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Anti-Gypsyism continues to be a major human rights problem in Europe – governments must start taking serious action against both official and inter-personal discrimination of Roma

Strasbourg 27/04/2009
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New pledges were made on International Roma Day to combat anti-Gypsyism. At the same time we received information that a group of Roma children, arrested in Kosice in eastern Slovakia, had been forced to strip and slap one another violently in the face in the police station where they were held. In Belgrade, a number of Roma families were suddenly evicted from their homes without alternative accommodation being offered to them. In Mitrovica, I witnessed Roma who continue to live in conditions dangerous to their health in lead-contaminated camps.

When the sadistic incident of police brutality in Slovakia became public, having been filmed and later leaked to the media, the involved policemen were suspended. Still questions remain. Was this event unique or have similar violations taken place before? Did the policemen know that this was totally unlawful? Did they even fear repercussions (one of them operated the camera)? Is there a serious gap in the training or instruction of the police and, therefore, responsibility for these actions lies higher up?

These questions will certainly be investigated in Slovakia and further action taken. What is likely to remain, however, is the perception that such humiliation would not have taken place if the children had not been Roma. Certainly, this will be the conviction within the Roma community itself.

The EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) has collected information about how Roma and other minorities feel about their situation in society. It has now published the first two parts of the survey on minorities and discrimination in EU countries: a broad overview of the whole study and a more substantial report on the Roma, “who face the highest levels of discrimination”.1

The Roma part of the survey focuses on seven member states: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. In each of them no less than 500 Roma respondents were interviewed. The answers strongly confirm my own impression from missions to several of these countries – and to other European countries inside and outside the EU:

Half of the respondents answered that they had suffered discrimination at least once during the last 12 months and for many of them there had been several such incidents during this period (on average 11);

The overwhelming majority of them had not reported these incidents as they did not believe that this would give any positive result. Most of them were not aware of any organisation or institution to which they could address such complaints;

One in four stated that they were victims of personal crime at least once during the past 12 months and one in five responded that they had suffered racially motivated personal crime including assaults, threats and serious harassment;

A clear majority – between 65 and 100 %, depending on the country – did not report such crimes to the police. They did not trust that the police would be able to do anything;

One in three Roma interviewed had been stopped by the police during the past 12 months and half of them thought this happened because they were Roma. Many of those stopped had experienced this several times, on average four times;

The survey confirmed problems related to schooling – 30 % had gone to school for only five years or less. In addition, the employment rate was generally low (from 17 % in Romania to 44 % in the Czech Republic).

The FRA report indicates that the long history of discrimination has resulted not only in poverty but also in alienation and exclusion. The institutions set up to receive complaints about human rights violations seem not to be known by many Roma or are not seen as open or useful for them. As incidents of harassment and racist crimes are not reported in many cases, even today the depth of the discrimination is not fully reflected in official data.The exclusion of Roma is also a major cause for their migration in Europe. A recent study commissioned by the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities and my office highlights discriminatory practices which the Roma migrants currently face. The study concludes with a set of recommendations for action by states.2

We know that the Roma population - whether citizens, displaced persons or migrants – is worse off than any other group in Europe in relation to key social indicators on: education, health, employment, housing and political participation.

This has not gone unnoticed. Twelve governments, including those in the Balkans, cooperate in a joint project called “Decade of the Roma Inclusion 2005-2015” which seeks to address these problems of poverty and to enhance the Roma socio-economic status. This reflects a political commitment which hopefully will contribute to breaking the vicious circle.

At the same time, we have to conclude that progress is slow. We have learnt that there is no single reform or action which would cause a quick change for the better. Though, for example, a strong investment in education, including pre-schooling, for Roma children is essential, the results would still depend on other improvements, such as ensuring better housing conditions and enhanced health care. A comprehensive but also participatory and sustained programme is needed.

What is absolutely essential is to combat anti-Gypsyism. The continued negative attitudes of many in the majority population is a deep problem. Without changes in these all the programmes will fail.

I believe that truth commissions on previous persecution of Roma would be useful to counter ignorance. The Council of Europe has produced unique fact sheets on the Roma history in Europe which would teach any serious reader about the horrible consequences of anti-Gypsyism in the past - mass killing of Roma during the nazi and fascist era but also other atrocities committed against these people for several generations.3

There is still too little factual, informative education about the Roma culture and history in ordinary schools. Production of national learning material can draw from the Council of Europe fact sheets – which, indeed, the Italian government has recently decided to do.

Hate speech must be stopped. It is crucial that leading politicians and other opinion makers avoid anti-Roma rhetoric and, instead, stand up for principles of non-discrimination, tolerance and respect for people from another background. I have previously been prompted to react against some stereotyping statements by politicians, for instance, in Romania and Italy and have noticed that such statements are now becoming more rare.

However, politicians also express themselves through concrete decisions, and it still happens that mayors or other local authorities take steps which violate human rights of Roma communities. A recent example was when people were chased away from a Roma camp in Belgrade in a manner which did not follow acceptable procedures for eviction.

The eviction came as a surprise to the Roma who had been promised a later deadline and had not been offered appropriate alternative accommodation. The situation became worse when the locals attacked the Roma who had been relocated to temporary containers in one of the suburbs. These mistakes were not planned – and were regretted by the central government - but indicated a lack of serious care and human rights considerations by the local authorities. Would this have happened to non-Roma?

In north Mitrovica in Kosovo4 , I recently visited a Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian camp which had been established in a severely lead contaminated area. Several years ago it been established that living here was hazardous, in particular for children and pregnant mothers. This health danger had been convincingly proven be a medical team from the World Health Organization as early as 2004. Now, five years later, many of the Roma still live on this toxic site.

Even considering the complicated political situation in north Mitrovica, it is utterly unacceptable that the camp inhabitants have not been assisted to move. It is even more embarrassing that the international community is at least partly responsible for this failure. The inhabitants I talked to were convinced that their situation would have been resolved long ago if they had belonged to another ethnic group. Unfortunately, I cannot but share their conviction.

Thomas Hammarberg



1. European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey (EU-MIDIS), Fundamental Rights Agency: 

2. See study on recent migration of Roma in Europe. 


4. “All reference to Kosovo, whether to the territory, institutions or population, in this text shall be understood in full compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 and without prejudice to the status of Kosovo.”