Shortly after in 2007, Romania and Bulgaria, also with high Roma populations, brought an estimate of between 1.4 million to 3.3 million into the union.
Responding to a report on the Roma published in July 2008, this summit represents the EU’s best concerted effort thus far to address this ‘missed economic opportunity’ (as termed in a BusinessWeek feature).
If evidence from a Eurobarometer Report “Discrimination in the EU” published in July 2008, the represenatives at this summit definitely have their work cut out for them, at least when it comes to addressing popular prejudices.
The adjacent table is an extract of the results of a survey where participants were asked how comfortable they would feel with a Roma neighbour with 10 being extremely comfortable and 1 being extremely uncomfortable.
Polish participants coming in above famously liberal Sweden exhibited the most tolerance towards a Roma neighbour with an average response of 7.5, significantly above the EU average of 6.0.
On the bottom of the table are Italy and the Czech Republic returning average responses of 4.0 and 3.7 respectively.
Furthermore, in both Italy and the Czech Republic, 47% of participants were uncomfortable with a Roma neighbour (answering 1, 2 or 3).
Home to Milan Fashion Week but also home to a government accused by the European Parliament on the 10th of July as initiating a clear act of racial discrimination.
In a claimed reaction to 700 gypsy gamps surrounding Roma, Milano and Napoli, the Italian government declared a state of emergency and began fingerprinting its Roma population among other activities. Roberto Maroni, Italy’s Interior Minister, in defence of the European Parliament’s accusation insisted that his government’s actions were necessary to combat crime and identify illegal immigrants for expulsion.
While the Nazis murdered 200,000 – 800,000 Roma during World War II in an attempted genocide known as the Porajmos. The Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia succeeded in totally eradicating the Bohemian Romany language by exterminating all its speakers.
Following this, in Communist Czechoslovakia, Roma women were routinely sterilised as part of state policy to reduce their population. This was also reported in Norway, albeit on a smaller scale.
The current Czech government has not totally shaken this legacy, recently losing a case brought against it at the European Court of Human Rights.
The Court ruled in favour of Berta Cervenakova, a resident of Ostrava in the Czech Republic, mother of four and Roma. 8 years after first initiating this lawsuit against the Czech government however, nothing has changed for Berta and her children who live in a condemned tenement building.
Berta’s daughter Nikola was at the centre of this case. When Nikola was enrolling into school, Berta was made to sign documents, which she did not understand, declaring her daughter to be mentally retarded, allowing officials to whisk her off to a special school for mentally disabled children.
Nikola, now 18, cannot Read, Write or Count.
“I blame the parents. They don’t read to their kids. The Roma have no appreciation that you have to apply yourself to get on. They just live for the day” – Headmaster of a reformed Special School
These views are prevalent throughout the teaching community, something the Czech authorities are finding a major challenge to tame.
“We can’t say to those who teach like this: you have to go. That would lead to a collapse of the school system” – Ondrej Liska, Czech Education Minister
But of course, there’re always two sides to a situation.
“Czech people are racist and xenophobic. But many Gypsies are worse. They don’t send their kids to school because they don’t want to be white” – Radek Bhanga, Roma rapper of Gipsy.cz (video featured below)
Maybe Radek’s words describing Czech people to be ‘racist and xenophobic’ are extreme but consider the Czech Local Development Ministry’s latest plan to address the “Roma Problem”.
They are to be divided into three groups:
- Independant (almost) of Social Allowances
- Abusing Social Allowances
- Have to be under Constant Supervision
And be faced with regulations like the following:
- Type 3 Roma are to be moved to Hostels under Social Workers’ Supervision
- Social Allowances will only be granted to Roma working for Municipalities
- Rent Defaulters will work to cover their Debts
The program also includes incentives like being moved to ‘a better part of town’ if members of a family get a job and send their children to school (hopefully not a special school).
What is truly worrying about the program is how it contains statements that stress the importance of weakening ties within Romany family clans by measures like allowing a maximum of two related families in the same house.
Those who have followed the current Local Development Minister, Jiri Cunek, have not been surprised at his ministry’s plan. After all, Mr.Cunek, while mayor of Vsetin, was (in)famous for moving several Romany families out of town.
‘Hostels’ under constant supervision, moving families into ‘another’ district, I don’t know Jiri… You’re reminding this writer of a character with a creepy moustache.
[For more on Roma issues in the Czech Republic: Romea.cz]