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



The Alternative
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"I won't do this forever": meet Alternative leader, Uffe Elbæk – Denmark's Jeremy Corbyn

The Alternative party leader speaks frankly about his party's journey from being seen as a comedy sideshow to taking nine seats in the Danish elections.

In Britain, popular anti-politics sentiment has engulfed the Labour party, through Jeremy Corbyn. In Denmark's splintered, assorted political landscape, it has created a party called the Alternative. The barely two-year-old party was depicted as a comedic sideshow before June's elections. But with nine of 179 seats, they embarrassed all electoral predictions, including their own. Their rise owes to a growing European gripe with politics as usual, as well as to growing chasms within Danish politics.

"I don't want to do this forever. I want to be a pensioner, lay on a beach somewhere, write books and make money from speeches." Embracing his maverick figure, the 61-year-old witty, self-deprecating leader, Uffe Elbæk, has become one of the most resonant voices in Danish politics. As an ex-culture minister he was tarred by conflict of interest accusations leading to him to voluntarily step down as minister in 2012. He was later cleared of wrongdoing but the ridicule in the media stuck. His re-emergence in Danish politics is no longer trivial. His party has struck a match on a sentiment he claims is not European but international.

"What we see across Europe is a growing divide between politicians and their electorate. We are trying to bridge that divide and move from a representative democracy to a far more involving democracy. You see the same in the Scottish Referendum, in Syriza, in Podemos, in a way in Bernie Sanders and, of course, in Jeremy Corbyn".

In tandem with the rise of populist parties in Europe, they've capitalised on a discontent with mainstream politics, perceived spin and sound bite. In the last elections, the Alternative refused to directly persuade the electorate to vote for them, instead encouraging them to vote on their convictions.

“We are critical of the neoliberal doctrine from Thatcher and Reagan and growing inequality," explains Elbæk. "But I believe deeply in human potential and creating a more entrepreneurial, creative society based on progressive values".

The party decides its policies in what they call "political laboratories" where members and non-members are invited to share, hone, and develop policy ideas. The party is in many respects what it says on the tin. Despite flinching away from left and right political categories, they are staunchly pro-environment and pro-immigration.

"A lot of progressives do a lot of good things in the grassroots, but the reality is that few want to go into the big party machines." The Alternative has been a huge grassroots built campaign, attracting exactly those types of voters. It has gained over 6,000 members in its first two years, a remarkable feat as membership across Danish political parties steadily declines.

The party appeals to a desire, more prominent on the left of the Danish electorate, for a straight-talking, green party not overtly party political but reminiscent of conventionally Scandinavian values of tolerance and consensus. It is hawkish about whether socialist-inspired thinking is condusive to modern challenges, but similarly it believes in harnessing public support directly. They are a growing albeit slightly hippy and unconventional vehicle for political expression.

The migrant crisis has exposed chasms in Danish politics. Controversial proposals to advertise anti-refugee adverts, by integration minister Inger Støjberg, have sparked widespread concern. From across politics and from business, there has been a steady reel of expressed concern that Denmark risks creating a perception of intolerance to foreigners.

A private Danish group called People Reaching Out, published adverts in the same four Lebanese newspapers that ran the anti-refugee ads. Crowdfunding over £16,000, they replicated the original ads writing, "sorry for the hostility towards refugees expressed here. From people's to people's we wish to express our compassion and sympathy to anyone fleeing war and despair".

Michala Bendixen, who heads the campaign group, Refugee's Welcome, wrote an op-ed in The Daily Star, one of the Lebanese papers which carried the ad. She stated that, "the adverts give a completely distorted picture of the situation", clarifying that the Danish asylum process was amongst the fastest in Europe.

Støjberg's reforms to immigration and almost 50 per cent cuts to refugee benefits have made her a controversial figure but despite much criticism, topped a recent poll of ministers in the current government that voters felt were doing well. Largely on the back of a hardline position on immigration, the Danish People's Party won 21 per cent of the popular vote in this year's elections. Similarly to many countries across Europe, the migrant crisis has been emotive and polarising. On that divide, the Alternative has been categorical.

"In Denmark there is one thing happening in politics and another in the streets," says Elbæk. "There is a disgraceful lack of empathy from politicians but the reaction from the Danish people has been really touching. Suddenly we were seeing hundreds of refugees on our motorways, and it came as a reality shock to the Danish people. But they responded to it by offering shelter, food, water, and blankets."

Denmark's new government is hardening its position on immigrants and refugees. The split reaction reflects a more polarised terrain. There is a debate about what Denmark's values really are, and whether the migrant crisis betrays or protects them. Within it, the Alternative, partly motley, but with a non-trivial and rising electoral appeal, are an increasingly influential voice.