Presentation by Michael Guet,
Head of Council of Europe Roma and Travellers Division,
delivered at the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, Warsaw, 29 September 2005
Ladies and gentlemen,
When I started preparing a document about Council of Europe activities on Roma and Travellers for this plenary, I made a mistake in the title of the session. I had written “Intolerance and non-discrimination”, probably because I do not see much of tolerance in my field of work.
I would like to invite you to take some distance from this comfortable conference room for a few minutes, and imagine…
Just imagine that you are poor Roma parents, quasi illiterate living in shameful conditions. You have the choice of the country; could be any of the EU new member states or EU accession states (Bulgaria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Croatia, Slovenia, etc.). Just imagine that your children are being sent from their early age to schools for mentally disabled or to ‘specialized schools’ just because they are Roma or are coming from an isolated environment which of course does not allow them to learn the basis of the national language. Just imagine the kind of future these children, but also next generations’, will have when being given this start. Just imagine that your children might be lucky to enter ‘normal’ schools but then have to enter through separate doors or stay in separate classes not to mix with other children, or that they will face – when going out of the school - demonstrations by non Roma parents who do not accept their children to sit next to Roma kids, as this is currently the case in Aspropyrgos, Greece, and in front of many other schools in Europe.
Just imagine that you are living in Tirana, Belgrade, Vilnius, Patras, Athens, Kosice, Toulouse, Milan, Sofia, Istanbul, etc. and that after being “tolerated” during several years, you are suddenly evicted, often with violence, by police forces, without being given alternative shelter, just because the municipality needs this space to build an Olympic stadium or has sold the land to a private company. It happens sometimes that children who were very well integrated in the schooling system become street children as a result of these expulsions.
Just imagine that in the few cases when municipalities have taken measures to provide social housing for Roma, local population demonstrates, like recently in the streets of Sophades, Greece, or Belgrade, as they do not want Roma as neighbours.
Just imagine that sixty years after the Second World War a 65 meter long, 2 meter high wall was built in the city of Usti nad Labem in the Czech Republic to separate communities. Sure this was a few years ago. Unfortunately, two days ago, the municipality of Presov, Slovakia, has decided, following a petition circulated by the residents of an adjoining neighbourhood, to build a 400 meters long fence around the district of Stara Tehelna, an area inhabited mostly by ethnic Roma.
Just imagine you have been the victims of an inter-ethnic war which was not yours, that your house has been destroyed or occupied by others and that you have been “temporarily” placed in a camp north from Mitrovica/ë, Kosovo, – if not on lead-polluted areas - and that six years later, you are still living there, or even dying, you and your family, from lead without any major assistance.
Just imagine that you found asylum in a rich Western country after the war but that this country, has decided years later to send you and your children back “home”, despite the fact that your situation will be worst than in the host society and that your children speak now – let’s say German; might be true that you have a house still in Kosovo but in a very hostile environment, which you will probably have to leave sooner or later to finish in one of these aforementioned camps or contaminated areas. But be happy because you are contributing to the restoration of a multi-ethnic society in Kosovo.
Just imagine, Sirs, that your wife goes to hospital to give birth to your second child and comes back sterilized without her consent, as those cases which were recently reported in two EU member states, Czech Republic and Slovakia, or as those other cases in Nordic countries, such as Norway and Sweden, not so long ago.
Employment and access to public places:
Just imagine that you are a young Roma who has eventually finished his/her studies searching for a job and that you discover adverts in newspapers explicitly forbidding Roma to apply for the job; or, that you are being systematically told, despite the fact you have being invited for an interview, that the job offer you were applying for has just been given to someone else.
If you are a Roma, you may equally be confronted with refusal of access to cafes, restaurants, discotheques and other public places, just as I “tested” with Roma friends last week in Moldova.
Media and Internet:
Just imagine that few months ago a video game has circulated in Hungary which aim was to eliminate Roma from the country.
Just imagine that two days ago some of us received through Internet a clip that had been shown on Czech public television in 1994 in a programme called “Ceska soda”– where a famous Czech actress is whitening a Roma kid with a washing powder to proof that this powder is efficient. This clip is now circulated as… a joke.
Just imagine that at 8 p.m. you are watching a programme on French public television with your kids and family, and realize that this programme, full of negative prejudices and mistakes in speakers‘ statements, is portraying your community as being criminals; and that no one from the Roma or Sinti (Manouche) communities were invited to defend his/her community against these allegations.
Hate speech :
Just imagine that you are French Travellers in the town of Emerainville in Seine-et-Marne, France, where the mayor is calling - in a very provocative way - inhabitants to publicly demonstrate against the encampment of your caravans. Should you be Irish Travellers and Swiss Yenish you will find similar difficulties to find halting sites and will be little by little forcibly encourage to sedentarize and lose your traditions.
Just imagine that in Bulgaria trade union leaders, or intellectuals based in Switzerland and Romania, can make statements such as ‘we should expel Roma from our country’ or even more violent statements without receiving any warnings from state institutions, despite the whole range of national and international legislation against discrimination.
Misuse of Roma in political campaign:
Should you be a Traveller in the UK, you probably realize that during last general elections, you became a subject of political debate. Should you be a Roma in Bulgaria, you certainly saw a TV clip from the majority party targeting in a very tricky way Roma communities with the slogan: “please vote or others will choose instead of you”. In both cases it is fair to note that these abuses came from main political parties, not from right extremist parties.
Lack of recognition of Roma as a national or ethnic minority:
Should you be a Roma or Sinti in the Netherlands or Denmark or an Egyptian in Albania, you are refused the status of a national minority under the framework Convention for the protection of national minorities, despite the fact that your ancestors have been living in these countries for centuries.
You could continue imagining such situations all day long, but that is just reality. After all these examples, people still wonder why Roma have a strong mistrust vis-à-vis non Roma institutions, politicians or our education systems, or while they refuse to provide data and register themselves as Roma in population census.
I apologize to country delegations for having mentioned country names or specific municipalities, which I know is not very diplomatic. I equally apologize to other country delegations for not having had the time to mention their countries as unfortunately there is no exception in Europe in the field of intolerance and racial discrimination against Roma.
As Nicolae Valeriu wrote recently in a study available on the European Roma Information Office’s website, “Anti-Gypsyism is not just another type of racial discrimination. It is, at the same time similar, different and intertwined with racism”. We believe in Council of Europe that it requires special attention and a special wording to make people more conscious about this phenomenon. You may find other reference to Anti-Gypsyism/Romaphobia in the Joint Resolution adopted by the European Parliament last April, as well as in positions defended by the European Roma and Travellers Forum (ERTF) or by several participants of the OSCE Conference in Cordoba. Next week in Hamburg, on 8-9 October, the European Centre for Antitziganism Research will organise an international conference on ‘Antitziganismus’. Additional information on what is discrimination and how it applies to Roma communities can be found in European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) publications.
Thank you, Mr. Moderator, for reminding me to finish my presentation. Indeed, you are perfectly right, time is running and as a matter of fact it runs even faster for those Roma, Sinti and Travellers families I was referring to as their life expectancy is much lower than ours.
To conclude, I kindly invite all of you to attend the joint OSCE/CoE/EUMC Conference in Warsaw on 20-21 October, which will address the Anti-Gypsyism phenomenon further. The Conference will also provide positive examples of implementation of policies for Roma, Sinti and Travellers and measures against discrimination at the local level, as there are some good state and local initiatives and a room for hope.
Thank you for your attention.
Head of Roma and Travellers Division
Council of Europe