The European race to the bottom on the Roma

by Rhodri C. Williams

It is something of a truism now that many Eastern European EU member states remain threateningly uncomfortable places for their Roma citizens almost a decade after having solemnly plighted their troth to the Copenhagen criteria, non-discrimination standards and all. Even the briefest perusal of the European Roma Rights Centre website provides ample evidence. To wit, for instance, this charming encounter between a busload of visibly drunken football supporters and a schoolyard of Roma children three weeks ago in Konyár, Hungary:

…the group got off the bus and threatened the Romani school children. They sang the national anthem and the anthem of Transylvania (Szekler anthem) and shouted racist, anti-Roma expressions (“dirty gypsies, we will come back soon”). They made gestures threatening to cut the children’s throats. Some members of the group also urinated in front of the school building.


In addition, the relevant school has previously been involved in a racist scandal. Earlier this year, a teacher at the school was dismissed after making racist comments about Roma on video. He said that Roma children are primitives, dirty and smelly, but who understand the physical punishment only, and that they should have their spines broken.

The teacher was fired from the school after the incident. The NGOs are concerned that the group may have targeted the school, which is not in an obvious location for a rest stop on this route. The fact that the former teacher was also on the bus suggests that the school was deliberately targeted. The subsequent events, including threats to children and shouting racist statements should have been investigated and clarified immediately by police.

Ah, the discreet charm of the post-socialist bourgeoisie. And yet – it is also a truism that many of the more established Western European EU member states may benefit from the splashy, full-bore racism in the East in the sense that it obscures their own slightly more sophisticated versions. In recent weeks, Italy and France have come under renewed criticism on this score, as – more unexpectedly – has Sweden.

Italy under its past, largely unlamented Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi made a name for itself through the wholesale evictions of Romanian Roma, and improvements by the current government have been clearest in the area of policy rather than practice. Similarly, any chance the French had to move on in the wake of ex-PM Nicolas Sarkozy’s deportation fetish has clearly passed, with his Socialist successor Francois Hollande’s interior minister now on the record on policy continuity:

“I’ve got nothing to correct,” he said. “My remarks only shock those who don’t know the subject.

“The majority [of Roma] should be delivered back to the borders. We are not here to welcome these people.

“I’d remind you of [former Socialist premier] Michel Rocard’s statement: ‘It’s not France’s job to deal with the misery of the whole world.'”

In line with these attitudes, France has managed the signal achievement of 10,000 forced evictions within only the first half of 2013, according to a report this week from Amnesty International.

More recently, and perhaps more shockingly, Sweden itself has come under scrutiny. Granted, Sweden’s reputation for absolute righteousness has been shaken after a party of puerile xenophobes entered Parliament in 2010 elections and riots shook suburbs overwhelmingly inhabited by immigrants last Spring. However, despite systematic and sometimes violent past discrimination against Roma, Sweden has had a good recent history.

Swedish Roma were declared a protected national minority in 2000 and work has been ongoing on a “white book” meant to document and acknowledge historical patterns of official persecution against Roma in Sweden. However, the Swedish broadsheet Dagens Nyheter published explosive allegations this week that police in the southern region of Skåne broke Swedish law by keeping a secret register with personal data on 4,000 Roma, of whom many were not suspected of any crime and a quarter were children as young as three months old.

The reverberations of the scandal are likely to continue for some time in Sweden, but Scandinavian earnestness is everywhere in evidence, ranging from an apparent decision by the police to file a police complaint against themselves, to a rapid apology by the Justice Minister. There is much talk on TV by Swedish commentators on regaining the trust of the Roma community – a statement which itself may assume too much if the most recent revelations are anything to go by. Just “gaining”, one imagines, might be a plenty good verb to start with.


2 responses to “The European race to the bottom on the Roma

  1. Thank you for this excellent post. I’ve been following what is going on in France but was not aware that the Swedes (the Swedes?) have their own Roma scandal.

    One book I read that gave me an entirely different take on the Roma and all the other “people who move around” is J.C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed. Really fine and read in conjunction with his Seeing Like a State really rocked my intellectual worldview.

  2. Pingback: Sweden faces up to past discrimination against its Roma minority in a new ‘White Book’ | TerraNullius

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