Killing Twice: The Forgotten Roma Holocaust

Roma & Sinti Memorial in Berlin (Photo: A. Jones, CC BY 2.0)

Yes, modern European governments are not deporting Roma to death camps. However, International Roma Holocaust Memorial Day is not just a warning from the past, but a reminder that the steps to genocide are never too far away when racism and persecution of whole people groups continues with impunity.

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist and Holocaust survivour, Elie Wiesel, once said, ‘to forget a Holocaust is to kill twice’. Wiesel speaks of ensuring that the attempted murder of whole ethnic groups is never forgotten, and is part of our collective consciousness. If we forget, the perpetrators of genocide would have succeeded: the removal of certain individuals and groups from society. It is on all of us to prevent this from happening.

Today is International Roma Holocaust Memorial Day (2 August) and, although it would make me very happy if I were to be wrong, many of you probably did not know that the wholesale murder of Roma during World War Two was commemorated. What this day signifies for Roma is not only survival and reflection, but a struggle for recognition and rights in a world that continues to decry their existence. To this day, the Roma Holocaust is often forgotten and recognition has been a slow process.

The Unknown

The 2 August itself is a grim detail, for it was on 2 August 1944 that the ‘gypsy family camp‘ at Auschwitz-Birkenau was liquidated. Nearly 3,000 Roma – mostly women, children and the elderly – were taken to the gas chambers and murdered. The sad truth is that the numbers of Roma victims during the War is still unknown. Some historians plot the figure between 220,000 to 500,000. Some modern estimates suggested a figure closer to 1 million Roma murdered. Roma call their genocide the ‘Porajmos’. Literally ‘the destruction’.

Despite Roma being one of the most disproportionately affected groups during the Holocaust, the lack of official data of Roma victims has meant that recognition has been slow and, even worse, subject to denial.

For example, it was not until 1982 that Germany officially recognised the Roma Holocaust as race-based genocide, despite the Nazis extending racial laws in the late 1930s to Roma, considering communities to be a threat to the dangerous ideology of Aryanism. Additionally, it was only in 2016 that France apologised for collaborating with the Nazis to persecute and transport Roma to their deaths under Vichy France, former PM François Hollande stating that France “acknowledges the suffering of travelling people who were interned and admits…broad responsibility”.

The slow recognition in the 20th and 21st centuries is arguably a by-product of not including Roma in the immediate post-war Holocaust revelations and trials of Nazi war criminals. After the War, national and international tribunals prosecuted Nazis and their collaborators for crimes against humanity and genocide. However, no individual was ever charged with specific crimes against Roma communities, despite their being clear evidence of eugenics policies designed to prove Roma inferior and to exterminate them. During the headline Nuremberg Trials, which saw the most prominent Nazis prosecuted, not one Romani witness was called to tell the world what had happened to the hundreds of thousands of Roma who had disappeared from the continent. Cut out from the pages of history. Killed twice.

Denial

Forgetting genocide is an act of aggression against the victimised minority. Therefore, talking about the lack of representation of Roma in Holocaust memorials cannot be discussed without addressing the modern day persecution of Roma throughout Europe. One of the clearest illustrations of this is denial.

For me, the intermingling of politics in Czechia over the notorious Roma concentration camp at Lety is a symbol of how modern day persecution of Roma acts as a catalyst for denial of past atrocities. Despite scholars agreeing that the entire population of original Czech Roma were murdered during the War, Lety has been subject to far-right revisionism. Not only was a pig farm installed near the former site – showing utter disrespect – but, as recent as 2018, elected Czech MP and leader of the far-right SNP denied that Lety was used as a concentration camp, and that the Roma Holocaust was tantamount to a ‘myth’.

The Czech government has since bought the pig farm near the former site of Lety concentration camp, paid for the farm’s demolition and has green-lighted a permanent memorial for Roma victims at the camp. In a tragic but apt retort against the deniers, bodies of Roma inmates have recently been found at Lety, proving beyond doubt that the Nazis used the camp to imprison and work Roma to death.

The Steps to Genocide

Roma Holocaust denial is not surprising. Throughout Europe, Roma are still targeted in numerous degrees of brutality. In Hungary, neo-Nazi rallies lap up Victor Orban’s insistence that Roma are ‘aggressors against the majority’ as he still refuses to pay compensation for segregating Roma school children. In Bulgaria, violent pogroms have been perpetrated and are still threatened against Roma. In the UK, the nomadic way of life for many Roma and Travellers is at risk of being criminalised. The list is too long.

Yes, modern European governments are not deporting Roma to death camps. However, International Roma Holocaust Memorial Day is not just a warning from the past, but a reminder that the steps to genocide are never too far away when racism and persecution of whole people groups continues with impunity. Forgetting is killing twice figuratively. Continued persecution kills literally.

As Roma come together globally to commemorate the dead, you can do something too. Learn about our history, learn about the challenges and racism still faced by Roma communities today, and remember the 2 August.

If you want to find out more about Roma human rights, please consider following supporting some of these organisations: ERGO NetworkEuropean Roma Rights CentreRoma Education FundSlovo 21 and others

Killing Twice: The Forgotten Roma Holocaust

Roma & Sinti Holocaust Memorial in Berlin (Photo by A. Jones, CC BY 2.0)

Yes, modern European governments are not deporting Roma to death camps. However, International Roma Holocaust Memorial Day is not just a warning from the past, but a reminder that the steps to genocide are never too far away when racism and persecution of whole people groups continues with impunity.

