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.

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

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