Suffer Little Children: the terrible toll of everyday racism against Roma

25 January 2016

By Bernard Rorke

The deaths of two small Romani children on January 1 and January 3 in Košice’s Luník IX and the Mašličkovo settlement in Slovakia went largely unremarked and unreported in the European media. One child froze to death, the other died in a fire. This last weekend has just brought shocking news of three more child fatalities in another fire in a shack in Slovakia. 

These casualties are the latest victims of more than two decades of willful and discriminatory neglect in housing policies for marginalized Roma communities in Slovakia. Five preventable deaths, on top of years of forced evictions and demolitions in all weathers, makes a mockery of all of the well-intended Euro-blather about Roma inclusion by 2020. 

These latest deaths call to mind the awful Carrickmines tragedy in Ireland where ten Travellers including five children lost their lives in a fire on a temporary halting site, victims of official neglect and institutional failures to provide safe, adequate accommodation for Travellers. As the former director of the Irish Traveller Movement, Brigid Quilligan put it: “We are stonewalled by local representatives who represent a racist agenda.” The New Year brought no respite, but instead fresh news from Ireland of evictions in the depths of winter.

In Italy, Romani children still remain victims of a state of emergency long suspended and ruled illegitimate by the courts; they still subsist in squalid segregated camps across the country. The European Commission expressed its concern about La Barbuta camp in Rome, where the authorities house people “on a very remote and inaccessible site, fenced in with a surveillance system”. The Commission was of the opinion that such camps “seriously limit fundamental rights of those concerned, completely isolating them from the surrounding world and depriving them of the possibility of adequate work or education.” The Court of Rome fully agreed with the Commission, and in a judgment on 30 May 2015 concerning La Barbuta, established that Roma-only housing maintained by municipalities violates the Race Equality Directive.

The human cost of apartheid EU-style was revealed in an ERRC submission to the Human Rights Council in March 2014. The report found that children raised in these camps - often under guard or video surveillance - are prone to a number of severe and debilitating conditions, are more frequently born underweight than other children and become ill with respiratory disease in greater numbers than their Italian peers. They suffer more often from poisoning, burns and accidents at home. There is a greater incidence of “diseases of poverty”, such as tuberculosis, scabies, and lice. The children exhibit high incidences of anxiety and sleep disorders, suffer from phobias, are hyperactive and have attention deficits, and have learning difficulties - conditions which “are also predictive of more serious disorders in adolescence and adulthood.”

And as it was in 2015, so it seems it will be in 2016, with imminent threats of forced evictions hanging over hundreds of Roma in Italy, and authorized and unauthorized camps scheduled to be demolished, without adequate provision for alternative accommodation for vulnerable families.

It is worth recalling the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, which proclaimed "the child shall enjoy special protection ... to enable him to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity." It is worth recalling precisely because the gap between the rhetoric and the reality is nothing short of obscene, and what is especially worrying is that things are even getting worse for many Romani children inside the European Union. National governments who have ratified this legally binding Convention, and signed up to the EU Roma Framework still stand accused of failing in their obligations toward millions of Romani children right across Europe.

That these democratic states have failed so spectacularly; that children’s fundamental rights are so routinely and egregiously abused is an affront that should inspire outrage and indignation among all right-minded citizens. But somehow it doesn’t.

Why is it that masses of upright solid burghers simply don’t give a damn? How do we explain the wider public ambivalence, the complete indifference concerning the fates of these children? Why no public outrage at states’ neglect to cherish and recognise these young persons as unique and precious beings? Perhaps the most disturbing images, grimly emblematic of that indifference to the fates of young Roma, were the photographs published in 2008, showing the bodies of two drowned Romani girls, aged 14 and 16, laid out and barely covered by beach towels on an Italian strand, while around them sunbathers remained stretched out on the sand completely unperturbed by the loss of young Roma lives.

This coming 23rd of February will mark the seventh anniversary of the death of five-year-old Robika Csorba and his father, shot dead by neo-Nazi snipers as they fled their firebombed house in Tatárszentgyörgy in Hungary in 2009. They were victims of a terror campaign targeting Romani settlements in Hungary that claimed the lives of six and wounded many others; the final assault came in August that same year, when Maria Balogh was murdered in her bed, and her 13-year-old daughter Ketrin seriously wounded, in a gun attack on their home in the village of Kisléta.

Following the arrests of the perpetrators in 2009, the former Prime Minister of Hungary, Gordon Bajnai spoke about the lack of basic social solidarity among citizens, and noted that although almost everyone in the neighbourhood knew that one of the perpetrators was a violent racist, nothing was done. The locals did not find it disturbing that a neo-Nazi training camp was being run on the edge of their village. Bajnai cited the policeman who asked in an ammunition shop whether it had sold the type of ammunition used in the killings. The shopkeeper said that he had not - but had he known for what the ammunition was intended, he would have given it away for free.

Bajnai highlighted something that is even more corrosive for our democracies than the words and deeds of active racists: even in the face of young children being shot by neo-Nazis, the lack of empathy and solidarity of much the wider majority population with their Roma fellow citizens.

Beyond the atrocities, it is the everyday racism, the routine segregation in schools, towns and villages; the policies that push Roma beyond the city limits, out of sight and out of mind, that cultivates complete indifference to their privations and suffering. Any fleeting unease or twinge of the good citizen’s Christian-national conscience is quickly dispelled by mainstream political leaders and holders of public office who regularly dis the Roma as the inherently criminal and permanently burdensome undeserving poor. Or in Victor Orbán’s formulation, a historically inherited burden ‘we’ have to live with. 

When the abuse of Romani children goes unpunished, and a judge disallows video evidence and acquits ten current and former Slovak police officers charged with torturing Romani children at a police station in 2009, this sends a brutal message to the wider society about what is permissible when it comes to Romani kids.

When the Slovak Prime Minister dismisses EU criticism of school segregation and can claim that “One of the reasons why there is higher occurrence of genetically determined disorders is that Slovak Roma have the highest coefficient of interbreeding in Europe,” a racist rationale takes root in the public consciousness and ordinary everyday people simply acquiesce as hearts harden to the suffering of the youngest and most vulnerable of Europe’s citizens.

This acquiescence forges a callous ‘common sense’, understood in Gramscian terms as the embedded, incoherent and spontaneous beliefs and assumptions that characterise the conformist thinking of the mass of people. When it comes to the mistreatment of Romani children, what is very specific, partial and profoundly racist becomes naturalised to the point of being taken for granted in a view of the world as simply “the way things are.” To this day, and despite the EU resolutions, court judgments, UN conventions and the rest, the poorest and most excluded Romani children continue to pay an awful price for this mass acquiescence to the way things are, with little mind to what ought to be.

It’s going to take a lot more than civil society projects and paper integration policies to forge a new common sense that disrupts the way things are. If ‘good sense’ is ever to prevail, the fight to eliminate anti-Gypsyism needs to take pride of place in broad-based political struggles for justice and equality; and to paraphrase UNICEF, children must be at the heart of such struggles, not because the vulnerability of childhood calls upon our compassion (although it should), but rather for a more fundamental reason: because it is their right.

It is all too bitterly clear that the right to life, survival and the special protection to allow youngsters to develop in conditions of freedom and dignity will not be granted to Romani children as a matter of course any time soon.

The struggle to make a reality of these rights needs to be stepped up to prevent the loss of more young lives; broad-based political action is needed to bring an end to the suffering endured by tens of thousands of Romani children in shacks, squats, and camps, vulnerable to the elements, exposed to random cruelties and deliberate discrimination right across the well-ordered democracies that comprise this continent of plenty. When we bear witness to the tragic consequences of everyday racism for Romani children, their full emancipation should not be dismissed as some heady aspiration, but rather understood as an urgent ethical imperative for any democracy worthy of the name.

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