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist and Holocaust survivour, Elie Wiesel, once said, ‘to forget a Holocaust is to kill twice’. Wiesel speaks of ensuring that the attempted murder of whole ethic and social groups is never forgotten, and is part of our collective consciousness. If we forget, the perpetrators of genocide would have succeeded: the removal of certain individuals and groups from society. It is on all of us to prevent this from happening.

Today is Roma Holocaust Memorial Day (2 August) and, although it would make me very happy if I were to be wrong, many of you probably did not know that the wholesale murder of Roma during World War Two was commemorated. What this day signifies for Roma is not only survival and reflection, but a struggle for recognition and rights in a world that continues to decry their existence. To this day, the Roma Holocaust is often forgotten and recognition has been a slow process.

The Unknown

The 2 August itself is a grim detail, for it was on 2 August 1944 that the ‘gypsy family camp‘ at Auschwitz-Birkenau was liquidated. Nearly 3,000 Roma – mostly women, children and the elderly – were taken to the gas chambers and murdered. The sad truth is that the numbers of Roma victims during the War is still unknown. Some historians plot the figure between 220,000 to 500,000. Some modern estimates suggested a figure closer to 1 million Roma murdered. Roma call their genocide the ‘Porajmos’. Literally ‘the destruction’.

Despite Roma being one of the most disproportionately affected groups during the Holocaust, the lack of official data of Roma victims has meant that recognition has been slow and, even worse, subject to denial.

For example, it was not until 1982 that Germany officially recognised the Roma Holocaust as race-based genocide, despite the Nazis extending racial laws in the late 1930s to Roma, considering communities to be a threat to the dangerous ideology of Aryanism. Additionally, it was only in 2016 that France apologised for collaborating with the Nazis to persecute and transport Roma to their deaths under Vichy France, former PM François Hollande stating that France “acknowledges the suffering of travelling people who were interned and admits…broad responsibility”.

The slow recognition in the 20th and 21st centuries is arguably a by-product of not including Roma in the immediate post-war revelations and trials of Nazi war criminals. After the War, national and international tribunals prosecuted Nazis and their collaborators for crimes against humanity and genocide. However, no individual was ever charged with specific crimes against Roma communities, despite their being clear evidence of eugenics policies designed to prove Roma inferior and to exterminate them. During the headline Nuremberg Trials, which saw the most prominent Nazis prosecuted, not one Romani witness was called to tell the world what had happened to the hundreds of thousands of Roma who had disappeared from the continent . Cut out from the pages of history. Killed twice.

Denial

Forgetting genocide is an act of aggression against the victimised minority. Therefore, talking about the lack of representation of Roma in Holocaust memorials cannot be discussed without addressing the modern day persecution of Roma throughout Europe. One of the clearest illustrations of this is denial.

For me, the intermingling of politics in Czechia over the notorious Roma concentration camp at Lety is a symbol of how modern day persecution of Roma acts as a catalyst for denial of past atrocities. Despite scholars agreeing that the entire population of original Czech Roma were slaughtered during the War, Lety has been subject to far-right revisionism. Not only was a pig farm installed near the former site – showing utter disrespect – but, as recent as 2018, elected Czech MP and leader of the far-right SNP denied that Lety was used as a concentration camp, and that the Roma Holocaust was tantamount to a ‘myth’.

The Czech government has since bought the pig farm near the former site of Lety concentration camp, paid for the farm’s demolition and has green-lighted a permanent memorial for Roma victims at the camp. In a tragic but apt retort against the deniers, bodies of Roma inmates have recently been found at Lety, proving beyond doubt that the Nazis used the camp to imprison and work Roma to death.

The Steps to Genocide

Roma Holocaust denial is not surprising. Throughout Europe, Roma are still targeted in numerous degrees of brutality. In Hungary, neo-Nazi rallies lap up Victor Orban’s insistence that Roma are ‘aggressors against the majority’ as he still refuses to pay compensation for segregating Roma school children. In Bulgaria, violent pogroms have been perpetrated and are still threatened against Roma. In the UK, the nomadic way of life for many Roma and Travellers is at risk of being criminalised. The list is too long.

Yes, modern European governments are not deporting Roma to death camps. However, International Roma Holocaust Memorial Day is not just a warning from the past, but a reminder that the steps to genocide are never too far away when racism and persecution of whole people groups continues with impunity.

As Roma come together globally to commemorate the dead, you can do something too. Learn about our history, learn about the challenges and racism still faced by Roma communities today, and remember the 2 August.

If you want to find out more about Roma human rights, please consider following supporting some of these organisations: ERGO Network, European Roma Rights Centre, Roma Education Fund, Slovo 21 and others.

Call Me Roma, Not Gypsy

Photo by B. Novak, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Language is one of the tools to maintain structures of discrimination and should be confronted directly

A Tool of Discrimination

There will be some members of the Roma and Traveller community who have no issue with describing themselves or being described as ‘gypsy’. On social media, the term ‘GRT’ – Gypsy, Roma and Travellers – is used as a non-offensive descriptor and, indeed, some organisations which defend and further Roma rights utilise the term. This is not an issue. Like heavyweight boxer Tyson Fury who anoints himself the ‘Gypsy King’, reclaiming a racial slur can sometimes take back power from oppressors. However, the history of the term ‘gypsy’ should be understood. Whether used innocently or with racist intent, ‘gypsy’ has problematic roots, and should be discussed openly in order for those who identify as Roma, Traveller or indeed Gypsy to make an informed decision about how they should be referred.

