Roma children arrive by bus in Romania after being sent back by French authorities in 2011. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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



Show Hide image

The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood