Defending Europe’s Pariahs

This month’s small charity making a big difference is The European Roma Rights Centre

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Approach someone in the street in a town or village in central or eastern Europe and ask them “Where do the Roma live?” In most cases, according to the experience of Larry Olomoofe, a human rights trainer at the European Roma Rights Centre, they’ll point you in the direction of a specific area. Even ignoring the fact that this area is liable to be one without electricity, running water or sewage, it is anecdotal evidence of segregation along ethnic lines.

There are estimated to be between 12m and 15m Roma in Europe. They are mainly concentrated in central and eastern Europe but are present in every single country and, as recent events in Italy have amply demonstrated, the crisis of discrimination also extends beyond that region. Whether they’re called Roma, Sinti, simply Gypsies or any of a multitude of other preferred names, these descendants of migrants from the Indian subcontinent tend to be the most unpopular ethnic group in any given country. After 1,000 years in Europe, Roma’s failure to integrate is mysterious.

Living apart from society and staying on the move are supposed to be the “cultural norms” of Roma, and they have always fostered mistrust from sedentary communities. That has in turn caused Roma to further commit to isolation and their own cultural practices. It’s a classic vicious circle. Today, though, a large proportion of Roma are sedentary, and many of those who do move around only do so because they are constantly evicted from wherever they stop. It is generally poverty that keeps Roma living on the fringes of society in shanty towns, and any preference for that life is generally a reaction to a lack of other options. The events in Italy – anti-Roma violence, ethnic registration and calls for deportations – are the exception in Europe, but severe institutional barriers that keep Roma in poverty are extremely common.

The European Roma Rights Centre is a public interest law organisation established in Budapest in 1996. It employs 23 people, who between them travel to every European country, carrying out research, human rights training and advocacy, as well as the main work of litigation. The centre was the first organisation to litigate on behalf of Roma, and is still the only international one. It represents the victims of individual atrocities, but otherwise focuses on so-called “impact litigation” – cases that have the potential to set precedents that improve the situation of Roma every­where. It has identified four areas where Roma face institutionalised discrimination: healthcare, housing, education and employment.

In education for example, it is common throughout central and eastern Europe for Romani children to be concentrated in schools for the mentally disabled, or kept in separate classes and schools from non-Roma. Even when they are not treated as disabled and are simply segregated, they receive inferior teaching and cannot compete for jobs with non-Roma as a result.

Last year the centre won a case against the Czech government at the European Court of Human Rights that will have a huge impact on this issue. An investigation in the Czech city of Ostrava in the academic year 1998-99 found that more than half the student body of “remedial special schools” was Romani, and that more than half of all Romani children of school age were in the remedial schools. Almost 10 years later the court ruled, for the first time in European legal history, that a breach of article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights (prohibiting discrimination) had occurred. The Czech government is now compelled to pass legislation that will allow Romani children a fair chance at an education, and the ruling will be used to bring the governments of other offending countries into line. Amnesty International announced the ruling as if it were the result of its own work – and did not credit the centre.

Regardless of whether or not Roma ever join the mainstream, every state is obliged to ensure that its inhabitants are not denied the opportunity to do so because of their ethnicity. The centre works to hold governments to this obligation, and there is immediate work to be done in housing, healthcare, employment – and in Italy.