Throughout Europe, there have been fierce debates regarding the language used to describe Roma and Travellers. In February of this year, a panel on a current affairs discussion show in Germany unanimously decided that the term ‘Zigueuner’ in German – roughly translated as ‘gypsy’ – was legitimate to use when referring to Roma and Sinti communities. As I watched the original video, something in me twisted as I saw an all-white panel – no Roma voices – stamp the term with a seal of approval. A term which conjures up black and white images of men, women and children with ‘Zs’ on their arms being transported to their deaths during the Holocaust.

Why should Roma communities continually be described as something that is offensive? The problem is that terms such as ‘Zigueuner’ and ‘gypsy’ are ingrained into the fabric of German and British societies respectfully, especially to describe those who fit a certain race, lifestyle and or culture.

The social media backlash to the panel on the German talk show was varied. Some had no idea that the term is perceived as being offensive and were eager to learn more. Some defended the use of the word and blamed Roma and Sinti for applying negative connotations. Some took the opportunity to racially abuse Roma activists online who opposed its use. This is not a minor issue. Language is one of the tools to maintain structures of discrimination and should be confronted directly.

A Loaded Misnomer

In English, the term ‘gypsy’ is widely and misguidedly used to describe a bohemian-chic lifestyle or free spirit. Just take a look at Instagram for some misplaced uses of ‘#gypsy’. In the world of fashion, spreads in magazines still sometimes use ‘gypsy’ to describe a romanticised version of freedom. It is curious that people who are not Roma or Travellers profit from the word ‘gypsy’, but have no understanding that the term (in various languages) is used to racially abuse and further marginalise a whole people group. Furthermore, the term ‘gypsy’ often seems to exoticise Roma women, who already having to battle a unique blend of racism and sexualisation in their real lives, do not need deeply offensive stereotypes to be solidified by influential actors in society.

Furthermore, ‘gypsy’ is a misnomer. In the first half of the first millennium, Roma started migrating from Northern India and, from about 1100 A.D, reports emerged of Roma communities settling in modern day Greece. By the beginning of the 14th century, Roma could be found all over Europe, from London to Moscow and Seville to Vilnius. Medieval scholars had no idea where the Roma came from and, as recorded in manuscripts at the time, the skin colour of Roma and their origin were subject to early othering. Such was the mystery in Medieval Europe, it became a popular belief that Roma came from Egypt. ‘Egyptian’ to ‘Gitano’ to ‘Gypsy’. You can see how the language developed. Even expulsions were aimed at ‘Egyptians’ – which we now know were Roma communities – and the UK was no exception when passing the Egyptians Act in 1530 to remove Roma from England under the reign of Henry VIII.

Despite the negative origins of ‘gypsy’, it is noteworthy that Western societies are increasingly glorifying nomadic lifestyles. Indeed, you will often find stories on social media describing, or even celebrities espousing, ‘living off the land’ or ‘going back to nature’. As the UK government moves to criminalise the traditional way of life for many British Roma and Travellers – by making unauthorised stopping a criminal offence and imposing sanctions which include police confiscating caravans – a baffling situation has emerged. Do those not from Roma and Traveller communities have more of a right to live a nomadic lifestyle than those who are actually from those communities?

Cikán

Feelings about the term ‘gypsy’ will be different for every individual who identifies as Roma or Traveller. Coming from a Czech Roma perspective, when someone uses the word ‘gypsy’, it reminds me of translations of that term which are used explicitly to marginalise Roma communities. Many people in the UK would not know that I am Roma by merely looking at me. However, when I walk down the cobbled streets of Prague or enter its shops, that all changes. I have often been referred to as ‘cikán’ (the Czech equivalent of ‘gypsy’) which is similar to the Romanian word ‘țigan’. This is a racial slur. Too many times have I seen security guards in Czech shops radio to other colleagues that a ‘cikán’ has entered or mothers telling their children to move away from a group of ‘cikánské’ children.

Linguistically, ‘cikán’ orginates from the Greek word for untouchable and has pejorative origins rooted in tarnishing a whole ethnic group as being prone to stealing and begging. Although the origin of the word is not clear, it may also have been a synonym for someone who was maladjusted to society. These insidious stereotypes are repeated to this day, even by the President of Czechia who has defended his description of the majority of Roma as ‘inadaptable‘. The term ‘gypsy’ in English has a similar backstory. From classic literature to today’s playgrounds, the term ‘gypped‘ is still used to describe something as being stolen or someone being deceived of property.

The simple fact is this: there is no word in any Romani dialect (Romanes) which can be translated as ‘gypsy’. In many dialects, Roma would refer to males in the community as ‘Rom’ and females in the community as ‘Romni’. The word ‘gypsy’ is a majority population construct – an exonym – and is used not just as a mere descriptor, but also as a tool to demonise those who look like they are from a certain ethnic background. Language is part of normalised racism.

What Should I Call You?

“You don’t say…gypsy, tzigane or Zigeuner because you respect the person. [Call] us the way we call ourselves, which in our own language is Roma”

Zeljko Jovanovic, Director of Open Society Foundations’ Roma Iniative, originally quoted on VICE World News

This year’s International Roma Day (8 April) was particularly poignant. Roma communities and allies celebrated the 50th anniversary of the First World Romani Congress which, in 1971, saw Roma representatives from nine European countries met for the first time in the UK. At the Congress, the idea of the Roma Nation was first discussed and, as such, a flag and anthem were adopted. Additionally, the majority of the attendees agreed that the descriptor ‘Roma’ should be used universally to describe communities who had been labelled as ‘gypsies’.

