ERRC Statement to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe Implementation Meeting on Human Dimension Issues
19 November 1997
The European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) is an international public interest law organisation which monitors the rights of Roma and provides legal defence in cases of human rights abuse. On the occasion of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Implementation Meeting on Human Dimension Issues in Warsaw in November 1997, the ERRC offers comment on the human rights situation of Roma in the OSCE region.
The human rights situation for Roma in many countries is precarious. Roma remain at risk of racially-motivated violence on the part of law enforcement authorities, racist skinheads and others. Judicial and investigative responses to reports of physical abuse are often inadequate; at times, courts and prosecutors compound and affirmatively abet discriminatory practices. Roma throughout Europe are threatened with publicly expressed government hostility, forced and summary eviction from flats and settlements, and discriminatory treatment by public and private landlords. Finally, inflammatory responses in Canada, England and Ireland which greeted the arrival this summer of Eastern European Roma confirmed that anti-Roma prejudice lurks not far below the surface in the West as in the East.
***Police violence against Roma is presently at disturbing levels in many of the countries of the OSCE region.
According to the Bulgarian press, since the beginning of 1997, 528 acts of the abuse of state power have been documented in Bulgaria. An overwhelming number of these incidents have involved Roma victims. A brief and very incomplete list of recent police abuse is as follows: the Bulgarian daily Trud reported on June 22 that a police officer had torn the ear off a 25-year-old Romani man in investigative detention in the town of Blagoevgrad. The Human Rights Project reported that on June 12 authorities beat a 50-year-old Romani man named Ilmi Akifov in the mayor's office in the village of Lyatno, district Varna. Mr. Akifov lost consciousness during the assault. Amnesty International reported that police beat a Romani woman named Yordanka Borisova both in public and in detention on May 16. The Bulgarian daily Standart reported that a police officer had shot and killed a 32-year-old Romani man named Kolyo Todorov in police custody in Assenovgrad. Judicial sanction of abuse of state power is close to non-existent in Bulgaria. The first successful prosecution of a police officer for physical abuse of a Rom took place in 1996. In most cases, investigators and prosecutors do not act in response to reports by Roma of police abuse.
There are widespread allegations of police abuse in Hungary. ERRC investigation in the eastern Hungarian town of Hajdúhadház revealed that the approximately two thousand Roma living there are presently subjected to near constant harassment and fines if they fail to carry a personal identification card with them at all time. Further, four policemen in the town appear to be subjecting a group of prostitutes who work on the highway between Hajdúhadház and Debrecen to nearly constant beatings. The ERRC has documented other recent instances of police abuse in the town of Dömsöd, near Budapest, and the western Hungarian town of Szombathely.
Police beatings in public and in custody are evidently endemic in Macedonia. The ERRC documented serious incidents of police abuse of Roma in the towns of Kočani, Kumanovo, Makedonska Kamenica, Ohrid, Prilep, Skopje, Štip and Tetovo. None of the cases investigated had resulted in sanctions agaist the police officers concerned. In August 1996, a Romani woman died as a result of a police beating in Skopje's Green Bazaar. The Ministry of Interior did not open an investigation.
The ERRC documented a serious incident of police brutality in Poland. On November 26, 1996, a police officer in the southern town of Wodzisław Śłanski, in which a fifteen-year-old Romani boy named Robert Pawłowski suffered a broken skull and brain damage as a result of injuries inflicted by an Officer B.S. in the presence of the victim's aunt. Recent police abuses have also reportedly taken place in the towns of Kielce, Suwałki, Świebodzice, Tarnów and Ziębice.
Field missions conducted by the ERRC in Romania indicate a widespread pattern of police raids on Roma communities, in which whole communities are turned out of their houses at dawn and subjected to checks of local residence permits, physical abuse in public and in custody, and unsanctioned forced labour. The ERRC also documented episodes of the excessive use of force by police officers, including one shooting death.
ERRC investigation in western Ukraine revealed that Roma living there are subject to constant physical abuses as well as a specific police regime targeting only Roma. Police systematically register and monitor Roma, often waking them at all hours of night to check local residence permits. Physical abuse of Roma by the police was documented in twelve of fourteen Roma communities visited, including shootings in public, beatings in public and in custody, forced labour, and forms of torture such as locking Roma in the trunks of police cars for long periods of time. Two incidents of sexual assault of Romani women by police officers were documented. Most lawyers with whom the ERRC spoke found the idea of a lawsuit against the police unthinkable.
Finally, the ERRC notes that no one has ever been brought to trial in connection with the 1995 shooting death of a Romani boy named Todor Bogdanović by police on the road between Breil-sur-Roya and Sospel in southern France. Similarly, police officers who shot to death a Romani man named Martin Červeňak in police custody in the western Czech town of Horšovský Týn in 1995 remain unpunished. Indeed, the officer whose gun was implicated in the killing is presently one of the investigators responsible for the case of Erika Gáborová, described above.
