Roma children arrive by bus in Romania after being sent back by French authorities in 2011. Photo: Getty Images
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Why is Europe failing to protect its Roma population from hate crimes?

In France, 20,000 Roma live in extreme poverty with little or no access to basic services and face a constant risk of forced evictions.

Nine in ten Roma people in Europe are living in poverty, and one in five has experienced some form of racist violence, according to a new report from Amnesty International. The report, which criticises the European Union, claims the response to Roma communities living in constant threat of pogrom-like attacks has been “woeful”.

The Roma in Europe have historically faced extreme violence and marginalisation: successive persecutions during World War Two culminated in the Holocaust, or Porajmos – “the Devouring” – as it is called in Romany. They were the first to find themselves among the victims of Nazi policies and sent to their deaths in extermination camps.

A  large proportion of the estimated 10 to 12 million Roma in Europe are still discriminated against: thousands live in segregated housing and their children attend inferior and under-resourced schools. It is in Greece, France and the Czech Republic that Amnesty's report focuses on and where it suggests the most entrenched anti-Roma feeling is held. In France alone, 20,000 Roma live in extreme poverty with little or no access to basic services, such as water and sanitation and at a constant risk of forced evictions.

In January last year, six houses and four cars were firebombed and damaged by the attackers in Etoliko, a village in western Greece.  Several Roma told Amnesty that they felt betrayed by the police. One said: “I could see just two policemen from inside the house… They were just staring and asking people to stop. They did nothing more than this.”

In 2012, Ilias Kasidiaris, a member of Greek parliament belonging to the far-right Golden Dawn party, made a speech in Aspropyrgos, home to many Roma, in which he referred to the Roma as ‘human garbage’ and called on residents to get rid of them from the area.

John Dalhuisen, Amnesty’s Europe and Central Asia programme director, said: “All too often European leaders have pandered the prejudices fuelling anti-Roma violence by branding Roma as anti-social and unwelcome. While generally condemning the most blatant examples of anti-Roma violence, authorities have been reluctant to acknowledge its extent and slow to combat it. For its part, the European Union has been reluctant to challenge member states on the systemic discrimination of Roma that is all too evident.”  

In 2013, a five-year-old girl, Maria, made headlines around the world. Her blonde hair, green eyes and pale skin complexion supposedly gave Greek police enough evidence to arrest a Roma couple for her abduction. Subsequent DNA testing found Maria to be the biological daughter of a family living in Bulgaria. The crucial detail: the family was also Roma. The media lost interest.

The incident in Greece not only sparked an international search for her biological parents but also put the spotlight on the treatment of Greece’s Roma, making it uncomfortably clear how quickly Europe could still be whipped into racist hysteria. The unfortunate story of Little Maria tapped into myths of greedy gypsies stealing innocent children from their parents’ grasp.

Rather than acknowledging the failure to ensure the human rights of the Roma, some European leaders have chosen to blame Roma themselves for failing to integrate. Last year David Blunkett suggested that the arrival of Roma immigrants in the UK could cause an “explosion”. Speaking to BBC Radio Sheffield, he said of those who had recently arrived in the UK “. . . you've got to adhere to our standards, and to our way of behaving, and if you do then you'll get a welcome and people will support you.”

Of course, Nigel Farage was there to back Blunkett for his courage to speak so plainly on the issue. Politicians should stop blaming Roma communities for not adapting to British society and instead focus on stamping out discrimination against the Roma rather than fuelling the public with a nineteenth century moral panic.

The Roma couple charged with abducting Maria will soon have their legal fate decided. But Maria, like other Roma children across the European continent, will still have to navigate herself through a lifetime of suffering, unemployment, discrimination and a life expectancy that is 10 years below the rest of Europe.

Editor's note, 10 April: this piece has been updated to correct inaccuracies in the reporting of David Blunkett's BBC Radio Sheffield interview

Ashley Cowburn writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2014. He tweets @ashcowburn

 

 

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Why Podemos will defeat the Spanish Socialists

A new alliance on the Spanish Left will be stronger than the sum of its parts.

On Saturday morning, on a palm-tree lined promenade in the small city of Badalona in eastern Catalonia, a 38-year-old woman named Mar García Puig fanned herself with her speaking notes after taking her turn on the stage.

Until six months ago, Puig was a literary editor with no professional experience in politics apart from attending demonstrations and rallies. Then, in December, her life was transformed twice over. In the national election, she won a parliamentary seat for En Comú Podem, the Catalan regional ally of the anti-austerity party Podemos. Four hours after she learned of her victory, Puig gave birth to twins.