The umbrella term of ‘Roma’ is admittedly not perfect as, for example, Travellers and Sinti communities may not choose to identify as Roma. However, the First World Romani Congress gave an important grounding for what language is acceptable to use. Language which respects not degrades Roma communities globally. Language which is not imposed by majority populations on Roma and Travellers, but chosen by the communities themselves.

On a human level, I would give this advice. If you do not know how to refer to someone from a Roma or Traveller background, just ask. You may be asked to use Roma, Traveller, Sinti, Lom, Dom, Lovari, Ashkali, Romanichal or any other term used to describe the wonderfully diverse group of peoples referred to as ‘Roma’. Giving power back to Roma and Travellers to decide their own label is vital and it is incumbent on all actors in society, including influential companies and mainstream media, to encourage this much overdue change in language surrounding the Roma and Traveller communities.

International Roma Day: Still Fighting for Roma Educational Equality

I am proud to be Roma. Many Roma and Travellers will, however, feel as though their culture and people are still under attack. It’s true. As evidenced by a new Bill proposed by the British government which will effectively criminalise the traditional way of life for many Roma and Travellers, communities throughout Europe are facing attacks and continued human rights abuses with little mainstream media coverage informing the world. That is exactly why events like International Roma Day are vital. To let the world know that Roma people are proud of their ethnicity, and will continue to fight for equality.

For this year’s International Roma Day, I was very pleased to write for Guiti News to expose one such human rights abuse still faced by Roma communities: the educational segregation faced by Roma school children. Writing about the experience of children in my birthplace, Czechia, I hope this article teaches you something about the sorts of human rights abuses which generations of Roma have endured. Exposing and informing people about what is happening is a key part in preventing future generations being trapped in the same vicious circle of educational poverty. Education is one of the keys to the door of equality, and Roma children have for far too long been kept away from the school door throughout Europe. The experience of Czech Roma is a warning to us all that our governments are capable of denying basic human rights to some of the most vulnerable in society. On International Roma Day, whether you are Roma or not, people need to stand up and say enough is enough. I hope the article raises awareness and maybe even changes perceptions.

Please click on the tweet to access the article.

“Segregation in the sphere of education also has no place with regards to Roma children in Europe. Yet, throughout Europe, there exist reports of Roma school children being removed to off-site annexes away from majority population children, teachers creating exclusively Roma classrooms at mixed schools, head teachers transferring Roma from mixed schools to Roma-only schools and the use of biased psychological testing to disproportionately place Roma into special schools designed for mentally disabled students”.

Podcast: Discussing Roma Rights with EarthRights

It was great to join Melanie Désert and Pippa Neill on their new and growing podcast EarthRights to talk about the human rights abuses facing Roma communities. Not only does the average person not know who Roma people are, but the discrimintion suffered by communities across Europe also often fails to make the pages and news sites of mainstream media. Hopefully, this episode can help contribute to educating and informing people about the challenges Roma communities face, and maybe even change perceptions.

We covered a lot of ground in this episode. As well as sharing a little bit about my research into the persistent educational segregation of Roma children in Czechia and personal experiences of anti-Roma racism, we discussed the use of the term ‘gypsy’, what every day people can do to raise awareness of Roma issues and some hopes for the future of Roma communities throughout Europe.

Thank you EarthRights for inviting me, and I would recommend that you check out more of their fantastic content.

Published – D.H v Czech Republic: Roma Educational Equality & the Vulnerability of Strategic Litigation

After years of research, I am very proud that AUC Studia Territorialia (Karolinum Press) has published my article on Roma educational desegregation efforts in Czechia and the multi-dimensional impacts of strategic litigation. The education of Roma children is a subject incredibly close to my heart and I hope that this piece contributes in some small way to publicising a sadly persistent human rights abuse suffered by Roma children throughout Europe. Please see here for the published article: D.H v. Czech Republic: Roma Educational Equality & the Vulnerability of Strategic Litigation.

I would like to thank those who provided insight, their time and encouragement during this process. Being new to writing academic articles, I am grateful for the kindness and patience shown by the editors at Studia Territorialia. This was my first formally published article and I hope it is a sign of things to come.

If you want to learn more, I urge you to support organisations like the European Roma Rights Centre, ERGO Network, ROMEA and other organisations which fight for Roma human rights across Europe. Be part of the solution.

The…article describes the perilous quest of Czech Roma for equal educational opportunities following the 2007 ruling of the European Court of Human Rights in D.H. and Others v. Czech Republic. It found the common practice of placing Roma children in ‘special schools was indirectly discriminatory under the European Convention on Human Rights. Filip Sys analyses the impact that this precedent-setting decision…had on Czech Roma with regard to…[desegregating Czech] schools. His analysis points out the limits of strategic litigation as a tool to effect societal change, which – if it is to succeed – must be complemented by activism outside the courtroom.

Lucie Filipová (Executive Editor) and Jan Šír (Editor-in-chief), AUC Studia Territorialia

News & Resources: COVID-19 further exposes vulnerability of Roma communities

Coming to the end of my traineeship with the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), I thought it would be helpful to put together some news items and resources which illustrate the precarious relationship between Roma communities, businesses and the government. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the multi-dimensional and intersectional vulnerabilities of the Roma community, including housing inequality, the need for a gendered response to the pandemic and the exacerbation of Roma labour rights and lack of effective social security provisions. Please follow the links and tweets for further information.

