On Aug. 2, the sun blazed down on long lines of thousands of impoverished Roma in the town of Ozd, in northeastern Hungary, as they waited for water. Temperatures were soaring, but Mayor Pal Furjes had accused locals of wasting the free water supply and shut down public pumps on which the community depended. After several days, the Hungarian government intervened, ordering Furjes to restore water to the slums where many Roma live without electricity.
The episode was just the latest instance of discrimination faced by Roma communities in Europe. An ethnic group that can trace its origins back to ancient migrations from India, the Roma live primarily in Eastern and Central Europe and are sometimes known pejoratively as “gypsies.” Long marginalized, Roma often lack education and skills, and are more likely to be unemployed, live in poverty and suffer from poor health than others in their respective countries. They are also widely perceived to be disproportionately involved in petty crime, feeding a vicious circle of discrimination and social exclusion.
This is nothing new: the estimated 10 million to 12 million Roma in Europe — 6 million of whom are in the E.U. — have suffered centuries of discrimination and persecution. But Europe’s turbulent economic climate has contributed to a rise in populist anti-Roma rhetoric as some authorities seek scapegoats on which to pin the blame for widespread public discontent.
The openly anti-Roma agenda of some far-right parties in Europe — such as Hungary’s Jobbik, the Czech Republic’s Workers’ Party of Social Justice and Bulgaria’s Ataka — can also be seen in mainstream policy. Concrete barriers segregating Roma communities from their neighbors have been constructed in several towns in Slovakia, the 14th of which was built last month. Romania, the country with the largest Roma population, has recently come under criticism from rights groups like Amnesty International for the threatened evictions of 30 Roma families from an informal settlement in the town of Baia Mare. In a ruling on May 30, the European Court of Human Rights held that Greece had violated Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights for segregating Roma children in schools in the town of Sofades. And earlier this month, a Hungarian court jailed four neo-Nazis for killing six Roma people — including a 5-year-old child — in a 2009 spree of racist violence. Roma activists accused the police of incompetence and a lack of motivation to capture the killers.
Huub van Baar, an assistant professor of European studies at Amsterdam University, says these anti-Roma policies both stem from and reinforce underlying racism in the wider population. “For local politicians to be successful in Central and Eastern Europe, it’s very hard to do something in favor of the local Roma communities,” he says. “The majority of their voters will not accept it, so most local politicians have an anti-Roma agenda in order to maintain their electorate.”
But anti-Roma bias is not limited to Eastern and Central Europe. Roma people in both France and Italy have faced strong popular hostility in recent years, intensified by anti-Roma laws and deportations. Only last month, rights groups launched legal proceedings against Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of France’s extreme-right National Front party, for his comments that members of the Roma community were a “smelly” and “rash-inducing” presence in the southern city of Nice. Ivan Ivanov, director of the European Roma Information Office in Brussels, says comments like these can strike chords with the wider public. “The general population are not racist, but with the economic crisis people are insecure,” he says. “The extreme-right political parties use the moment to gain votes and put the blame on the weakest part of society.”
While rhetoric may be comparably softer in the U.K., concerns about the lifting of labor restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian citizens starting Jan. 1, 2014, are disproportionately leveled at Roma migrants, who constitute large minorities in both countries. In July, more than 60 Roma sleeping on the street and begging in central London were targeted in a dawn raid and offered free flights back to Romania. “Roma are constantly stereotypically represented as a threat to public security, public order and even public health,” says van Baar. “In U.K. discourse Romanian and Bulgarian citizens are, to some extent, radicalized as troublemakers — you could also say that citizens in Eastern Europe are gypsyfyed.”
It’s an uncomfortable truth, but the reality of the Roma experience indicates that discrimination remains a reality in present-day Europe. Poverty and inequality — perpetuated by hatred and prejudice — is startlingly visible, with many Roma people living in conditions resembling areas of the developing world rather than liberal European democracies. While huge strides have been made in promoting the rights of many other minority groups, suspicion and hostility of the Roma remain. “Roma have lived in Europe more than 700 years, and we still talk about integration,” Ivanov says. “This is the problem because they’re still treated like foreigners in their own countries.”
The pervasive anti-Roma sentiment, which blights countries to some degree across Europe, certainly calls liberal E.U. values into question. The gap between human-rights rhetoric in Europe and the reality on the ground testifies to the power of populist right-wing politics in times of economic instability. It also exemplifies a readiness to fall back into xenophobic stereotypes and policies that can affect the lives of millions of people.