Top photo: Roma dancers in Romania, by Tare Gheorgh via Wikimedia
This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
The Roma people were Europe's last legal slaves, still breaking their backs in the fields of Romanian landowners until the mid-19th century. Today, they may not be enslaved, but they are still ostracized, marginalized, and impoverished: One in four European Roma live without piped water, and 90 percent live below the poverty line. Only 54 percent of Europeans would be happy to work with a Roma person, while far-right paramilitaries and armed mobs stalk them across Eastern Europe.
As they are expelled en masse from European countries like France, forced to live in poverty in camps, an attitude prevails that Roma are legitimate targets—that they are travelers by choice who have opted out of society and refused to integrate. In his book Romaphobia: The Last Acceptable Form of Racism, Aidan McGarry, principal lecturer in politics at the University of Brighton, asks how this came to be, and looks at how a younger generation of Roma are starting to fight back.
VICE: In your book Romaphobia, you say Roma are stigmatized because they're seen as being opposed to our "modern values." What are these, and how are they excluded from them?
Aidan McGarry: Employment, education, civic life, and the ability to pay taxes. Their culture is thought to undermine core European values like democracy, capitalism, and neoliberalism. Roma are used by nation builders to create ideas of solidarity and belonging for the majority at the expense of Roma themselves. They're constructed as a threat, a necessary aberration, supposedly undermining the values and principles the European nation holds so dear.
So European nations need an enemy to prove how progressive they themselves are?
In contemporary Western Europe, it's generally Muslims. In eastern Europe, it's Roma. For example, Hungary has been a totalitarian regime for a few years. The third largest party there, Jobbik, is a far-right group that bases its electoral support on vilifying Roma and equating them with criminality. The biggest recent change is the so-called refugee crisis. Suddenly, Roma are no longer in the crosshairs: It's refugees. The Roma I know in Hungary do a lot of work with refugees, going down to the border and providing shelter and help. They face very similar issues.
Are there similarities between historic Romaphobia and the current anti-refugee mood in Europe?
In 2000, Roma leaders declared a Roma nation—a nation without a state. They don't want their own territory. Where would it be? They left India 1,000 years ago, arrived in Europe in the 14th century, and they've contributed so much and suffered hugely since then. There's 10 to 12 million of them, more than the population of Greece. Neo-Nazis helpfully suggest they should all go somewhere in Africa.
Now most are settled across Eastern Europe, and those who move are simply migrating. Here in Brighton we have a lot of young Spanish people studying. Roma coming from Slovakia are just the same. They want the same things you and I want: They want their kid to be happy, a nice job in a good area, good friends and neighbors. Almost all Roma are EU citizens. By moving across borders, they're performing their belonging to the European dream.
"When Nicolas Sarkozy's government started evicting Roma, there was a real sense of rage. French citizens were appalled. Press at the time drew comparisons to World War II—are we really going to stand by and let this happen again?"
Does this hostility toward Roma expose the limits of this "European dream"?
If you're not able to move and work and access education freely, you are a second-class citizen. In 2010, Roma were getting deported from France in big numbers—thousands and thousands getting sent back to Romania and Bulgaria. This was targeting an ethnic group for special treatment—highly, highly illegal because of what happened in the Holocaust [an estimated 500,000 Roma were murdered by the Nazis]—when Nicolas Sarkozy's government started evicting Roma in large numbers, many lacked the agency to do anything about it. There was a real sense of rage. The evictions were resisted by French citizens, who were appalled that this could happen in this day and age. Press at the time drew comparisons to World War II—are we really going to stand by and let this happen again?
Was the opposition to those French evictions a moment like the Stonewall riots, when the LGBTQ community fought back against persecution? Did it inspire resistance to Romaphobia?
It's more about advocacy. Within the Roma movement, there's a real drive to challenge misrepresentations and orthodoxies, and emphasize the voice of Roma themselves. This is very important in terms of long-term emancipation. Roma Pride [which started in 2011] is a part of that. At Bucharest Pride, I met university students in T-shirts saying, "I'm Roma, and I'm studying to become a doctor or a sociologist." It clearly styles itself on gay pride, but it's much more about reclaiming public space, showing you exist, you're visible, you belong.
Your book talks a lot about space, arguing that neoliberal political agendas see Roma as a surplus population to be evicted from valuable land, driving them into impoverished, ghettoized communities.
Originally Roma pursued professions, which meant they weren't reliant on the state, like horse trading, scrap trading, or training animals. Under communism, the Roma were forced to become sedentary: They were seen as a project proving communism was better than capitalism. Their position has deteriorated a lot since 1989 [and the fall of communism in Eastern Europe]. They're at the bottom of the heap in terms of literacy, teenage pregnancy, prison population, infant mortality… their life expectancy can be 20 years lower than their neighbors in the same town. There's mass unemployment, sometimes at virtually 100 percent.
What were the Roma communities you visited like?
Lunik IX, in Slovakia, is an abject, horrible place. There are 5,000 people sharing outdoor, communal taps, switched on for a couple of hours a day. It's 14 degrees now, and there's no heating, so the walls are blackened as people build fires in their apartments and suffer respiratory illnesses. This is in Košice, the 2013 European City of Culture. These are EU citizens. If the state's not helping you tend to see people coalescing together, but in Lunik IX that wasn't there; there are no community organizations. It's the most desolate place I've ever been. Neighboring communities build walls around it.
Šuto Orizari in Romania is the largest Roma settlement in the world. [The Skopje municipality has a population of 30,000 to 40,000]. Of course it has its own problems, but it has its own mayor, there's commerce, people felt invested: It's much more like a community, whereas Lunik IX felt like a place people were trying to get out of. So I don't want to caricature all Roma as dredging on the margins of society: Many Roma have wonderfully mundane lives. My book seeks to understand why Romaphobia exists, the role of the state in bringing it about and how it can be challenged.
Romaphobia: The Last Acceptable Form of Racism will be published by Zed Books in February 2017, and is available to pre-order here . Aidan McGarry is a principal lecturer in politics at the University of Brighton.