Anti-Roma Violence in Europe: A Q&A With Gwendolyn Albert

On Friday, 26 June, CNN International broadcast a documentary called “Scars of Racism” (videos here, here and here). It told the story of a young Czech Roma (commonly known in the U.S. as a “gypsy”) named Natálka Kudriková and the neo-Nazis who almost burned her to death in an arson attack committed last year in the Czech town of Vitkov. It was a rare look by the international media into the anti-Roma violence that has plagued Central and Eastern Europe since the fall of communism two decades ago.

Violence against Roma has emerged as a leading human rights issue not just in the former Soviet bloc, but also across Europe. The perpetrators are often ideologically driven neo-Nazis, sometimes with ties to established political parties. Other times, they are local vigilantes taking the law into their own hands. In the past five years fatal attacks have been reported from Austria, Belgium, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Russia, Slovakia and Turkey. In Italy, six arsons over the last three years have resulted in multiple fatalities, including children.

Gwendolyn Albert is an American living in Prague who consulted with CNN on “Scars of Racism.” A resident of the Czech Republic since 1990, Albert has been reporting on the human rights situation of the Roma minority in Central and Eastern Europe for the past 15 years. She is currently consulting on research in this area for the Council of Europe’s Office of the Human Rights Commissioner and the European Roma Rights Centre. Hatewatch recently spoke with Albert about the rise in far-right violence against Roma, and whether international media attention like CNN’s recent documentary is making a difference.

Anti-Roma violence and racism has been a defining feature of post-communist societies since the early 1990s. Are governments finally getting more serious about tackling it?

No government is doing enough, not in Central and Eastern Europe, and certainly not in Western Europe. This violence is not limited to the former communist bloc. France and Italy are probably the worst places in Western Europe to be Roma right now. Italy has been the most publicized and most discussed case, but France has a number of discriminatory institutions in place that disproportionately impact Roma.

What are the most obnoxious elements of Italian policy?

Starting in 2006, cities across Italy have been adopting “Security Pacts” which give local officials the legal powers to target Roma for removal. These forced evictions of Roma have increased during 2010. The Italian police have been using disproportionate force during their evictions of Roma camps for at least five years. This has all been in response to Bulgaria and Romania acceding to the EU [European Union] in 2007 and the large outflow of Roma from both those countries to the West [migration within the EU is unrestricted].

In 2008, the Italian government declared a “state of emergency with regard to nomad community settlements”—this was a legal action unprecedented in post-WWII Europe, the declaration of a state of emergency with respect to a particular ethnic group. Their presence alone is defined as constituting the emergency and local authorities are empowered to fingerprint and photograph all residents of any “nomad community settlement,” including minors, to expel whom they choose, and to open up new camps and order people to live in them. Freedom of movement — of citizens, human beings, not just money and goods — between EU member states is one of the founding principles of the EU, but not where the Roma are concerned, at least not in Italy or France.

Are there societal shifts occurring with regards to anti-Roma sentiment?

It depends. Here in the Czech Republic, for example, there has been a shift in society recently. The fact that an infant almost died a horrible death in the Vitkov attack generated unprecedented empathy for her and her family. This doesn’t mean the Molotov cocktails have stopped flying, quite the contrary. In one of those attacks, a full-scale criminal investigation apprehended several suspects relatively quickly and there will be a trial. Again, this is an advance; usually law enforcement takes a “no harm, no foul” approach when these attempts are unsuccessful (no larger fire, no injuries) and classifies them as misdemeanors, which means homicide investigators never get involved — and they are the ones with the resources to really track perpetrators down.

Historically, how ingrained is the tolerance for anti-Roma violence?

Anti-Gypsyism is a deeply engrained European cultural touchstone, from Ireland to Russia, from Greece to Norway. It has persisted for centuries. It comes from the same place all prejudice comes from, and that is fear. For those who understand how to perpetuate and exploit fear, the Roma have always been the scapegoats par excellence in Europe.

Tolerance of violence per se in Europe is quite high — you have only to look at domestic violence statistics for any country there to see the degree to which violence remains culturally sanctioned in Europe (irrespective of strict handgun laws). As for racist skinheads and neo-Nazis, some people consider them super-patriots and openly cheer them on, but most people probably consider them a pathetic, irrelevant counter-culture group. Much of Europe has pretty strict laws (which are under-enforced) regarding defamation and racism. Because of these laws, many European neo-Nazis actually house their organizations’ websites on U.S.-based servers. That’s something I wish would change.

How does anti-Roma violence track with the rise in anti-Semitic violence?

Anti-Semitic violence has been on the rise all across Europe as well, specifically violence against Holocaust sites and memorials and against synagogues and [Jewish] cemeteries. Holocaust denial websites have mushroomed on the Web — Facebook had to deal with it last year. This violence has nothing to do with the size of the Jewish population in any country. It’s part of the ideology of Holocaust denial, which becomes more and more open and prevalent the further east you go. You would be surprised how little is actually taught about the Holocaust in most of the former Soviet satellites.

What needs to be done?

Generally speaking, Europe first needs to take all forms of violence very seriously and devote resources to reducing its incidence. As for the perpetrators of neo-Nazi violence, the media have a huge role to play. They should investigate and report on who these people are and why they make the choices they do. They should investigate the ties between the various groups and who funds them, and they should investigate whether they are linked to established political parties.