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David Blunkett fuels anti-Roma racism

Romani_flagThe Romani people have uniquely suffered from uninterrupted systematic racism across Europe throughout the last century in spite of the minority rights established in international law by the Treaty of Versailles. In the first decades it ranged from oppressive segregation to genocide. In the Soviet bloc, material standards of living improved somewhat but at the cost of forced assimilation and both relative deprivation and discrimination persisted,. Then in the transition to capitalism, no-one suffered worse, and welfare dependency brought new levels of racism and harrassment.

Into this mix, Labour’s David Blunkett throws his pennyworth: Roma must “change their culture” and send their children to school, stop dumping rubbish and loitering in the streets in order to soothe tensions which could cause new urban riots. Unsurprisingly, Nigel Farage is quick to offer his support:

Mr. Blunkett should be admired for the courage he has shown by speaking so plainly on this issue. Of course the type of language he has used I would have been utterly condemned for using,”

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. An instinctive authoritarian, he is after all one of the most reactionary Home secretaries of recent decades – viewing the defence of civil liberties as “airy fairy”, advocating widespread use of ASBOs and even the machine-gunning prison inmates to control a prison riot. He abolished the presumption of innocence in trials by permitting jurors to be told of prior convictions in some cases, and said that failed asylum seekers would be put to compulsory unpaid work in return for the right to claim benefits, and have their children taken into care.

So shall we add racism to the list of his authoritarian predilections? Unfortunately he is not alone amongst European “socialists”. Whilst some state institutions seem perfectly capable of recognising the problem – “The Roma make up the largest and most vulnerable minority group in Eastern Europe” say the World Bank – politicians who should know better seem to find it harder to resist a bit of populist racism. Only Václav Havel, the late former Czech President, stands out as a clear exception having argued that the treatment of the Roma was a “litmus test” of a civil society.

The European Union accepts a joint responsibility with national governments to improve the social inclusion and integration of Roma by using all the respective instruments and policies for which they are responsible. The World Bank accepts its responsibility too, reporting:

Roma communities are subject to considerable economic vulnerability, reflecting a complex set of interrelated challenges. In Eastern Europe, by far most Roma households (71 percent or more) live in deep poverty. These families reside in highly developed countries, yet they have to cope with levels of poverty and deprivation on par with the poorest areas of the world, and face bleak economic prospects due to persistent unemployment and low levels of education. The gap between a Roma family and an average European family broadens every day.

Politicians are different. Even in the richest countries in Europe, the treatment of Roma is appalling:

In France, François Hollande has essentially continued Sarkozy’s policies of eviction and deportation. Though popular, this has caused him more problems than it has solved, culminating in the recent row over his “concession” to the young daughter of a deported family to resume her studies alone. Hollande is a wooly liberal, however, in comparison with his “Blairite” interior minister, Manuel Valls, who, rather like Blunkett, believes that “only a minority of Roma want to integrate,” and that their lifestyle conflicts with that of the French population. Right-wing politicians are of course worse, and not only those of the Front National: Gilles Bourdouleix, a member of parliament for the centre-right UDI, said that “Hitler didn’t kill enough Roma.

In Italy, Amnesty International recently condemned the City of Rome because its “assisted housing system is designed and implemented in such a way as to condemn thousands of Roma purely on ethnic grounds to live in segregated, substandard accommodation in camps far from services and residential neighbourhoods.” New Mayor and ex-MP for the centre-left Democratic PartyIgnazio Marino, nevertheless continues the policies of his neo-fascist predecessor, Gianni Alemanno. Other local authorities pursue similar policies, assisted by the classification of Roma as “nomads” even though 97% of Italian Roma (who have resided in Italy for 600 years) do not lead an itinerant lifestyle.

Severe poverty and discrimination is endemic amongst Roma throughout central and eastern Europe, but the worst case of overtly racist government policy, however, is in Hungary where Roma constitute about 8% of the population and some estimates suggest that this will rise to as much as 14% by 2050. The Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, publicly promoted a Roma-integration programme when Hungary held the EU Council of Ministers Presidency in 2011, but his party, Fidesz, which won 53% of the votes in 2010, includes others who do no such thing. Zsolt Bayer, for example, co-founder of Fidesz and a friend of Orbán, wrote in January:

A significant part of the Roma are unfit for coexistence. They are not fit to live among people. These Roma are animals, and they behave like animals. When they meet with resistance, they commit murder. They are incapable of human communication. Inarticulate sounds pour out of their bestial skulls. At the same time, these Gypsies understand how to exploit the ‘achievements’ of the idiotic Western world. But one must retaliate rather than tolerate. These animals shouldn’t be allowed to exist. In no way. That needs to be solved — immediately and regardless of the method.”

No one in the Fidesz party leadership publicly condemned Bayer’s article“, reports Der Spiegel. Some commentators suggest that Orbán’s approach is to distance himself abroad from the right-wing populist polices he pursues at home. Fidesz is certainly treated as a mainstream party, a member of the European People’s Party which is to the left of the Tory party but includes, for example, German Christian Democratic Union (CDU), French Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), and Spanish People’s Party (PP).

