Monday, 12 November 2012

Robert Rustem: How Europe can slay the dragon of Roma-phobia”

In a speech today to a Stockholm conference on ‘Antiziganism in Europe,’ Robert Rustem, the European Roma and Travellers Forum’s Executive Secretary, says 'Roma-phobia' can be defeated by a popular movement, similar to that which emerged to confront racism, sexism and homophobia in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Robert Rustem's speech to the Swedish Forum for Human Rights' seminar on ‘Antiziganism in Europe.’ 

Ladies and Gentlemen

There is a growing sense that Europe is at a crossroads. Its economies are in dire straits and the stirrings of political extremism threaten to shred its social fabric.

Young peoples’ movements in Greece and Spain demonstrate openly for the political mould to be recast in the direction of fairness.

We hear much about the strife between Christians and Muslims.

There is talk too of the parallel societies in our urban midst. These are the ghettoes of insularity, incubating indifference, hostility and violence towards mainstream society and its values.

Yet, when it comes to Europe’s Roma communities, there is only a collective shrugging of the shoulders and a burying of heads.

That is, of course, until the issue is forced by the sudden migration of hundreds of Roma people into a prosperous west European capital.

Then, a flurry of political activity and comment is followed invariably by meetings, conferences and assistance projects until the Roma camps are disbanded and their inhabitants are deported.

When even the trickiest of political and social issues can find an army of problem-solvers, why is it that the discussion of ‘Europe’s Roma-phobia,’ leads inexorably to the shifting of blame and responsibility onto its victims?

It is important to raise this question, even though, I suspect, the answers are all too obvious.

Europe has done little to end the  Roma community’s centuries of economic marginalisation.

Over the same period, anti-gipsyism has become the dominant, de-facto Roma social management programme in many European countries.

It is no longer written into law, or codified in the way of old but it is there, omni-present, the central barrier that corrodes and criminalises some 15 million Europeans.

We see it in the surgical operations on new mothers which leave them unable to have more children.

We see it in the special education provided by special schools.

We see it in the anguished faces of generations of Roma youth who have little prospect of a job or a decent home.

We see it in the European “bantustans” where the Roma people live without basic services or amenities.

And there it is again, clearly visible in the pathologies, disease and depression of thousands of “at-risk” Roma communities across the continent.

Romaphobia is the ideology that supports the paramilitary patrols and violence which blight the lives of Roma communities.

It is Romaphobia which explains the treatment of those Roma who like other Europeans, take up their legal right to move to another EU country, but find that they are unwelcome.

Meanwhile, this fear of Roma people has spawned an army of specialists, advisers, theorists and think-tanks, each with a specific project to help the Roma out of distress.

Health projects, education projects, civil society projects, capacity-building projects and income-generation projects flutter down from NGOs and national and European institutions.

After more than three decades, the only people being projected into better lives are the authors of many of these failed ideas.

It is hardly new to state that the treatment of Roma people is Europe’s disgrace. What the Roma community needs now is for Europe to wake up to this shame and to do something about it.

If slavery could be abolished and strong efforts made to roll back centuries of prejudice towards women, LGBT and disabled people, surely, slaying the dragon of Romaphobia is not beyond us.

Europe must summon its finest instincts to defeat this prejudice and finally admit Roma people into the family of European nations.

If the European project is to be made well again, it must be inclusive in design and have, at its heart, a respect for the human rights of all.

We all have a common stake in Europe’s future. We cannot go on building societies which leave out millions of our fellow citizens.

We are all inextricably linked by our proximity and common destiny. Dr Martin Luther King described this as the “inescapable network of mutuality.” Now, just as in the 1960’s, the words of the American human rights leader are worthy of our attention.

As European leaders look ahead towards the coming decades of this century, they should not be allowed to abandon by stealth Europe’s human rights heritage.

Nor should Europe’s internationally-recognised authority on humanitarian concerns be taken seriously whilst millions of its Roma citizens languish in misery and are bound by poverty and discrimination.

This is why we need to reinvigorate progressive politics across Europe. The ideas and energy which in the last century took up the challenge of women’s rights and issues affecting minority groups, should be harnessed to the Roma quest for justice and freedom.

Progressives should find common cause with Roma activists to make sure that in our multi-cultural, multi-faith societies, there is no place for the racist, the misogynist, the anti-semite, the homophobe or the Roma-phobe.

Genuine, clearly expressed and immediate civil society disapproval for expressions of Romaphobia are crucial to building up the momentum for change.

Bu this is not all. Change needs strong allies in national and local government and in the media. They must be ready to stand-up for what is right and willing to face down the forces of hate.

The current generation of Roma leaders must do their part too. They must bring forward from the community, young men and women who are confident in their identity and certain of their place in Europe’s future. 

The Roma community is growing.  It is a multi-faith, multi-lingual and pan-European resource, which has been ignored for far too long. Its young people are impatient for change. They want more than just promises.

The symptoms of Europe’s current sickness may be political and economic. But just as surely, the health of the European project will be threatened by a lack of social justice and the denial of human rights.

That is why I hope this conference can lead to the mobilization of fair-minded people committed to fighting for change.

Projects, legal action and goodwill have taken us this far. Now European civil society must get behind the fairness and respect programme put forward by Roma activists.

This will go a long way towards ensuring that, in the Europe of tomorrow, there are no second class citizens.

Thank you

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