This is a guest post by Sarah AB
I have just caught up with a very important – and chilling – report on travel restrictions on Roma (and others) in the Balkans, which deserves to be more widely read. More of that later, but first some other examples of anti-Roma bigotry which have made the news:
Just a few minutes ago I came across this depressing little story from Slovakia about the segregation of Roma primary school children at meal times – if they cannot use cutlery (the reason given) then segregation hardly seems the best way of helping them learn. There have been several recent stories about abuse of Roma from public figures in Hungary. In Bulgaria there has been a similar case. A derogatory term for Roma, ‘Mangali’, appeared on the official website of the Bulgarian President, Rosen Plevneliev. A file, which ironically contained information on Bulgaria’s Roma integration strategy, was entitled NationalStrategyIntegrateMangali.pdf. The employee responsible for this slur has been reprimanded and required to produce a written explanation for his behaviour.
A shopping mall in Skopje, Macedonia, has been accused of sending an email to a contractor requiring ‘the removal of all employees of Roma nationality from the food court due to many reasons that we previously discussed.’ The ERRC reports:
‘The cleaning agency, Land Service, rejected the request. According to the media report, the shopping centre made the request following food thefts from the centre. The agency engages Roma and non-Roma workers in this section – only the Roma were targeted on the basis of their ethnicity.The ERRC utterly rejects the action by the managers of City Mall, which violates the Macedonian constitution, as well as anti-discrimination and labour codes in the country. The action is also in breach of international human rights standards.’
These allegations are being disputed by the mall’s owners.
The issue of Roma asylum seekers has occasioned much discussion in Canada. One of the most unwelcome contributions to the debate came from Ezra Levant on Sun News, in the form of a rant which went on for nine minutes and was broadcast live on public television throughout Canada back in March 2012. Here’s a sample:
‘Gypsies aren't a race, they aren't a religion, they aren't a linguistic group. They're the medieval prototype of the Occupy Wall Street movement, a shiftless group of hobos that doesn't believe in property rights for themselves - they're nomads - or for others, they rob people blind! (00:00:09.60)… “Yeah. No thanks. I'm not interested in calling them Roma, or Travellers, or having a Human Rights Commission investigate what we as a society have done them wrong and maybe dispatching social workers to them. Hah! The social workers will just have their wallets stolen.” (00:08:14.58)
He has recently apologised, but Roma activist Gina Csanyi-Robah suspects this may have been motivated by a wish to deflect hate crime charges. Here’s part of Levant’s apology:
‘There were some criticisms afterwards, but I dismissed them as coming from the usual soft-on-crime liberals and grievance groups. But when I look at some of the words I used last summer, like the gypsies have gypped us, I must admit that I did more than just attack a crime or immigration fraud problem. I attacked a particular group, and painted them all with the same brush.
As the philosopher Ayn Rand explained the problem with stereotyping is that it's "the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism. It is the notion of ascribing moral, social or political significance to a man's genetic lineage... that a man is to be judged, not by his own character and actions, but by the characters and actions of a collective of ancestors.’
Finally – back to that detailed report, published in December 2012, whose sole focus is precisely the issue which initially sparked my interest in the situation of the Roma in Europe. ‘Selective Freedom: The Visa liberalisation and restrictions on the right to travel in the Balkans’ opens with a quote from the European Commission, a warning which may seem more sinister in the light of the findings documented in the report which follows:
‘[F]ollowing the lifting of the visa requirement, some EU Member States witnessed significantly increased numbers of asylum applications by citizens from the countries concerned [...]. The Commission invites the authorities of the countries concerned to take all the necessary further measures to allow for the visa free regime to function smoothly.’
The Schengen agreement has made it easier for many Europeans to travel, but there is evidence that Roma individuals may be prevented from leaving their own country. Steps such as making carriers responsible for checking the status of those they are transporting, and liable for any costs involved in returning illegal passengers home, are adding to the problem. Countries in the Balkans have been warned that cumbersome visa restrictions may have to be reintroduced if the increase in asylum seekers is not checked – and they are responding to this (polite, discreet) pressure with some pretty draconian measures.
As detailed on p. 18 of the report, border controls have been tightened up in Serbia. Travellers may be required to prove means of subsistence and the passports of ‘false asylum seekers’ are liable to be confiscated. On p. 20 the Head of the Border Police is quoted explaining that those who look suspicious may be interviewed, and subjected to various checks – of financial status and possession of a return ticket for example. It is asserted that Roma travellers are subjected to disproportionate scrutiny. A Roma family was unable to travel to Sweden for a wedding even though they had return tickets and 1500 Euros. A quote attributed to the Serbian Minister of the Interior appears to acknowledge that monitoring of travellers is carried out on ethnic grounds. “No-one from those communities will be able to leave the country if they do not have a return ticket, means to support their stay and cannot state the reason for the journey,” Dačić is quoted. (p.27)
Macedonia has also implemented a law allowing the passports of failed returned asylum seekers to be temporarily confiscated (p.35) and a vaguely worded new law allows ‘random checks on passengers aimed to determine that they do not pose any threats to the public, national security, public policy, international relations or public health.’ This has been used to stop Macedonians suspected of wishing to seek asylum from traveling abroad. On p.39 several instances of Macedonian Roma with legitimate reasons for travel – professional musicians for example – being prevented from leaving their own country are listed. In a particularly sinister move, such people are likely to have their passport stamped ‘AZ’ making it still more difficult for them to travel abroad in the future. In one instance (p.41) a border guard said he had been told not to allow Roma to leave the country. Veiled threats, which warn of unspecified financial penalties for failed asylum seekers, have been issued by the authorities (p.45).
The report concludes with an important reminder of exactly why it’s important to monitor these developments.
‘Exit controls based on the alleged or real belonging to an ethnic group are
discriminatory. …Whilst countries are free to regulate immigration, exit controls amounting to an outright restriction of departure breach both domestic legislation and international Human Rights standards.’ (p.68)