Despite decades of increasing racial tolerance in Europe, governments are still persecuting the Romani people.
Historically Europe’s treatment of minority populations throughout its member states has been pretty dismal; however since World War II the continent has made substantial progress in abolishing systemic racism and prosecution. Indeed, a crucial aspect of the Copenhagen Criteria, which establishes the requirements for nations to gain EU membership, clearly states that countries must guarantee the protection of minorities. Despite this, inherent prejudice is far from abolished, with some ethnic groups being especially targeted. The Romani people not only have had a disgusting history of racial persecution, but in many nations that have made great strides in integrating other minority populations, the Romani are still subjected to instilled prejudice against them.
The Romani, sometimes referred to as Roma or Gypsies, are an ethnic group that are widely dispersed across the world, but are most concentrated in Eastern and Central Europe, with large communities in South-western Europe and Southern France. The society possesses a unique culture, which places much importance on family, has its own distinct language and boasts an influential and colourful brand of music. They have also been well represented in fiction with examples including Carmen by Prosper Mérimée and adapted by Georges Bizet and The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo.
Sadly however, the Romani have faced devastating levels of persecution, with much prejudice still existing in contemporary Europe. Romani people were enslaved throughout Eastern Europe for hundreds of years; in the territory that is now Romania, the Romani were forced into slavery from the 13-14th century to the 1850s. Life for the Romani in other parts of Europe was equally vile; they were blamed for spreading the plague, and were subjected to ethnic cleansing and persecution, not just by the public but by the state as well; one horrific example of this was the 1749 Great Round-up in Spain, where Romani families were separated and any able man was forced into labour camps. The Nazis also prosecuted the Romani, with some estimating that 1.5 million Romani were killed during the Holocaust. Forced assimilation has also been rife in Europe; in Norway 1,500 Romani children were removed from their parents and placed into state care during the 20th Century.
However, in the modern era, when institutionalised racism has all but disappeared in Europe for most ethnic groups, discrimination against the Romani is still endemic, especially in Eastern and Southern Europe. In 1973, Czechoslovakia introduced an appalling programme of sterilisation of Romani women, which was officially abandoned five years later but in practice still occurs. Furthermore, in 2008 following a brutal murder in Rome by a Romani man, the Italian government responded by denouncing the Romani as a national security risk and blaming them openly for an increased crime rate in urban areas.
Perhaps the most notable prosecution in contemporary Europe is the policy of forced repatriation in France. With tensions high between the French government and Romani people, the authorities demolished 51 illegal Romani camps and began a policy of deporting Romani people to their nations of origin, making a mockery of the freedom of movement for workers in Europe. The European Commission spoke out against the policy, calling it a “disgrace,” but France has not been inhibited in its actions.
Prospects for the Romani are finally being addressed by some nations and progress is being made. In 2005, the ‘Decade for Roma Inclusion’ was launched, with 12 European nations committing to the initiative. The aim is to put an end to the welfare gap between Romani and non-Romani people, as well as addressing poverty and exclusion that many Romani are subjected to.
The extent to which this programme will actually succeed however is still unclear, and the Romani people will need dramatic progress until they can enjoy anything close to equality. For Europe, a continent that in the modern era has championed democracy and progressive thinking, the treatment of the Romani people is truly a skeleton in its closet.