You would think this would be a case where socialists would be quick not only to denounce racism and campaign for policies to eradicate it wherever it occurs, but also to ensure that those who suffer from the worst effects of this persecution might be guaranteed asylum in Britain. Perhaps it is worth learning from  the treatments of Jews from Hitler’s Germany in the period 1933 to 1938, prior to the Kristallknacht which we remember this week, 75 years on.

Only eleven thousand German Jews were admitted to the UK in this period out of about half a million. They were admitted on condition that they were able to support themselves (in practice this was often guaranteed by Jewish or other relief organisations), but without any visa requirement (until 1938) and without time restriction – though both these apparently generous provisions were more about avoiding any criticism. German Jews were admitted as “aliens” and temporary visitors not as refugees, without cost and without any guarantees. Self-interest was paramount and responsibility for large numbers of poor homeless refugees avoided. Polish Jews who had been living in Germany (generally refugees from the oppressive right-wing Polish regime) and who were in general poorer, less assimilated and very much worse treated in Germany were not normally admitted.

A study of British immigration policy in respect of Jews in this period, Whitehall and the Jews 1933 – 1948 by Louise London (CUP, 2000) commented that, whilst:

prejudice against Jews was considered unacceptable if it formed part of a social or political programme… moderate indulgence indulgence in social anti-Jewish prejudice was so widespread as to be unremarkable. Hostile stereotypes of Jews were accepted by law-abiding citizens.”

It concludes that:

British stereoypes of Jews were significant in marking them out as members of a group that was difficult, even dangerous, to help. Such prejudices helped to cast the image of the Jewish refugee in a problematic mould and thus strengthen support for policies of restriction.

Are British attitudes and stereotypes of eastern european Roma so very different from the attitudes to German Jews in the 1930s? Are they not inflamed by the comments of David Blunkett and his ilk? And can we be so sure that the plight of Austerity Europe’s Roma will not get even worse?

5 Comments

  1. John Reid says:

    Good article, can’t even understand why Blubkett feels that his view of anti social behaviour would lead to riots,

  2. swatantra says:

    Its a timely article Jon and raises a number of issues about society andd multicuturalism and integration.
    I would put it more bluntly than Blunkett, in saying that, like most minority communities, the Roma must adapt; their way of life is an anachronism in this modern age. They make little effort to integrate, and they put that down to the hostlity and prejudice of the majority against them, and there is some btruth in that. But the facts speak for themselves; councils and authoriites do everything they can to bring them into the wider community, but its their ‘culture’ that holds them back. Well, the culture must be wrong: to make their girls 2nd class citizens, to get them married off at 16, to stop fulltime education, etc . How many go onto FE or Higher Education? None. Whens the last time we had a Roma Nobel Prize winner? Education and integrating into the common workplace is one area they have to change, that is unless you are prepared to subsidise their travelling lifestyle; I and many are not.
    The Jews have had hundreds of years to adapt and integrate and have done so successfully; they’ve reached the highest ranks in all walks of life; they knew they had to adapt, to survive.
    This debate on adaptaion and intergration into the wider community also applies to the Muslim community. They will have to face the same challenging questions as the Roma, otherwise Islamaphobia will grow; tensions will increase. There is a reluctance in the Muslim community to change and adapt; the old practices will have to go; the burka and face coverings will have to go. Its about time people actually spoke out about these unsavoury practices like veils and FGM. You can’t let these things continue. That kind of ‘culture’ is wrong, and you have to say so.
    The Jews have adapted. Lets be a bit lenient and give the Muslims and other newly arrived immigrants about 10-15 years to change. If they don’t then you are condemning their children to a life as 2nd class citizen and denying them the opportunities the rest of our young people have. I couldn’t put it more strongly than that.

  3. Wes Martin says:

    (Dear Swatantra)

    I didnt know veils and FGM were synonymous alongside Roma and Muslim peoples.

    Exactly how have Councils and Local Authorities done everything they can to bring the Romas into the wider community?

    There could be some hope for Blunkett and co, maybe the 1534 Egyptians Act is still lurking around, then we could just gas them, I mean ‘they seem sooo beyond redemption what with their throwing litter, stealing and living in hovels’ (I’m being sarcastic by the way) maybe in 15 years?

  4. Chris says:

    Swatantra, you sound like you haven’t been to Eastern Europe. If you had, you’d realise how incredibly strong the prejudice against the roma is. There is no way for them to integrate if the majority simply won’t accept them, and right now it won’t.

    Things for British romani people are not as bad as that, but I take issue with your claim that “councils and authoriites do everything they can to bring them into the wider community”. That’s pretty much the opposite of the truth – most local authorities are hostile to romani people and do their best to deny them places to live.

    As for Muslims,they have integrated to a very large degree. I work alongside Muslims, I went to university alongside them. They are represented in every walk of life, men and women. Your association of them with “unsavoury practices like veils and FGM” isn’t an accurate representation of how most Muslim people really live.

  5. Ruth Barnett says:

    Swatantra shows deplorable ignorance, lack of reflection, lack of empathy and is part of the problem that our British community has with its Roma and Traveller members. When Swatantra gets to know a few Travellers and Roma personally and speaks with the people involved in working with them then Swatandra might form a more informed opinion and even become art of the solution. Indifference is the main problem and indifference includes the reluctance to think and learn about the issues involved – it is much easy to take Swatandra’s present view and remain in a cosy mental ‘comfort zone’.

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