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Vadim Ghirda/AP
A Romanian Roma child wipes her face during celebrations on April 8, 2008, of
the International Roma Day in Bucharest, Romania.

Hungary, Italy and a Broader Europe Bring Roma Struggles to the Fore

February 15, 2009 08:00 AM
by Christopher Coats
A wave of violence, EU expansion and a surge of targeted legislation have cast a spotlight on Europe’s largest minority, sparking worries that an era of persecution and prejudice could return once again, or may have never left.

The Roma and the EU

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Much of the recent attention has focused on the Roma population in Italy, which has come to symbolize a threat to the country’s well-being in the eyes of the newly elected Berlusconi government.

However, debate surrounding crime rates and poverty in Hungary has brought the plight of the Roma people to fore once again.

Faced with a faltering economy, Hungarian authorities have seen a spike in blame for the country's ills on the minority Roma population, evidenced by the comments of a police chief who remarked that all burglary and theft in the town of Miskolc could be traced back to Roma criminals.

On the national level, opponents of such statements are receiving little support as opposition leaders have promoted a platform that places crime and the Roma people at the center of their agenda.

“We demand that the government, instead of finding excuses based on the origins of the perpetrators, find the perpetrators and protect the rights and interests of the victims,” stated the opposition Fidesz party in a statement this week.

Numbering 800,000 in Hungary alone, the Roma have been frequent targets of the recently banned, but still active, Hungarian Guard; a right-wing paramilitary group formed in 2007.

Meanwhile, in Italy, Roma have been blamed for a spike in crime—which incidentally is not supported by statistics—making them targets for exclusionary efforts both official and otherwise, leading some to warn of “echos of Mussolini.”

These efforts have ranged from crowd violence, to indifference to the suffering of Roma citizens, an instance that drew Pope Benedict into the national debate.

Returning to office last year on a platform of law enforcement, Berlusconi and his allies introduced a spate of new laws and orders targeting a number of minority groups, with an emphasis on the Roma people, going so far as to begin fingerprinting and registering the entire population.

However, expansion of the European Union into former Soviet Republics and other Eastern European states has also cast a light on the dismal state of the Roma people overall.
 
Living conditions and access to basic public services, such as education, have been cited as being beyond a point of crisis.

This most recent spate of anti-Roma activity comes, ironically, halfway through the Decade for Roma Inclusion—a multinational effort to improve the living conditions and increase opportunities for Romani across the continent.

Despite this effort, reports of segregation and exclusion have emerged from across the continent, from separate education programs in the Ukraine to forced eviction in Bulgaria.

Even within nations that have embraced the idea of civic improvement and assimilation, efforts to integrate Romani into wider communities have sometimes been greeted with disdain by local populations.

Background: A long history of exclusion and loss

While experts have pointed out that recent events in Italy are just the latest in a long history of persecution and exclusion of the Roma people, they warn that they could signal a larger push against the population.

While genetic evidence points to the Roma originating from the north of India centuries ago, they have been present across Europe since the 14th century, with a concentration in what is now known as Eastern Europe.

Although no written history of the Roma exists, linguistic and genetic evidence suggest that the Roma emerged from the Punjab peoples of Northern India, but were forced out of the area for unknown reasons.

In the centuries since, the Roma people have moved west across Europe, often adapting their language and religion to accommodate the local region, while retaining a shared level of tradition.

This time has also been marked by long periods of exclusion and persecution including institutional efforts to eradicate or enslave the Roma population or separate them from society. These latter efforts have left many living in “apartheid-like” communities without electricity, running water or education.

More extreme measures came in the form of forced sterilization programs and a systematic effort to remove the Roma population from Nazi-controlled lands during World War II, resulting in the deaths of 1.6 million people.

Today, the official population of Roma in Europe stands around 7 million, though estimates put it closer to 15 million with reports that many Roma avoid reporting their ethnicity for fear of discrimination.

While present in Europe for centuries, the relationship between the Roma and various populations was further strained after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. The violence of the early 1990s sent whole communities further west, blending the populations of countries of southern and southeastern Europe.

Effects of the breakup have been evident in Italy as opposition voices have attempted to group the new arrivals in with Romani families that have resided in the country for generations.

Meanwhile, it has been reported that those Roma who stayed in areas such as Kosovo have been swept into refugee camps and left in potentially toxic conditions, resulting in early deaths and birth defects.
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