Antiziganism Increasing in Europe — The Institutional Silencing of Roma Gypsy Communities in Europe
Throughout history, Romani people, as an ancient ethnic minority with no homeland, have been persecuted and alienated from European society. According the Equality and Human Rights Commission, GRT (Gypsy, Roma and Traveller) communities are some of the most marginalised and disadvantaged communities in the United Kingdom, and this also extends across Europe. As countries across Europe strip Romani people of their rights, leaving many impoverished and living on the fringes of society, widespread resentment towards the Romani community is at all-time high. Though Europe has faced a reckoning in its treatment of ethnic minorities, especially following the international Black Lives Movement, it’s the Romani community that have been left for dead.
Since the Middle Ages, Romani people have been subjected to slavery and racist laws that advocated for ethnic and cultural cleansing. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Romanies were exposed to forced assimilations, many laws were passed to forced Romanies to integrate into European society. For example, in Spain, the native Romani language was outlawed, causing the ancient dialect to become extinct across the region. Some Romanies in Romania and Moldova could be kept as slaves until abolition in 1856. Most notably, during WWII, Nazi Germany conducted the largest genocide of Romani people, known as the Porajmos in Romani. Often killed on sight, many Romanies were also sentenced to forced labour in concentration camps. The total number of Romani deaths during the Porajmos is unknown, however it’s been estimated to between 250,000 and 1,500,000.
Following the war, Czechoslovakia branded Romanies as a “a socially degraded stratum” and conducted forced sterilisation of Romani women under state policy. Up until 2004, new cases of forced sterilisation were coming to light in both Czech Republic and Slovakia. Equally, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and Norway “all have histories of coercive sterilisation of minorities and other groups”. Furthermore, in 1896, Norway passed a law permitting the state to remove Romani children from their parents, resulting in around 1,500 Romani children being taken from their parents in the 20th century. It’s these events within Europe’s recent history that continue to fuel the antiziganism as it is so deeply engrained into European society.
Likewise, in 2008, Italy declared the Romani population as a national security risk. In the same year, two Romani children, Cristina and Violetta Djeordsevic drowned as Italian beachgoers remained unperturbed. This event sent shockwaves across Europe as it represented the animosity Italians felt towards Romani people. Furthermore, in 2016 Pew Research Poll found that 82% Italians expressed negative feelings towards the Romani community compared to 67% in Greece, Hungary 64%, France 61%, Spain 49%, Poland 47% and 45% in the United Kingdom.
Media representation has led to discrimination due to false narratives of Romani people. In Victorian and modern British literature Romani people are often depicted as having “sinister occult and criminal tendencies”. For example, in the ongoing BBC television series Peaky Blinders, both the Shelby and Lee families are depicted as Romani or of Romani descent. Despite it being a period crime television drama based loosely on a true story, it misrepresents Romani people and further perpetuates the false narrative of their ‘criminal tendencies’. Similarly, Romani women in opera, literature and music have often been portrayed as sexually available, provocative, gaudy, mysterious and exotic, most notably in Prosper Mérimée’s novella Carmen (1845). Carmen, a young Romani woman, is depicted as thieving and attractive, who seduces and torments her married lover, Don José.
On Monday 5th June of this year, Marius Tudor for The Brussels Times published an article stating how ‘Institutional racism against Romani people is spreading in Europe and is becoming deadly’, following the death of Stanislav Tomas a Romani man from Czech Republic who died at the hands of Czech police. The case draws parallels to the tragic death of George Floyd in America last year. Following Floyd’s death there was international outcry against police brutality towards people of colour. The European Commission even called for an action plan to combat racism. However, following Tomas’ death everyone has remained silent, and none of European institutions have reacted. The indecision and indifference of countries across Europe is emblematic of a wider feeling of alienation and dislocation among Romani people.
Coincidingly, in the United Kingdom, the government are reviewing the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021. The bill effectively criminalises protests and freedom of assembly while also threatening the very way of life of the GRT community. While the broad repression of liberty in this bill is being widely discussed, very little of these conversations have focussed on the plight of GRT people; many of whom will be stripped of the fundamental core of their cultural identity. Sherrie Smith of The Drive 2 Survive Campaign stated in the SW Londoner, “if passed […] police will gain the power to seize Gypsy and Traveller homes, fine Gypsies and Travellers up to £2,500 and imprison those needing to follow a nomadic way of life”. This bill is a direct attack on GRT communities and effectively threatens to outlaw their traditional way of life. Many have also accused Home Secretary, Priti Patel of attempting to ethnically and culturally cleanse GRT communities from the UK.
This bill and its enthusiastic championing by the government, represents only a fraction of the broad xenophobia against GRT people within the Tory benches at Westminster. Lee Anderson Tory MP for Ashfield claimed, “that there is a direct correlation between Travellers being in the area and crime going up”. His comments were made during a debate on the Policing bill, further perpetuating antiziganism across the Tory government. Similarly, on 15th May 2021, former Tory MP, Matthew Parris wrote an article in The Times entitled It’s time we stopped pandering to Travellers. In the article Parris expresses how “we should phase out the ethnic minority” and how authorities should “begin a gradual but relentless squeeze on anyone who tries without permission to park their homes on public property or the property of others.” — essentially promoting the ethnic cleansing of GRT communities in the UK and destruction of their way of life. Both men’s comments were published around the time of the bill’s reading in parliament and the debates occurring; demonstrating not only the fervent antiziganism being brought to the surface currently, but it’s increasing normalisation and even use for political capital in the United Kingdom.
Despite this, prior to the 2021 National Census, The Office for National Statistics urged GRT people to take part, especially as Roma was added to the ethnic categories for the first time. However, this feels performative and shallow on the governments behalf as inclusion in numbers doesn’t mean anything if it’s not an active attempt at inclusion. Equally, as the census was conducted electronically this year it would have therefore excluded travelling GRT people who don’t have access to internet.
The Romani people of Europe today face a situation of extreme and uniform legal, state sanctioned discrimination. It is one that has led to violence in every corner of Europe, costing lives and pushing one of Europe’s ancient ethnic minorities to the brink of collapse. Confronted with this bigotry, European countries and broader organisations have taken actions ranging from wilful ignorance to actively pushing for violence and racism. In the United Kingdom, anti-Romani sentiment is tolerated and celebrated in the media we consume and the government we wish to protect us. From the dramas of the TV screen, the pages of our oldest newspapers, to the benches of our legislature. In the parliament where so many freedoms have been granted and the voices of the people are spoken, a vile racism has been allowed to creep across and form not just its debates but its laws, celebrated by those at the very top. It’s this oppression that is slowly tearing apart every strand of traditional Romani life and culture. All this considered, it begs the question, can one of the world’s oldest ethnic groups and most persecuted peoples carry on in a world dedicated to destroying their existence?