“Equality for Roma and Travellers: Time to Deliver”, Equinet, 28 July 2020

Social segregation making Roma more vulnerable to COVID-19 & increased scapegoating: “Roma…living in segregated settlements, are found to be at particular risk due to their already poor health status, high levels of poverty, a lack of access to basic public services such as running water or sewage, and the often overcrowded and poor living conditions. More generally, information about the pandemic and safety measures have sometimes been communicated in ways, and through channels, that risk leaving Roma without access to such vital guidance. At the worst extremes, it is not uncommon to see even high-level public figures engage in blaming the Roma for the pandemic, creating an atmosphere that inevitably intensifies the hate speech and hate crimes that they experience”.

“Czechia: Investigation exposes systemic anti-Roma discrimination at real estate firms & flaws in the law; incl. company comments”, Romea.cz, via BHRRC, 17 June 2020

During and after the peak of COVID-19, housing inequality for Roma families appears to sadly persist: A brave investigative piece by a Czech Roma man who found private estate agents and his local authority unwilling to provide him and his family standard rental accommodation. This exposé also includes comments from various well-know real estate firms and the local, as well a critique on the flaws in the Czech Antidiscrimination Law.

“[F]or a Romani family, even arranging…a viewing of an apartment is [a]…difficult barrie[r] to overcome. The situation captured by those recordings is, unfortunately, the sad reality. The Antidiscrimination Act has been in effect in [Czechia] since 2009, but…it is not managing to prevent such situations” – Adam Fialík, Platforma pro sociální bydlení (Platform for Social Housing).

Europe’s marginalised Roma people hit hard by coronavirus”, The Guardian, 11 May 2020

Diluted labour rights for Roma and the lack of state protection exposed during the pandemic: “Europe’s largest minority, the Roma people, are being particularly hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic in many countries, because they face a combination of health risks, economic deprivation and increased stigmatisation. Many Roma people work in grey market day-to-day jobs, meaning they were laid off as the pandemic hit, and may not be eligible for state compensation schemes. Others returned to central and eastern European countries from jobs in western Europe at the start of the pandemic, often because their income sources had dried up because work was cancelled. Back home, they often have no health insurance and few safety nets…”.

“Take five: ‘After this pandemic, we will have to work much harder than before to improve Roma women’s lives'”, UN Women, 14 April 2020

The pandemic has impressed the importance of applying a gendered-lens to government and NGO responses: “Violence against women and children during the…pandemic have increased, including in Roma settlements. Many Roma, including Roma women, [also] do not have the necessary knowledge about what they need to do during [a] state of emergency. It is difficult for many [Roma] to access timely and accurate information. In Serbia, 25,000 Roma people live in informal settlements without adequate living conditions, including access to running and clean water. They are often confined to overcrowded conditions with many family members living in a small space where it is impossible to effectively implement isolation measures. So, this population is particularly vulnerable and women and children, especially young children, pregnant women and nursing mothers, are the most vulnerable” – Slavica Vasić, Chair and a founder of BIBIJA Roma Women’s Centre in Serbia.

Coronavirus: Europe’s forgotten Roma at risk”, Deutsche Welle, 4 April 2020

The precarious position of Roma informal workers has been exacerbated by COVID-19: “Millions of poor Roma in Central and Southeastern Europe, most of whom live in cramped conditions without access to health care and basic sanitation, are facing a humanitarian disaster. Those who already earn a meager living by collecting junk and plastic or selling food, household products and flowers are currently unable to carry out even this informal work”.

Photo by Tai’s Captures, licensed by Unsplash

International Roma Day: Masking Roma Rights amid COVID-19

As the world is masking their faces to protect against COVID-19, it seems that some governments are also masking human rights abuses as legitimate restrictive measures

On 8 April, the global Roma community will come together – although not physically at this time – to celebrate International Roma Day. The COVID-19 pandemic has claimed the lives of tens of thousands and, as European governments limit freedom of movement and social contact, International Roma Day should also focus our attention on assessing how the powerful are treating some of the most vulnerable in times of crisis.

With 80% of European Roma thought to be in or at risk of poverty, typically living in cramped and overcrowded housing, and 30% of Roma households lacking running tap water; Roma are an especially vulnerable group during the COVID-19 outbreak. Another important factor to consider is access to health care provisions for Roma living in segregated locations, many of whom do not possess formal identification or health insurance of any kind. Even if treated, Roma have reported segregated services within hospitals and hostile medical staff. It is not surprising therefore that there exists little, if no trust between Roma communities and local authorities. All of these factors and more could prove deadly if not tackled in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Italian Roma: surviving in one of the worst hit countries in Europe (Photo: KIF_1424, licensed by BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Calls for social inclusion and aid have previously fallen on deaf ears and now, in times of widespread social trauma, some authorities have instead resorted to implementing discriminatory restrictive measures. For example, Deutsche Welle has reported Slovak, Romanian and Bulgarian authorities introducing targeted restrictions to place whole Roma communities in quarantine, if need be through force. Not only is this a grave breach of European and international human rights standards, but it further stigmatizes Roma in public life. As one European politician bluntly put:

“Instead of seeking additional ways to protect these particularly vulnerable members of our societies as coronavirus spreads, some politicians have actively fuelled anti-Gypsyism”

František Kopřiva, Czech MP & PACE Rapporteur

As the world is masking their faces to protect against COVID-19, it seems that some governments are also masking human rights abuses as legitimate restrictive measures. Today, I will be celebrating my Roma heritage, commemorating the victims of past and present prejudices and vitally calling out the masking of Roma Rights in Europe.

