FECL 52 (December 1997):

EVOLVING TRAGEDY...EUROPEAN ROMA

With shouts of "to the Gas Chambers" and "we'll kill you all" come the despicable imagery of Nazism and the horrors it bespoke. Pogroms, concentration camps, and abhorrent visions of the worst kinds of institutionalized bigotry and abuse are quickly remembered, but the disturbing context of that remembrance is in the way these nightmarish aberrations are being widely pursued in many parts of Europe today.

From Greece to Ukraine, a darkness has again descended over a significant European population. Scapegoating and victimization of Roma peoples in Albania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Poland, and Ukraine has reached levels not witnessed since WWII.

In Ano Liosia, Greece, municipal authorities have recently "resettled" the local Roma population of approximately 100 families. The Roma report that officials pursued this resettlement with only a few hours notice to residents and threats of violence. Roma with local residence permits were promised living conditions superior to that they presently possessed.

 

A policy of resettlement

Of the original 100 Roma families, a total of 25 were "resettled" in an encampment adjoining a municipal parking lot; the remaining Roma were ordered away - the original Roma homes were levelled. The new housing lacked running water; the sanitary facilities provided for the 124 people were 4 public toilets. Within several days of this relocation, a wire fence was erected about the encampment and armed guards placed at the only opening.

Activities of the nature described call into question the violation of Protocol 4 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR). Consequent violation of private and family life then call into question Article 8 of the ECHR, and the further discriminatory climate that came to be fostered raises compliance issues as regards both Articles 3 and 14 as well. Greek Prime Minister Simitis received an NGO communication on the Ano Liosia problem May 23rd, 1997.

In Transcarpathian Ukraine reports of "special troops for controlling Gypsies" have emerged, as well as documentation of an official pursuit of "ghettoisation" and "camps concentrated" for Roma. The European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), an international NGO monitoring the rights of Roma and providing legal representation in cases of human rights abuse, pursued Transcarpathian fact-finding missions in 1996 and 1997, documenting the both widespread and systemic abuse.

 

Documenting the abuse

In Transcarpathia, the level of police violence perpetrated against the Roma Community is reported in extreme terms. The ERRC reports systemic failure in according Roma due process in the courts, and through such, spawning both a coercive and abusive criminal justice system. In spite of the Government's much vaunted claims of Roma capacity for the redress of such police abuse within the framework of the existing legal system, the ERRC found no evidence of such.

Documented problems facing Transcarpathian Roma include education, "land redistribution", forced registration and fingerprinting, mass raids on communities for monitoring purposes, mob violence against Roma communities, the aforementioned lack of due process in the courts, and sexual violence by individual police officers. Many of these issues are repeated in varying degrees throughout the range of Roma geographic "flashpoints" within Europe.

Regular releases of ERRC news and activities appear to have portrayed the deepening Roma crisis in a timely and factual manner. The ERRC is centrally located on the Continent in Budapest, Hungary. The Chairman of their Board of Directors is Andras Biro of Hungary, and the Board also includes members from Romania, UK, USA, Germany, Bulgaria, France, the Czech Republic, and Spain. Given the sensationalism and bias the majority of traditional news sources have exhibited, ERRC updates have proved of particular value in developing an accurate perspective on the issues at hand.

 

Officially sanctioned violence

Presently, the perspective on Roma generated by our information is that of systemic patterns of disenfranchisement, discrimination and abuse. These concerns appear to mar Roma communities in an unbroken band from Greece to Ukraine. Repeated accounts of mob violence against individual Roma and Roma communities are commonplace; the latter are historically known as Pogroms. Equally common is the theme of police inaction as regards the perpetration of violence against Roma, with a notable exception to this "rule" being when the police themselves are the perpetrators, which then raises the issue of the degree to which these baseless police attacks are "officially sanctioned".

