Drawing the right lessons from the Roma Holocaust

Opinion article
Strasbourg 01/08/2019
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Commissioner Mijatović with a group of young Roma activists from Bosnia and Herzegovina in Birkenau, 2 August 2018

Commissioner Mijatović with a group of young Roma activists from Bosnia and Herzegovina in Birkenau, 2 August 2018

OpenDemocracy, 01/08/2019

On 2 August, we will commemorate the Roma Holocaust perpetrated during the Second World War. It is an important occasion to draw renewed attention to this largely ignored page of Europe’s recent history. And it remains equally crucial to confront the deeply-rooted prejudices, stereotypes and myths that form the bedrock for persisting, widespread discrimination against the Roma.

During the Roma Holocaust, hundreds of thousands of children, women and men of Roma origin were killed, many of them deported and exterminated in concentration camps. Others were victims of painful medical experiments.

One of the most compelling stories of that period that I have heard is that of Rita and Rolanda Prigmore, two twin sisters of Sinti origin. Right after their birth, in 1943, Nazi doctors used them for brain experiments. Rolanda did not survive. Rita, instead, has lived through the Holocaust.

When I met Rita at the commemoration of the Roma Holocaust in Auschwitz Birkenau last year, I was impressed by her amazing energy and determination to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive.

Her testimony is particularly important today, as ignorance and sometimes denial of past atrocities persist, and hate speech and violence against Roma are pervasive in many European countries.

It is indeed not rare to hear politicians minimising or condoning horrendous past human rights violations committed against the Roma.

Hate speech dehumanises the Roma and paves the way to further violence and other human rights violations against them.

I am particularly dismayed by the persistence of hostile demonstrations and collective attacks against Roma, which sometimes force them to move away for their own security.  Such attacks do not always result in an appropriate judicial response.

In the last year, there have been reports of groups of people demonstrating against Roma and using racist hate speech and threats in Bulgaria, Italy and Croatia, where a demonstration was held last June in which Roma as a group were labelled as “criminal and primitive”. In the Russian Federation, also in June, almost a thousand Roma had to leave their hometown following a brawl with non-Roma inhabitants and a subsequent demonstration at which non-Roma inhabitants requested that “the Gypsies be kicked out.”

These are just a few examples of the climate of rejection and simmering violence in which many Roma live in Europe today.

Instead of looking away, we should all feel concerned by this tide of hate. And we should all do something to halt it.

The best way of acting is to speak out against anti-Gypsyism, confront those who attack the Roma and educate about past human rights violations but also the positive contribution of Roma to our societies.

To get there, there is a need for national and local politicians and law makers to better understand the consequences that their actions – and often inaction – have for the lives of many Roma. They should avoid perpetuating prejudices and patronising approaches that have so often characterised policies aimed for Roma. They should systematically and firmly condemn any anti-Roma hate speech they come across.

The goal of fighting anti-Gypsyism cannot be achieved overnight. It requires political will, investments and a long-term vision which combines actions in different priority sectors.

One such sector is education. National and local authorities should invest more in education and awareness raising to debunk age-old myths and deeply-rooted prejudices. There should be more quality teaching about Roma culture and history in schools.

In parallel, national and local authorities should take immediate action to ensure that Roma can access housing – including social housing - on equal footing with others. Access to adequate accommodation is a prerequisite to enjoying a variety of other human rights, and in particular, the rights to health and education. At the same time, it is urgent to stop the flow of forced evictions of Roma without adequate alternative housing solutions.

Another necessary step is to establish truth and reconciliation commissions that set the record straight on past human rights violations against Roma, set the grounds for compensation of the victims and promote mutual understanding and trust.

Some Council of Europe member states have taken positive steps in recent years. Sweden and Norway, for instance, established commissions to investigate and expose past human rights violations against Roma in Sweden and Romanies and Taters in Norway. Switzerland established commissions to shed light on past human rights abuses such as the forced separation of children from Yenish families and set up compensation funds and research programmes. And more recently, in 2019, Germany set up a parliamentary commission on anti-Gypsyism, which is in charge of mapping the situation in Germany and proposing action.

However, without a more responsible political debate, it will be hard to achieve real progress. As long as some political leaders continue to use Roma as scapegoats to attract votes or divert people’s attention from other issues, many Roma will continue to be confronted with the same long-standing problems that were among the root causes of the atrocities committed during the Second World War.

Commemorations are fundamental to pause, look back at what happened and draw the right lessons for the future. A future in which we have to break the cycle of centuries-long rejection of Roma.