A warning from history to the present

Racism and persecution must be condemned and confronted to prevent the flames of genocide ever taking hold again

As she recalled the extermination of her family, it was and still is difficult to forget the way she delivered her testimony. Strikingly brave, not once did this Holocaust survivor’s voice or lip quiver as she explained how hatred had stripped her of humanity. As she talked about the millions – Jews, dissidents, the disabled, homosexuals, Slavs, clergy, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma and many others – who perished at the hands of Nazism, her eyes could not hide the maelstrom of pain which time can never heal. She closed her testimony with these words: “Remember them, remember them all and never let this happen again”. A warning from history to the present.

Photo by Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (#StandTogether Campaign)

Today, vigils and memorials will be held across Europe to commemorate the countless and diverse millions murdered during the Holocaust; European leaders vowing to never let such evils be repeated. Evil is not, however, easily suppressed and, as demonstrated by the destruction of a Roma Holocaust memorial site in Glasgow and anti-Semitic graffiti sprawled on North London shops last December, fires of hate still burn.

A small flame started by, for example, a group of fringe political extremists may grow into a fire as fuel is added by hostile media or by surging right-wing populism dividing communities. If discriminatory language becomes mainstream and or persecution of minorities is accepted as the norm, whether through segregation, police brutality, denial of equal opportunities or myth-pedaling, the flames will rise higher and the fire will become hotter. The danger is when fires of hate spiral out of control and engulf societies, setting the stage for genocide.

As a consequence, it is important that Holocaust Memorial Day does not become a singular day of remembrance, instead a living defence of minorities who are still facing persecution. I have seen the pictures drawn by children at Terezín before they were murdered, the fields of the Lidice memorial where senseless crimes against humanity took place and the vast darkness of Auschwitz. The Holocaust is a warning from history to the present, instructing us that racism and persecution must be condemned and confronted to prevent the flames of genocide ever taking hold again.

Wiener Library launches moving Holocaust exhibition dedicated to Roma victims

The Wiener Library’s moving exhibition…will continue to inform the general public about who Roma are, their rich culture, what they suffered and what they continue to struggle against.

The Nazi ‘cleansing’ of ‘undesirables’ was an attempt to remove diversity from European societies. Over 6 million Jews bore the brunt of Nazi racial engineering in extermination camps and at the hands of murderous Einsatzgruppen. Also persecuted were homosexuals, members of the clergy, disabled people, political dissidents and Roma communities. The term “Holocaust” has suffered academic and political controversy. Is it a synonym for only the Jewish experience? Are other groups adequately represented within the wider Holocaust memorial movement? And, how do we best commemorate all victims?

The Wiener Library, the oldest institution dedicated to the collection and study of Holocaust materials in the world, has tackled one of the most overlooked aspects of the Holocaust – Roma victims. Whether it is politicians denying the existence of Roma concentrations camps, the persistent segregation of Roma children in schools or racially motivated killings at the hands of the police, remembering the Holocaust (or what is known as the Porajmos for Roma) is vital in not only remembering those murdered by the Nazis, but also those who continue to suffer discrimination in Europe.

Photo: Fil Sys

Just off the Bloomsbury Campus, the informative and tasteful exhibition presented clear evidence of the systemic efforts of the Nazi regime to liquidate Roma communities, the language used to racially profile, testimonies of brave and disturbing stories and the modern day discrimination faced by European Roma. As one Roma speaker said at the launch, some Romani dialects were completely eradicated because every speaker was murdered.  The EU recognises formally about 500,000 Roma victims of the Holocaust, but the number is theorised to be more than double that number. Documents, testimonies and bodies are still being found today. The Nazis failed to eradicate the Roma and, at an estimated population of 10-12 million in Europe, they stand as the continent’s largest minority.

What the Wiener Library demonstrated, in a packed room of students, academics, religious leaders and activists, is that ignorance or unawareness of documented discrimination can no longer be acceptable. I was once asked “what is Roma?” when filling out an employer’s diversity form. I very happily explained, but I hope that the Wiener Library’s moving exhibition, created with a palpable sense of responsibility, will continue to inform the general public about who Roma are, their rich culture, what they suffered and what they continue to struggle against.

Photo: Fil Sys

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg was one of the keynote speakers at the launch on Wednesday night.  Drawing from biblical texts, he spoke about the moment that God asked Cain, “where is your brother?”. In the future, when we commemorate all Holocaust victims, instead of not knowing who they were, we can instead say: “he is here, and he is my brother”.

Lest we forget.

Business & Roma Rights

Once Roma leave school, sadly often prematurely, or once the small percentage of Roma university students seek graduate employment, there will be new and old forms of discrimination encountered

Joining the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre as a Research and Projects Trainee, my eyes have been opened to the interplay between businesses, especially large transnational corporations, and the abuse of labour rights, the harassment of human rights defenders and the emerging standard of corporate accountability under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

In more ways than one, looking at Roma Rights in relation to businesses is a natural progression of my previous focus on ‘Segregation in Education’. Once Roma leave school, sadly often prematurely, or once the small percentage of Roma university students seek graduate employment, there will be new and old forms of discrimination encountered. When Roma enter the workforce, it is important to explore and describe that layer of the Roma experience. Likewise, when Roma struggle to attain jobs on an equal footing with the majority, that is yet another violation inextricably linking business with Roma Rights. Responses to applications, working conditions, equal pay, discrimination at work, modern slavery and many more issues are in need of constant review and I hope that I can provide updates on regional news items and write about my own findings.

My perception of the high-street as a moral conundrum has been a quick product of my time at The Resource Centre, with regards to alleged indirect and direct human rights abuses committed by well-known global brands. When one buys from a shop, one also wears the logo and buys into the brand. But, what do these brands mean to the Roma, one of the most marginalised and poverty-stricken communities in Europe? Acting as watchdogs, it is important that we all look out for businesses who benefit at the expense of Roma Rights and wider human rights standards.

If you have any suggestions about some areas I could start researching, please comment below. I hope to post updates soon.

The legacy of D.H v. Czech Republic: A discussion with James Goldston

“After decades of the Law being seen as something to fear, D.H demonstrated that the Law can be used to grant justice to a community that has been deprived of it for so long”

James Goldston, Open Society Justice Initiative

Over ten years later, the case of D.H v Czech Republic (D.H) continues to be of immense importance. The case dealt with the Czech government’s quasi-automatic practice of placing Roma primary school children into sub-standard “special schools”, regardless of the academic ability of the child.  In comparison to mainstream primary schools, “special schools” (renamed “practical schools”) were found to lack resources and taught a far inferior curriculum. In a landmark ruling, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) held that Czechia had infringed the Convention rights of 18 Roma school children; specifically their right to an education (Art. 2 of Protocol 1) had been denied on account of their Roma ethnicity (Art. 14).

The applicants’ rights had been vindicated and reinstated by the judgment but, as the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI) and European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) intended, the selection of the case to be litigated at the ECtHR was for a greater cause. In what is known as ‘strategic litigation’, it was hoped that D.H would become a vehicle for change in the Czech education system and maybe even impact Czech and European societies where Roma segregation in education was still being reported. The question is: has the strategic litigation of D.H been impactful and what kind of legacy has been left 11 years later?

In March 2018, I was fortunate enough to discuss the legacy of D.H with James A. Goldston, Executive Director of the OSJI and one of the former Lead Counsels to the D.H applicants:

Fil Sys: A simple question but not a simple answer – what do you personally think was the greatest legacy of D.H?

James Goldston: It’s a very good question. There are two principal legacies: the legal consequences of the case and the sense of possibility that the judgement caused amongst affected children. Legally, the judgement was revolutionary and fundamentally changed the legal discourse around discrimination and equality in Europe. For decades, Art. 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), on the prohibition of discrimination, had been on the books. However, the application of Art. 14 to a case of discrimination of this kind was new.

Previously, there was one case based on the prohibition of discrimination (Art. 14) that dealt with police violence against Roma. D.H was original because it was the first time that the ECtHR had applied Art. 14 to a specific area of public life beyond police activity. The judgement was also important because it established that indirect discrimination was capable of breaching Art. 14, agreed that statistics could be used as evidence in support of a finding of a violation and held that the burden of proof could be switched once a prima facie case of discrimination had been demonstrated in court. Together, this reasoning demanded that the Czech government give a non-discriminatory reason explaining, which was not accepted, to why statistics showed a disproportionate placement of Roma children in “special schools”. The government could not satisfy this burden. This was significant because it showed that the Court was prepared to deal with this type of discrimination which is so insidious and pervasive.

With respect to the victims of this type of discrimination and segregation, the court sent a powerful signal. It may take time and it may be frustrating, but there is now a legal remedy for this kind of segregation and discrimination which is profoundly denying a basic education.

Filip Sys: In 2008, the Czech Supreme Court heard the case of Jaroslav Suchý. It held that if the disproportionate number of Roma children in “special schools” does not meet at least 50%, it cannot be considered evidence of indirect discrimination.

Bearing in mind that the ECtHR stated that the Czech government could “use its own means” to reform the national education system, do you think that the wording from the Court was unhelpful and are there fears that the D.H ruling has been diluted? 

James Goldston: I don’t think that the Czech case you cite, quite frankly, honours the true spirit of D.H, nor do I think it is what the ECtHR intended. I don’t believe that it would be appropriate to interpret the judgement in D.H as mandating a limitation that you describe in the Jaroslav Suchý case.

The true spirit of the D.H judgement has been demonstrated in other decisions that have been handed down by the ECtHR. Other cases of educational discrimination have built upon the doctrines laid down in D.H. From Hungary to Greece and Croatia, cases have made clear that the Court and the Committee of Ministers are not only receiving and executing similar judgments, they are determined to make clear that this sort of widespread discrimination has no place in Europe. Nonetheless, it is going to take some time to see real changes in the education systems of a number of countries.

Will it be rapid? Will it be easy? Absolutely not. But I do think, I have seen evidence to the fact, that many Roma parents and children have seen D.H as a source of inspiration. After decades of the law being seen as something to fear, D.H demonstrated that the law can be used to grant justice to a community that has been deprived of it for so long. A lot of people have felt this way and we have seen community organising among Roma increase in the past decade. We are seeing evidence that people are finding D.H a useful platform to demand better educational rights for their children.

Filip Sys: Although there is optimism surrounding the legacy of D.H, there have been setbacks and there exists significant opposition from politicians, teachers’ unions, activists and, most surprisingly, parts of the Roma community. It could be seen that there is a concerted effort to undermine D.H from above and below. Does it sadden you to see this much backlash in Czechia after such a significant judgement?

James Goldston: Whenever a legal decision challenges unequal power relations, it is natural that the establishment will push back. There are people whose lives, jobs and economic security are affected by such judgments. In order to foster real change in society, it may be necessary for some to change their work practices and that can be threatening. For example, it was not surprising that some special education administrators or pedagogues came out in opposition to D.H because of the potential consequences for their work.

