Over the last couple of days I’ve been following the story about the Belfast mob and the Romanians. Among broadsheets and BBC radio reports I’ve been surprised that one of the central issue has been strangely under-reported. Namely that the Romanians in question come from a hugely discriminated minority across Europe, the Roma or gypsies. In this particular case there may be other issues, such as religion, but in this post I want to concentrate on the Roma question.
This is an issue we should all be concerned about, particularly due to the enlargement of the EU with countries such as Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic and Hungary who all share significant Roma minorities. These minorities are widely and openly discriminated against, and are largely voiceless in political terms. In Hungary there has recently been a spate of murders against the Roma, so that the Roma have considered forming their own militia in self-defence.
Throughout Eastern Europe the Roma are ghettoized and live on the streets to make ends meet. They have darker skin so can be racially distinguished and avoided. Their history is coloured by the worst kind of discriminated and hundreds of thousands were killed by the Nazis. Yet, perhaps because they do not have a country or real political representation this does not get the attention it deserves.
My experience of this issue comes from Bulgaria. In Bulgaria there is an almost universal distrust and dislike of the Roma, even among the young and educated. The perception is that the Roma steal, beg, are dirty, are uneducated and avoid paying taxes. However, this is partly a self-fulfilling prophecy because unless people are prepared to give jobs to the Roma, they have no option but to work on the streets.
The level of cynicism in Bulgaria is so widespread that if anyone sees a large house in a Roma community they naturally presume the money came from criminal gains. If an unsolved crime occurs people presume it was the Roma. Such distrust becomes self-fulfilling, and in the end the presumption becomes a truth to people.
When countries such as Romania and Bulgaira entered the EU they had to accept a number of strict guide-lines and human rights in regards to the Roma. For instance, energy firms are no longer allowed to cut the Roma off for not paying their bills. This seems very positive, but in fact it simply creates another layer of bitterness in the general population who are often living on low wages and have to struggle to pay their bills. On the other hand, many of the Roma have no way they can pay their bills. It is the ultimate vicious circle of distrust that can turn to hatred.
Such hatred is tapped into by the far right in Europe. For instance, in Bulgaria Attaka (I kid you not) have regularly gained over 10% of the vote on a platform that openly condemns gypsies. These problems are not just confined to Eastern Europe, but are also widespread in countries such as Italy (another right-wing regime). I am pretty sure that the new coalition the Conservatives have entered into will include parties with anti-Roma sentiments.
There is minimal understanding or even desire to understand the underlying problems faced by the Roma. Many of the Roma cannot read or write and have very little education. This is partly due to the fact that few ordinary people want to go to a school with Roma children, and also due to their own natural distrust of the education system. Why should you obey the rules of society if society seems to spit in your face?
The press surely has a duty to report the real issues, so that we understand the under-lying racism against the Roma. On the other hand, perhaps even in the twenty first century few of us really have the will to talk about the reality of life for the Roma.