This summer, as the 'Ground Zero mosque' and 'burn-a-Koran' controversies raged on American news and talk shows, Europe had to deal with its own xenophobia-related problems. The French government decided to dismantle Roma camps and expel 900 Roma individuals, a choice that triggered a series of public protests across Europe and propelled the plight of Roma to the front pages of the European press.
The French authorities claim that the forced repatriation of Roma is "voluntary" because the expelled are being compensated financially at the rate of 300 Euros per adult and 100 Euros per child. This claim is refuted by experts from the U.N., who affirmed that not all individuals had given their "free and full consent" to be expelled, nor had they understood their rights during the expulsion process.
Beyond looking at France's obligations to the United Nations, independent experts debate if France has violated European Union (E.U.) laws that assert the right of each E.U. citizen to move freely across the territories of its twenty-seven member states. The European Commission, the executive body responsible for enforcing E.U. laws, is currently evaluating if France's actions are in compliance with the E.U. Charter of Fundamental Rights, as well as Directive 2004/38/EC. According to the rules, individuals who no longer fulfill residency requirements can only be expelled if the decision is proportionate and sent to them one month in advance "in writing, fully justified and open to appeal." Collective expulsions are prohibited--as is ethnic profiling--and each case must be studied separately.
The debate in France also sparked a heated exchange in Brussels during the past couple of weeks as E.U. parliamentarians, journalists, and human rights groups spoke out angrily against the French "crackdown on Roma."
On September 14, E.U. Justice and Fundamental Rights Commissioner Viviane Reding said she was appalled by the expulsions, calling them "a disgrace" and affirming that "discrimination on the basis or ethnic origin or race has no place in Europe." The Commision will decide in the next two weeks if it will propse legal proceedings agains tthe French authorities. If the European Court of Justice rules that the expulsions have breached the E.U. law, France would have to pay a hefty fine. Other E.U. diplomats have evoked what Brussels insiders know as the "nuclear option." That option is outlined under article 7 of the E.U. Treaty and reads that in cases of a "serious and persistent breach" of human rights, an E.U. government can be stripped of its voting rights altogether. This option, though possible, is deemed as the most unlikely of all scenarios.
Despite these heated remarks, political outcry over France's decision is somewhat hypocritical. In reality, many governments in Europe have dismantled Roma camps or evicted residents of Roma origin, or intend to. Each case has its specificity, although no one can deny a recurring pattern. In many Italian cities, local administrations have pursued policies of eviction; Germany declared its desire to expel 12,000 Roma back to Kosovo; Sweden deported 50 Roma for begging; 700 Roma and Travelers were sent away from Flanders in Belgium. The only difference between these actions and the French expulsions is the amount of public attention each has garnered.
Perhaps that is because French President Sarkozy recently convened a security meeting to discuss "the behavior" of certain members of the Roma community and consistently used language that was inherently biased against Roma. That negatively charged rhetoric was clearly intended to mislead the public into supporting the expulsions that President Sarkozy approved and assuming that this ethnic minority is criminal and threatening to national security. That kind of fearmongering must stop.
Instead of adopting populist platforms and striving on negative perceptions of a minority, politicians must stop using damaging stereotypes and inflammatory remarks to undermine fundamental rights. The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg recently warned that "distorted minds had understood the political messages as an encouragement for action." The European Parliament echoed this message in a resolution it adopted on September 9. It reminded policy-makers of their responsibilities and urged rejection of "any statements which link minorities and immigration with criminality" that can "create discriminatory stereotypes."
Human Rights First's recommendations to governments also urge public officials not only to refrain from using rhetoric that incites violence or promotes acts that curtail the enjoyment of rights by others, but to also take steps to consistently condemn such speech when it occurs.
The perpetuation of the notion of "Gypsy criminality" across many parts of Europe-- not least Central Europe--is one of the most telling examples of the widespread anti-Roma sentiments across the continent. The concept stems from the racist stereotyping of Roma as individuals prone to criminality--a view that continues to permeate the media, to slip clumsily in the public debate, or to be discussed more crudely in local pubs. Extremist groups are quick to score populist points by nurturing these prejudices.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing manifestations of xenophobia has played out in Hungary during the past couple of years. At least nine people of Roma origin were murdered between January 2008 and July 2010 amidst a climate where anti-Roma hatred was shoved down Hungarians' throats by the xenophobic party Jobbik.
This kind of violence cannot be tolerated. If it goes on, more lives could be lost in France or Italy or any other nation where hateful words and policies breed misunderstanding and fear. European governments must redouble their efforts to dispel collective myths of any ethnic group, including Roma. Otherwise, they have nobody but themselves to blame if the extremists in their countries prevail.