Of course, not all educators had this attitude because some special education groups, lobbies and unions have fully supported the changes. It is important to recognise that, when change of this systemic kind is undertaken, the needs and interests of all people who are going to be affected (including those responsible for implementation) should be considered. However, fundamentally, the educational rights of Roma children cannot be compromised and the ECtHR’s judgments should be fully implemented.

Czechia is only one country in Europe which is experiencing resistance when it comes to the protection of human rights, specifically concerning minorities. This is something which requires determined action on the part of a range of actors to resist and campaign for change.

Filip Sys: When looking at the OSJI’s “Strategic Litigation Impacts: Roma School Desegregation”, it was noticeable that a number of Roma mothers were approached about the impact of D.H on educational segregation. Their attitude was sad, not because they did not have the desire to send their children to adequate schools, but because they saw the judgment as futile when faced with discrimination in employment after formal education.

Is there any evidence to suggest the D.H judgement has stirred a consciousness in the Roma community?

James Goldston: I have seen evidence of a rising consciousness when speaking with Roma children, parents and others not only in Czechia, but elsewhere in Europe. Of course this is not universal, but I have seen dozens, if not hundreds, in the Roma community discussing D.H and the issues it raised. There is also evidence to suggest that Roma communities were inspired by the ECtHR judgement into further community action.

However, a judgement can only do so much. Strategic litigation is a tool – the question is what is made of it. In affected communities, it is important that support and resources are employed, in order for communities to use this ‘tool’ for their own advocacy. That is something that the Open Society is very committed to.

Filip Sys: It is very encouraging to hear that Roma communities are mobilising since D.H. It is, nonetheless, troubling to read reports from Romea News and other sources which describe discrimination persisting and segregation within the Czech schooling system continuing. Therefore, in your opinion, has the success in the courtroom really translated into success on the ground?

James Goldston: We know that discrimination has persisted. In part, spurred on by the judgement, the Czech government – specifically the Inspectorate of Education and the Ombudsperson – has now begun to collect ethnic data which can be used to demonstrate the extent of educational opportunity.  This is important but, sadly, the evidence suggests that the situation has not improved as far and as quickly as was initially hoped.

We know that today Roma children are still far more likely to end up in schools or classes which have a substandard curriculum. “Special schools” in name have been abolished but we know that the reality is that Roma children continue to be disproportionately assigned to schools and classes where the education is not up to the standard of others. Although there is much needed space for progress, I think that most people believe that the levels of segregation are not at the same level when the case of D.H was brought to the ECtHR. There is still room for much improvement. 

Filip Sys: Could you clarify some of the positive effects of collecting ethnic data on the over-placement of Roma in “special schools”?

James Goldston: Sure. The most clear and positive benefit is that people can see quite clearly, and to what extent, discrimination exists. If we do not collect data then we simply don’t know. If we did not have ethnic data, we would all be at the level of argument, counter-arguments, allegations and rebuttal. Data speaks for itself and the most important thing that data gives us is that it is an objective tool to monitor compliance with judgements like D.H.

On the other hand, ethnic data raises all kinds of concerns that need to be dealt with sensitively, given the misuse of such data in European history. That history must be borne in mind as we develop policies for gathering and using ethnic data. But, it would be wrong to allow that sad history to prevent us from using ethnic data today with appropriate safeguards. European Law is completely clear that ethnic data can and should be used for the purposes of pursuing public interest goals like anti-discrimination, so long as we take care to ensure the protection of individuals’ identity and collectivise and anonymise data. Czechia is currently taking positive steps in this regard, though more needs to be done.

Filip Sys: Considering ethnic data, I wrote a blog post on the origins of certain Roma settlements (or ‘ghettos’). It maybe be interesting to analyse whether D.H can penetrate ghetto areas where Roma, for decades, have been so aggressively marginalised. Of course, there are schools in ghetto areas, which will probably contain 100% Roma children, so how can the judgment improve school standards in Roma areas? Is it even possible?

James Goldston: I think it is absolutely possible. There are obvious linkages between educational segregation and residential segregation. Ultimately the test is such: is everyone afforded an equal opportunity to get a decent education?

The judgment is important because it articulates a principle – the principle of non-discrimination and educational opportunity. However, it does not prescribe a particular means of getting to that objective and, as we have seen in different places around the world; there are a variety of means of addressing educational segregation and discrimination. In the Czechia, the OSJI and others have been involved in providing comparative resources to, for example, the Ministry of Education and others that have been willing to engage. It is certainly possible to redress this sort of segregation and discrimination but it will take time and resources.

This is not easy and results will not necessarily happen immediately. But, reforms are essential because every year that a child is subjected to inferior education, there will be damaging results for the individual child, to his or her family and their community at large.

Filip Sys: It seems from what you are saying that the Czech government has been slow in implementing the reforms needed to give effect to the D.H judgement. Do you think the slow implementation of D.H by the Czech government has been picked up by the EU Commission because of its recent proceedings against Czechia?

James Goldston: That seems to be the case because the EU Commission has launched infringement proceedings against the Czech government on these issues. We are awaiting the outcome of those proceedings but we know that the Commission does not act unless it has pretty substantial evidence of a potential violation of EU Law. Compliance with the Racial Equality Directive is the subject of the proceedings and it is clear that the EU Commission is watching the Czech government very closely. Currently, they are in dialogue. Our hope is that the EU Commission action prompts swifter implementation of D.H than we have seen to date.

Filip Sys: Thank you very much Mr Goldston, your insight on the legacy of D.H has been invaluable. The implementation of D.H and the removal of educational segregation in Czechia is of paramount importance and I hope the Czech government will heed your and our calls for reform.