On Oct. 19, police in Greece conducted a raid on a local Roma community. There, officers spotted a little blond-haired, blue-eyed girl named Maria. Fearing she had been abducted (Maria bore no resemblance to the darker-skinned man and woman claiming to be her parents), police removed the girl from the home. DNA tests revealed that Maria was not related to her alleged parents. Within hours, news outlets across the continent were publishing reams stories on alleged “gypsy” child-snatchers. Around the same time, authorities in Ireland seized two fair-haired children from family homes—again on suspicion that the children had been abducted. Neither of the Irish children had been—and Maria, though she did not belong to the family she was living with, is indeed Roma. (She was reportedly given up by her Bulgarian mother.) Zeljko Jovanovic is director of the Open Society Foundations’ Roma Initiatives Office. Of Roma ethnic background, Jovanovic conducts research on Europe’s Roma populations and heads advocacy campaigns. He spoke to Maclean’s from Budapest.
Q: On the weekend, you said that reaction to Maria’s story should remind us of “how quickly Europe can still be whipped into a racist hysteria.” What have you seen happening over the last week?
A: We have seen yet more proof that prejudice has not been tackled. We have seen yet another example of how quickly society reacts to the slightest suspicion of Roma crime. We have also seen police misconduct.
In addition, we have seen the story shifting in the media. First, it was all breaking news about a white kid being abducted by Roma. Then, the story shifted to “what is Maria’s story within the overall Roma story?” We learned that both of the families [the family Maria was found living with, in Greece, and her biological family in Bulgaria] are in despair. People now understand the real situation of Roma people.
But that doesn’t mean that racism against Roma will decrease; rather, it’s ongoing and it’s increasing. Next year, European elections will take place—and many predict that more parties will behave in a racist manner toward Roma. This could lead us to inter-ethnic conflict.
Q: Several days ago, you predicted “widespread violence in the days ahead.” Has that arrived?
A: We know that in Serbia, skinheads attacked a Roma family on suspicion that the child with them was not theirs. But we don’t know what is going on overall.
Q: Some people worry the Maria incident has set back the Roma integration process. They speak of a “witch hunt” against Roma people.
A: It’s too early to judge that. But I don’t think that Maria’s case is a setback to progress made—because progress has not been made anyway. Overall in Europe, the socio-economic situation for Roma is not getting better. All the research done by the UNDP [United Nations Development Programme], for example, has shown no progress in the education of Roma, in employment, in housing, etc. The department did a report on the situation of Roma 10 years ago—and by comparison, we see no indication the socio-economic situation is any better today.
Q: Looking across Europe, where do Roma people fare worst?
A: Definitely in countries that are economically weaker and less politically stable—predominately, the countries of central and eastern Europe. However, I should mention Italy. In Italy, the encampment of Roma is state policy. The Italian state introduced a policy to build “cultural villages” for Roma. What they do, practically speaking, is spend lots of money to keep Roma on the outskirts of cities, where they are cordoned off behind fences and camera surveillance. These policies keep thousands of Roma outside of social life in Italy, without any prospect for integration or equal access to social services.
Q: This is sort of a crude question to pose, because we are, of course, speaking of many people here—but in your opinion, what do Italy’s Roma communities want? Would they like to be spread out amongst cities and be fully integrated? Or would they prefer to live together, retaining some aspect of traditional living?
A: I don’t want to go too much into the issue of “integration.” We should talk of equal access to public services. Every Roma person wants to go to a doctor when they feel sick. Every Roma person understands that kids need education. The issue is that people try to get those things and get rejected. Basic rights and services are at stake here.
Q: Let’s consider the case of France. Beginning under former president Sarkozy, France engaged in a series of Roma expulsions. The line of the French government was that itinerant camps posed public safety problems. Could that be a valid argument?
A: It’s important to distinguish here. What the French government has done is dismantle the camps of those Roma who migrated from Romania or elsewhere. But let’s not forget the thousands of Roma who are French citizens and who may have been in France for hundreds of years. They are still called les gens du voyage, meaning “travellers,” but in fact many of them don’t travel.
Let me tell you a story from my recent visit to France. I met a young boy, 14 years old, in one of the so-called “travellers camps,” I asked him who he was. He said: “I’m a traveller.” And so I asked him: “Where did you travel from?” He said, “From nowhere; I’ve been here forever.” I replied: “Then how are you a traveller?” He said: “This is what we are called and this is how we are.”
What French authorities did is introduce special ID cards that “travellers” in France had to carry—and use to register themselves every three months with local police. [France’s Constitutional Court repealed some of these requirements in 2012, though travellers must still register periodically.] This was meant to control the movement of Roma—though it imposed other limits too. So even communities that don’t travel anymore are called “travellers” and have special ID cards to control their movements.
Q: One misconception is that Europe’s Roma communities are largely nomadic. To what extent is that true?
A: It’s absolutely untrue. First of all, Communist regimes in Eastern Europe made sure that Roma became sedentary; that was a deliberate policy. In Western Europe, Roma who move are part of small communities in France, parts of the U.K., Ireland. But most Roma in Europe don’t live nomadic lives. I recently heard a statistic that less than five per cent of Roma in Europe still move frequently enough to be considered nomadic. [In 2012, the Council of Europe estimated that “less than 20 per cent of Roma are nomadic.”] And many of them are forced to move.
Q: So your focus is on helping regions to accommodate Roma populations, as opposed to boosting so-called integration efforts?
A: What I’m advocating for is that Roma have the opportunity to sit around the table with authorities, as partners, to discuss the best way forward.
Q: I know that you are yourself of Roma ethnic background. What was your childhood like?
A: I grew up in the western part of Serbia. My family started like many families in Europe: in extreme poverty. What helped a lot is that both of my parents had some degree of education. My mother studied economics at university and my father finished secondary school, before going into business. I grew up mostly in a non-Roma community—but I myself faced rejection and stereotyping many times.
In kindergarten, whenever my classmates would get angry with me, they would curse my Roma background. Whenever I entered a public place where people were not expecting a Roma person to be, people would look at me in a strange way. A few times, people working in restaurants or bars or whatever approached me to leave, because they didn’t want Roma inside.
Q: To jump to the policy level: last year, the EU launched something called the National Roma Integration Strategies. What does that involve, and is it working?
A: European Union member states promised to develop strategies to tackle socio-economic problems faced by Roma—with EU financial backing. However, the governments have done almost nothing to move this forward. Governments have shown a serious lack of political will to move things forward.
Q: What about Roma-led efforts? Have we seen any kind of coming-together of Roma communities across different countries? Any broad political lobbying efforts?
A: Absolutely. We have seen different civil society coalitions come together, and an increasing number of young Roma raising their voices. However, our particular challenge is one of human resources. There are not so many Roma with university degrees that can help to work on this.