Fortunately Puig’s husband, who is a teacher, was able to take paternity leave so that she could take up her seat. In parliament, Puig “felt like an alien”, she told me over coffee. As it turned out, she had to give up her seat prematurely anyway – along with all the other Spanish MPs – when repeated attempts to form a government failed. So now, in the lead-up to Spain’s first repeat election of the modern era, to be held on 26 June, Puig was on the campaign trail once more in a drive to win a parliamentary seat.

The December general election was as historic as it was inconclusive, ushering in a novel political era in Spain and leaving the country with the most fragmented parliament in its history. Fed up with corruption, austerity and a weak recovery from the global financial crisis, voters punished the mainstream parties, ending the 40-year dominance of the conservative Partido Popular (People’s Party) and the centre-left PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), which have held power since the death of General Franco. Neither group was able to win an absolute majority as new parties from both ends of the political spectrum garnered support from disenchanted voters.

On the left, Podemos, which was only founded in March 2014 by the ponytailed political scientist Pablo Iglesias, won 20 per cent of the vote. Ciudadanos (Citizens), formed in Catalonia a decade ago and occupying the centre left or centre right, depending on which analyst you talk to, secured a 14 per cent share.

Despite having four months to form a coalition government, the two biggest political parties could not reach a deal. The People’s Party, which had implemented a harsh austerity package over the past five years, recorded its worst electoral performance since 1989, losing 16 percentage points. It still won the most votes, however, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was the first leader to be asked by King Felipe VI to form a government.

By the end of January, Rajoy conceded defeat after the PSOE refused to join his “grand coalition”. The Socialists then failed in their own attempt to form a government, leading the king to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election.

Despite the inconvenience of having to campaign nationwide once again – and being away from her twins – Mar García Puig’s enthusiasm for her new career is undiminished. “In Spain there is a window of opportunity,” she said. “There is a receptiveness to politics that there wasn’t before.”

When the repeat elections were called, some questioned whether Podemos and its regional allies could mobilise its supporters to the same extent as in December. Yet Puig believes that the party’s appeal has grown further in the six months that the country has been without a government. “We are still new and Podemos has this freshness – it can still make people join,” she told me.

The following day, as the church bells rang at noon in the Basque city of Bilbao, crowds gathered for another rally. For protection against the sun, Podemos supporters had covered their heads with purple triangular paper hats displaying the party name as it will appear on the ballot paper: Unidos Podemos, or “United We Can”.

In May, Podemos entered into an alliance with Izquierda Unida (United Left), the radical left-wing party that includes the Communist Party of Spain, and which won 3 per cent of the vote in December. Izquierda Unida is headed by Alberto Garzón, a 30-year-old Marxist economist who, according to a poll by the state-run CIS research institute, is the most highly rated party leader in Spain. Unlike Podemos’s Iglesias, who can fire up a crowd and is seen by some as divisive, Garzón is a calm and articulate politician who appeals to disaffected voters.

Nagua Alba, who at 26 is Podemos’s youngest MP, said the new alliance would be stronger than the sum of its parts, because Spain’s voting system punishes smaller parties when it comes to allocating seats in parliament. “It [the alliance] will attract all those people that aren’t convinced yet. It shows we can all work together,” Alba said.

As part of the agreement with Podemos, Izquierda Unida has agreed to drop its demands for a programme of renationalisation and withdrawing Spain from Nato. The alliance is campaigning on a platform of reversing Rajoy’s labour reforms, removing the national debt ceiling, opposing the TTIP trade deal, and increasing the minimum wage to €900 a month. A Unidos Podemos government would attempt to move the EU’s economic policy away from austerity and towards a more expansionist stance, joining a broader effort that involves Greece, Italy and Portugal. It is also committed to offering the Catalans a referendum on independence, a move that the mainstream parties strongly oppose.

The latest polls suggest that Unidos Podemos will become Spain’s second-biggest party, with 26 per cent of the vote, behind Rajoy’s Popular Party. The Socialist Party looks poised to fall into third place, with 21 per cent, and Ciudadanos is expected to hold its 14 per cent share. If the polls are accurate, the PSOE will face a difficult choice that highlights how far its stock has fallen. It can choose to enter as a junior partner into a coalition with the insurgent left, which has politically outmanoeuvred it. Or it could decide to prop up a Partido Popular-led right-wing coalition, serving as a constraint on power. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain