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U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Cardin and Co-Chairman Hastings Release Statement on Plight of Roma

WASHINGTON – Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) and Co-Chairman Congressman Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL), today released the following statement in advance of International Roma Day on April 8, 2009: 

“Twenty years ago, the fall of communism brought historic change. But for Roma, Europe’s largest ethnic minority (estimated at 12 to 15 million), the political transformations that began in 1989 unshackled long-standing prejudices against them, and the nascent rule of law in the region proved weak and ineffective at protecting Roma for most of the 1990s. In various countries, Roma were drowned, burned and beaten to death. Police were as likely to be perpetrators as protectors. Discrimination in all walks of life was rampant. 

Roma were also among the greatest losers in the transformation from command to market economies. It is a cliché that Roma benefited from access to education and full employment under communism. But communism’s dirty little secret was that Roma were often given just enough education for the unskilled or semiskilled jobs to which they were assigned. When the time came for the transformation to a market economy, Roma were especially vulnerable. 

More to the point, no post-communist country had effective mechanisms to protect Roma from even the most blatant workplace discrimination. Even 20 years after the Velvet Revolution, the Czech Republic – now holding the EU presidency – has failed to adopt the comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation that is required by the European Union itself. As one team of sociologists described it, Roma are not at the bottom of the economic system; they have been altogether left outside of it. 

Unfortunately, there are few positive examples of tolerance and inclusion of Roma in older democracies either. When Roma started to flee violence in Central Europe in the late 1990s, they were met by near hysteria in some quarters of the British press. Belgian officials were so intent on sending Roma back to Slovakia they were willing to violate a European Court order to halt their mass deportation – and even went so far as to ‘identify’ deportees by writing numbers on their forearms, ignoring the chilling images that evoked for a people who lost so many during the Holocaust. Over the past two years, acts of intolerance have been rampant in Italy, including mob attacks on Romani camps, systematic forced evictions, and targeting Roma for fingerprinting. 

In fact, an ironic, if unintended, consequence of the European Union accession process has been the elevated attention paid to Romani minorities throughout Europe ‘whole and free,’ and not just in the post-communist world. 

Some progress has been made. By the beginning of this decade, the worst violence against Roma was on the wane, many governments had begun to pay at least lip-service to the need to improve the situation of Roma, and international organizations were ramping up engagement. But that progress is fragile, and limited gains are now at risk of reversal. As an economic downturn takes hold, the escalation of anti-Roma manifestations (often also targeting Jews, other minorities, and immigrants) seems even more ominous. 

Last November, it took the concerted effort of 1,000 police drawn from all over the country to contain anti-Roma violence in the Czech town of Litvinov. Local officials regularly use the Nazi-era term ‘unadaptable’ to describe Roma, fueling this rabid bigotry. 

In Hungary, an ugly caricature of ‘Gypsy crime,’ echoing Nazi rhetoric, seems to have taken public discourse hostage. Almost 60% of the respondents to a recent Hungarian opinion poll said they thought ‘crime was in the blood of’ Roma. Combined with an outbreak of attacks on Roma in Hungary – reportedly more than 50 attacks in the past 1 ½ years, the firebombing of several homes, six fatalities including 5-year-old Robert Csorba and his father – it is not surprising that Romani politician Florian Farkas has warned that Hungary could be headed toward civil war. 

While some might reject Farkas’ warning as exaggerated hyperbole, it would be a mistake to dismiss out of hand the prospect of inter-ethnic conflict. In 2004, Slovakia’s economic reforms helped trigger massive rioting and looting by Roma and required the largest mobilization of armed forces since the Velvet Revolution. In 2007, a violent assault on several Roma in Bulgaria, followed by rumors of another imminent attack, prompted some 200 Roma in Sofia to take to the streets with knives and axes. 

This year’s International Roma Day, April 8, is a somber rather than a celebratory occasion. Governments should mark this event by ensuring the conviction of those who perpetrate violent crimes against Roma. Twenty years after the fall of communism, more must be done to ensure that the opportunities of freedom are equal opportunities for all.” 

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