On February 2, 1997, under the orders of the Director of Interior Affairs for the town of Pazardjic, Bulgaria, a contingent of "masked policeman" from a special police unit attacked the Roma quarter of town. In the process of this attack 60 Roma were reported beaten or clubbed, and damage to Roma property was extensive. Typifying the nature of the Police violence, "with shouts and curses" a married couple in their 60's was beaten with clubs all over their heads and bodies...without explanation. The head of the Quarter's police station was reported as providing an eyewitness account of police attacking innocent Roma. Similar incidents were reported as having occurred in 1992 and 1994. On January 17, 1997 in Sofia, Bulgaria, a similar police rampage occurred in the Facultea section of town, with indiscriminate abuse and beating of Roma again being documented.

Many of these violent outbursts confronting Roma appear to be a function of the extreme volatility of their living environment; an old and natural product of scapegoating minorities during difficult social or economic circumstances. Given the existence of this undercurrent of aggravated tension, the extreme nature of both individual and collective violence against Roma is better appreciated.

 

An explosive climate of hostility

In letters to the General Prosecutor of Poland dated July 3rd 1997, and August 25th, 1997, the ERRC highlighted the effects of simmering tensions upon the treatment of Roma. The August 25th letter addressed the case of 15 year old Robert Pawlowski of Wodzislaw Slanski, Poland.

According to subsequent reports, young Pawlowski was kicking a trash can when he was approached by police. Panicking, Pawlowski ran for the nearby apartment of an aunt with Officer Bogdan Szulinski following him, and catching him at his aunt's door. Robert Pawlowski's aunt, Danuta Balasz, heard the comotion outside her door and opened it in time to see Officer Szulinski push young Pawlowski down the stairs and beat him. Upon hurrying downstairs to her nephew, Ms. Balasz discovered him lying on the ground bleeding heavily from the head. The young man was taken to a hospital in Jastrebie where he was operated on that night. He was hospitalised for a month, and it is reported he will never fully recover from the head injuries he sustained...including a broken skull and brain damage.

In a pattern repeated throughout the region of Roma abuse, the police deny using any violence against young Pawlowski, and claim he "fell and hit his head" by the building entranceway. Attempts to secure justice have met with what can be described as indifference at best, and the prosecutor who had previously declined to pursue the case had been again restored to it as of the last reports.

Acts of both individual and collective violence against Roma are repeatedly met with a decided lack of prosecutorial zeal, thereby encouraging future transgressions. On June 11th, 1997 such an attack took place in the town of Wiebodzice, Poland, and involved a mob of from twenty to fifty mostly masked people chanting slogans such as "Poland for Poles" and "We don't want Gypsies here". Despite numerous and repeated complaints, no one from the prosecutor's office appeared willing to address the attacks...again, effectively denying Roma the protection of law.

 

Roots of discrimination

Varying "explanations" of anti-Roma sentiments have been extended with their being a commonality on several key themes. Perhaps foremost among these is the petty crime many Roma become involved with in order to secure bare necessities (food, clothing, etc.). News media often will highlight the "sensational aspects" of these circumstances; thus feed anti-Roma feeling. Further, as a fairly visible minority (as with Afro-Americans in the USA), they are easily "targeted" by extremist elements (ie, skinheads, ultra-nationalists, etc) seeking scapegoats for perceived problems. This combination of factors has often made the Roma the focus of Community Rage (ie, Pogroms) vs. Community Help.

In the USA, the 1960's saw Afro-American Civil Rights movements flourish, and the subsequent growth of Afro-American political power enabled their successful encouragement of the American Government's pursuit of "anti-poverty programs". These programs provided job, educational, and social benefits for the disadvantaged, thus combatting the high unemployment and crime which had preceded them, and which similarly exists in Roma communities today (unemployment rates of 70-90% are not uncommon). A large and affluent Afro-American middle class is today the result, and cuts in the "anti-poverty programs" have been repeatedly followed by increases in social problems (crime, drug abuse, joblessness, etc.).

