Perhaps the most oppressed people in history, Roma – commonly referred to as Gypsies – have been persecuted since they arrived in Europe in 1300 C.E.
The New York Times reports that institutionalized and societal prejudice against Roma is enflaming violence in Europe:
Prejudice against Roma — widely known as Gypsies and long among Europe’s most oppressed minority groups — has swelled into a wave of violence. Over the past year, at least seven Roma have been killed in Hungary, and Roma leaders have counted some 30 Molotov cocktail attacks against Roma homes, often accompanied by sprays of gunfire.
In addition to Mr. Koka’s death, there were the slayings of a Roma man and woman, who were shot after their house was set ablaze last November in Nagycsecs, a town about an hour’s drive from Tiszalok in northeastern Hungary. And in February, a Roma man and his 4-year-old son were gunned down as they tried to escape from their home, which was set on fire in Tatarszentgyorgy, a small town south of Budapest.
Experts on Roma issues describe an ever more aggressive atmosphere toward Roma in Hungary and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe, led by extreme right-wing parties, whose leaders are playing on old stereotypes of Roma as petty criminals and drains on social welfare systems at a time of rising economic and political turmoil. As unemployment rises, officials and Roma experts fear the attacks will only intensify.
Persecution against Roma, as detailed in just one Amnesty International press release from yesterday, is nothing new. Neither is the unwillingness of authorities to stop the oppression. In the Czech republic, for instance:
Roma… continue to suffer discrimination at the hands of both public officials and private individuals, including in the areas of housing, education, health care and employment.
Not only do they face forced evictions, segregation in education and racially motivated violence, but they have been denied justice when seeking redress for the abuses against them.
The history of Roma persecution goes back hundreds of years ago. Throughout 16-18th century, Roma were hanged without trial in Europe. In 1921, nonetheless, Czechoslovakia shortly recognized Roma as “nationality.” In 1933, Hitler ordered sterilization of Roma. Later, up to half a million Roma were killed in the Holocaust. In just one act, 4,000 Roma were gassed and cremated in Auschwitz on August 2, 1944. Unlike the Jewish victims, Roma victims of the Holocaust are rarely researched or commemorated.
With some activism in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, Roma still face institutional and social discrimination in Europe. In Italy, the government fingerprints them. In 2008, bodies of two drowned Roma children were left at the beach while Italians and tourists vacationed a few feet away.
As late as 1998, the state of New Jersey in the US had anti-Roma laws. Popular American TV star Judge Judy has used the word “Gypsy” at least once as a synonym for a “thief” on her show after 2005. While Judge Judy’s remark can be explained perhaps by her lack of knowledge of Roma issues, the same cannot be said about influential people in countries with large Roma populations. In one such state, Romania, the president called a journalist “dirty Gypsy” in 2007.
While many Roma have historically assimilated (accepted, for example, Islam in the Middle East and Christianity in Europe), scores of them choose to keep their ancestral, migratory way of life despite hundreds of years of slavery, universal persecution and genocide. Others have established enclaves in different countries where they demand integration and respect. Roma supposedly left India as a result of foreign invasion to avoid persecution. Their common name “Gypsy” is a misconception that Roma originated in Egypt.
Many of the unassimilated Roma demand freedom of travel and not be regulated.
A unique case of stateless people, Roma do not demand independence or even political autonomy. The Roma persecution has brought about little outrage throughout the world. The problem, in this case, is definitely the lack of awareness.
In my home country Armenia, for instance, the word “Bosha” is an insult – while it used to be the ethnic name for the Roma who have either entirely assimilated or prefer to be called Lom. Their language, Lomavren, a unique mixture with medieval Armenian, has long vanished.
It is time that the world stand up against Antiziganism. Perhaps Amnesty International should adopt the cause of fighting Antiziganism as one of its main goals?