Stigmatization of Roma communities as criminal is disturbing and dangerous, warns UN Independent Expert on minority issues Rita Izsák

GENEVA (29 October 2013) – “The recent activities of some national authorities to remove ‘non-Roma looking’ children from Roma families due to their alleged abduction has led to sensationalist media coverage, has been disturbing and may result in a dangerous, unwarranted backlash against Roma individuals and communities. Some authorities and media outlets appear to be working on the basis that the Roma are ‘guilty until proven innocent’.
The case of the young blonde girl called Maria, who was found living in a Roma settlement in Greece, prompted a wave of anti-Roma reports, which made the front pages of media globally. Uninformed accusations were made about how she was stolen and abused, even before a thorough investigation could be conducted. Reports now suggest that, following DNA tests, Maria has been found to be the daughter of Bulgarian Roma parents who have stated that they voluntarily left the girl with the Greek Roma family because they could not afford to look after her themselves. The Greek Roma couple reportedly remain in custody on charges of abduction.
If investigations find that Maria was abducted by those Roma she lived with, then certainly those individuals should face justice and should be prosecuted according to the law. But too many people appear to believe the stereotypes that all Roma are criminals by birth. If Roma individuals are found to be guilty of a crime, this will be the crime of those individuals, not of the entire Roma population. Sadly, this recent coverage threatens to provoke a further angry reaction against Roma communities accused of snatching children, who are already the subject of hatred. In various countries, desperate families with missing children are now calling on police to investigate Roma settlements to find their loved ones.
Meanwhile, Roma families are seeing their own children being taken away from them based on simplistic notions of the right eye-colour and hair-colour for a Roma individual. There has been evidence of inappropriate, ethnically biased behaviour on the part of some authorities, which must cease. The incident in Ireland recently, where two blonde Roma children were taken away from their parents, and only returned after DNA tests proved that they were indeed their children, is illustrative and must have been distressing for the families.
For generations, Roma children have been taken away from their families because of poverty and the assumption that poor Roma parents cannot take care of their children. Many Roma children go missing and are at risk of trafficking or prostitution. Segregated education of Roma, the forced sterilization of Roma women, and the murder of Roma individuals in hate based attacks are just a few of the many tragedies faced by Roma that rarely get media coverage. The Roma population in Europe is estimated at about 12 million people, and there is a long history of discrimination against them.
No country in Europe has accurate statistics for Roma citizens in their official census or other state records. Many Roma do not have birth certificates either; Roma families often forgo registering the birth of a child with local authorities as the cost of obtaining a birth certificate can be prohibitive. Because of this official invisibility, Roma are denied legal protection, public healthcare and the opportunity to enroll their children in school, get a job and register to vote. It also means Roma are at increased risk of human trafficking and miscarriages of justice. If you do not officially exist, it is easy to disappear and be disappeared.
The gaps in official census records for Roma are staggering. A recent census registration campaign carried out by the Open Society Foundations and Roma communities in Hungary achieved a 63% increase in the registered Roma population, from 190,000 to more than 300,000. Huge disparities remain. In Serbia, the 2012 census registered 150,000 Roma; the real number is closer to 400,000.
Some Roma do not officially register their identity due to fear of discrimination. Only six decades ago hate-mongers and political leaders sent more than half a million Roma to their deaths for the “collective crime” of simply being Roma; this memory lives on among Roma. Their suspicion of registration is not unfounded. In a recent case in Sweden it was revealed that the police kept a secret and illegal list of more than 4,000 Roma, including many children.
More often, deliberate legal and procedural difficulties put in place by governments restrict Roma from securing proper documentation. A fully documented and registered Roma population means governments must provide fundamental rights such as access to education, healthcare and justice; they must fulfill public job quotas for Roma and include a quota of Roma politicians on electoral rolls. For many governments in Europe, Roma invisibility is politically and economically expedient.
Without official identification documents or legal claims to their property, Roma families are at increased risk of statelessness. A stateless person is not recognised as a citizen by any state. This is important because citizenship is the essential foundation of a person’s legal identity. It is your right to have rights. Many Roma in Europe today are trapped in this legal limbo. One example that illustrates the fate of thousands of Roma is Tarmis Urmin, who fled Kosovo in 1999 to a Roma settlement in Belgrade. Urmin had made the 150km trek to Serbia’s registration office in a vain attempt to obtain documentation. Because his wife has no documents, his four children cannot get documents either. “When I brought my youngest child to be vaccinated the medical staff demanded 2,000 dinars (about €25)” Urmin recounted. “I had no money and could not afford it. They shouted at me and my family that if we know how to make children we should know how to get documents.”
Statelessness exists in western Europe too. Italy is home to thousands of Roma families, many of whom are stateless or at risk of it. They exist in legal limbo, lacking official citizenship for any country, deprived of fundamental civil, political, economic, cultural, and social rights.
Europe’s 12 million Roma continue to endure violent attacks, fire-bombings and serial killings, yet their official invisibility can be just as deadly.
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