A common thread of joblessness and poverty runs through Roma communities; in most flashpoint areas, "special" Roma educational programs had evolved which served to perpetuate the lack of job and social skills...paralleling the "American experience". Highlighting the difficulties Roma peoples face in addressing their public policy issues in general, and education in particular, Mr. Rumyan Russinov, Director of Monitoring in the Human Rights Project (a Roma Rights NGO headquartered in Sofia, Bulgaria), speaking at the European Parliament in Brussels, urged the Commission of the European Union and its Member States to make the Roma/Gypsies Community and its needs an item of policy.

In his speech, Russinov specifically called for political representation for Roma/Gypsies at the European level, and the establishment of Roma/Gypsy sensitive media and educational establishments. Creating these media and eductaional structures would provide both a much needed public and policy voice, and an educational basis for a true integration of Roma/Gypsy peoples within Europe.

Quoting the Brussels Declaration by the members of the Roma/Gypsies Roundtable, "Support for the Roma/Gypsies people from the European Union has hitherto been confined to symbolic project promotion that has reached only a small minority of Roma/Gypsies people and has been limited to a few areas. That situation will have to change if the integration and basic welfare of Roma/Gypsies people in Europe are to be secured."

 

Scapegoating a minority

In contrast, given the present difficult economic milieu of many Roma flashpoints, and the apparent complicity of local governments in Roma abuse, a portion of violence against Roma may be examined in the context of an officially fostered "relief valve" for community tensions. Significant in a number of geographic areas is the confiscation of Roma land and housing, with its subsequent transfer to "majority" local residents taking place following an explosion of Community violence against Roma.

Documented in a June 1997 ERRC report, Roma in the central Albanian town of Berat were systematically "evicted" from flats in the center of town by groups of ethnic Albanians. As a consequence of the "violent evictions", all of those Roma interviewed were living on a mud flat at the town's periphery. In the Czech Republic, presently what many believe to be the most "severe circumstances" exist for Roma in this context, as well as virtually all others.

 

Racism and the Czech Republic

In a September 1997 report published in POSTMARK Praha 190, State and Extremist "terror" used against Czech Roma included evictions from their homes by right-wing councils in North Bohemia, as well as neo-Nazi sponsored street violence and Pogroms resulting in 28 Roma deaths. The report stated many Roma homes have also been firebombed, and others attacked by gangs. Prominent in reported street marches was the chant "Gypsies to the Gas Chambers!". particularly disturbing is the Czech Justice System's apparent response to these challenges to the most basic of human rights.

August 1997 saw a judge in the East Bohemian town of Hradec Kralove dismiss charges of racially motivated violence against neo-Nazis who had threatened to throw four Roma children from a train. The stated reason for the dismissal was that as both Czechs and Romany "belong to the same Indo-European race" their conduct could not have been racially motivated. Yet, Czech prosecutors have brought charges against Roma in the town of Louny alleging that five Roma who insulted and attacked police officers called to a disturbance at their flat were involved in "racially motivated" crime under the very same law.

Given the circumstances of these legal interpretations, an agenda other than unbiased Justice begs examination. In a vein complimenting the racial violence against Roma, reportedly the Courts have repeatedly ignored discrimination against Roma by local authorities. In one noteworthy case, a number of Roma families were evicted from flats they occupied in the city of Usti nad Labem, and with their legal leases confiscated, they were put on a train to Slovakia. Their complaint to the court was not heard for three and a half years, during which time they lived in parks and abandoned garages.

 

The first enforced mass statelessness since WWII

Recalling more of the perverse excesses of the 1930's, in 1993 with the peaceful division of Czechoslovakia, a law on citizenship in the Czech Republic went into effect. Subsequently, information both leaked and freely provided by Czech officials indicates that racial motivation may have influenced the new law. Specifically, indications are that some of those drafting the legislation saw it as a means of removing Roma from the Czech Republic. Since this law went into effect, approximately 100,000 Czech Roma have effectively been made "de facto stateless as a result". This act constituted the first enforced mass statelessness in Europe since WWII.

Presently, "stateless" Czech Roma are deprived of a host of benefits available to any Czech citizen. Aside from social benefits, these individuals have difficulty receiving permanent residence, and cannot vote or run for Office. Moreover, aside from the disenfranchisement of social and political assets, reports indicate these stateless individuals are often expelled from the Country for "committing" any crime whatsoever.

As reported by the Prague based NGO Tolerance Foundation, 663 "Slovak citizens" (the new designation provided stateless Roma) were sentenced to expulsion by Czech courts in the period from January 1, 1993 to June 30, 1996. Tolerance Foundation reports that of the first 120 cases they were able to document, 118 were Roma. One such expulsion was included as part of the sentence for the theft of approximately five US dollars worth of sugar beet; this was quashed by the Czech Supreme Court in May 1997.

 

Roma crisis... born of political change

Again parallelling the 1930's when Nazism first scapegoated and persecuted minorities, and then stripped them of their rights and citizenship, the developments of recent years as regards the Roma are quite disturbing. A common thread which appears to unite many Roma people, while substantiating the view that the present wave of anti-Roma activity was spawned as a result of societies in a state of social or economic crisis, is that "before 1989, we were people; after the changes we were forced to become Roma" (from ERRC Nato Statement July 10, 1997).

As with other European flashpoints of recent years, the changes in both the political and economic structures of many countries appear to have created upheavals which unleashed long buried prejudices. Discrimination across the spectrum of everyday life appears all too typical, running from being served in a restaurant and finding a job, to the most basic of human rights.

In an account which apparently typifies the experience of many, one Czech Roma related in Postmark Praha that "Under the 'totalitarian regime' I worked hard for 15 years at the waterworks, followed by 4 years at the Nova Hut steelworks. Under 'democracy' I don't have a job. I'm on social security of 58 US dollars a month. It's impossible to live on that." From "humanitarian" sources offering help to victims of Czech flooding in July of 1997, the newspaper ads advising the victims on how to obtain help were reported as including the disclaimer "but not gypsies". In a bizarre twist to the American experience of racism, many Czech shops and restaurants are reported to post signs refusing to serve "Blacks" (Roma). Evidence indicates a pervasive web of anti-Roma activity which is particularly severe in the Czech Republic.

 

In search of refuge

In August of 1997, thousands of Czech Roma sought political asylum in Canada on the grounds of racial persecution. On October 20th, 1997, approximately 200 Roma people from Slovakia and The Czech Republic appeared in Dover, UK, and claimed refugee status. The UK is reportedly attempting to accomodate the existing refugees, while seemingly trying to discourage additional asylum seekers as well as involvement in what is apparently being viewed as a Czech/Slovak domestic issue.

A report from November 2, 1997 relates the dispatching of Pavel Bratinka, the Czech Republic's minister in charge of minorities, to London for talks with Home Office Minister Mike O'Brien. Bratinka's Prague office was noted as the source of this information, which went on to relate that Czech President Vaclav Havel had just warned that the "flood of Czech gypsies seeking asylum in Britian could force the European Union to bring back visa restrictions against Czech nationals".

Authorities in Dover are reported to have sought financial assistance from the British government. Statements quoting an additional arrival of up to 800 refugees noted that this has been the Channel Port's "single biggest ever influx of asylum seekers".

Jack Rodgers

 

Sources: ERRC Releases March 21 - August 25, 1997 (Contact: ERRC, P.O. Box 10/24, 1525 Budapest; Fax: +36/1 1382727); reports by Tony Goldman, 20 and 27.10.97; AFP, Prague, 30.10.97; Roma Rights in FOCUS, July-August, 1996; OBEKTIV February-May 97, June-September 97; POSTMARK Praha 190, September 97.