***Racially motivated violence against Roma remains a primary concern of the ERRC.
The ERRC has watched the growth of an anti-Roma "skinhead movement" in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia with alarm. Roma organisations in Yugoslavia report that attacks have taken place with increasing frequency. On Friday, October 17, press reported that a group of skinheads had beaten to death a 14-year-old Romani boy named Dušan Jovanović with lead pipes. Further attacks were recorded on October 27, when skinheads severely beat two Roma in Belgrade.
Further, racially motivated violence continues to be a serious problem in those countries in which it has been seen previously. Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia have all recently witnessed serious attacks against Roma and in all of these countries a skinhead movement organises around anti-Roma sentiment. In Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia these attacks have led to recent deaths.
In Bulgaria, on July 20, 1997, four racist skinheads attacked a 41-year-old Romani woman in the presence of her 12-year-old son in the eastern Bulgarian town of Sliven. According to the Sofia-based non-governmental organisation the Human Rights Project, in broad daylight, the four youths knocked Mrs. Tsoneva to the ground and kicked her repeatedly. She lost consciousness during the attack and died the following day. The police reportedly detained the four youths but released them following questioning. The Bulgarian press also reported that a medical examiner had stated that Mrs. Tsoneva died as a result of her fall to the pavement and not due to the actions of the youths. The ERRChas written to the Bulgarian General Prosecutor, appealing for thorough investigation of the crime, but to date has received no reply.
On September 20, 1997, a 36-year-old Romani woman named Erika Gáborová died during a racially-motivated attack in the western Czech town of Domažlice. According to reports in the Czech press, a group of eleven or twelve skinheads twice passed a house known to be inhabited by Roma, shouting menacing anti-Roma slogans, firing off an air gun and shooting lead bullets from a catapult. Mrs. Gáborová died sometime during the attack and a medical examiner stated that she had suffered an epileptic fit while fleeing into the house from a park across the street. The house in question had been attacked previously and Roma living there had been forced to fortify the doors and windows of the house. Independent monitors in the Czech Republic have documented over 1250 racially-motivated incidents since 1991, including the killings of nine Roma, one Turk mistaken for a Rom and one Sudanese student. Government figures based on individuals charged record over 800 ethnically motivated attacks since 1991, and document that the number of such attacks has increased in every year since 1991. This figure includes the worrying phenomenon of Roma charged with racially-motivated crimes against skinheads.
Similar events have been recorded in Slovakia: on August 12 of this year, skinheads broke into the home of a Romani family in the central Slovak town of Banská Bystrica and, in the presence of his wife and twelve-year-old daughter, kicked a Romani man, Mr. S.K., sprayed him in the face with tear gas, and beat him with a baseball bat. The skinheads also beat the wife of S.K. during the attack. Mr. S.K. died in hospital on September 4. The victim's wife reported that when she and her family went to the police, they were mocked. Roma in Slovakia report that skinhead attacks against them now occur daily. In the last two years, at least three Roma have been killed in racially-motivated attacks. Government response to racially-motivated violence in Slovakia has been weak and there are numerous reports of local corruption leading to non-prosecution of ethnically motivated crimes. Further, when such crimes are prosecuted, the racially-motivated crimes provisions of the Slovak Penal Code, which qualify the crime as more dangerous to society, are often not applied.
***Abuses of Roma by municipal authorities take place with depressing regularity around the OSCE region. The ERRC is monitoring the following situations with particular concern:
During flooding this Summer in the Czech Republic, Roma from the Hrušov neighbourhood of Ostrava were shifted to the suburb of Heřmanice. When Roma already living in Heřmanice became concerned that their neighbourhood was being made into a Romani ghetto, Ostrava Deputy Mayor Radoslav Štědroň reacted by saying, "Most Roma don't know how to behave and town hall must find some way to deal with them." A similar incident occurred earlier in the year when a Prague district mayor called publicly for the ghettoisation of Roma.
Greek authorities earlier this year decided that in response to inflammatory reports in the local press about drug dealing Roma, they would resettle the Roma of the Ano Liosia in a restrictive camp, surrounded by a wire fence and guarded by a 24-hour armed guard. In several other places in Greece, authorities have resorted to summary expulsion and the promotion of unsanitary conditions to force Roma to leave.
Following political ping-pong in the central Hungarian city of Székesfehérvár, 70 persons, most of whom are Roma, are now threatened either with being made homeless or with being moved into pre-fabricated containers previously used to house individual SFOR soldiers. Fifteen such containers are being provided as living units for the seventy individuals, with an additional four containers as toilet and shower facilities. According to an umbrella grouping of Hungarian organizations called the Anti-Ghetto Committee, the money being spent on the containers is sufficient to provide all of the people concerned with proper housing, but landlords in Székesfehérvár will not rent to Roma. According to Éva Orsós of the Office for national and Ethnic Minorities, 70,000 Roma in Hungary live in slum-like conditions and Ombudsman for National and Ethnic Minorities Jenő Kaltenbach has stated that 3.8 percent of Roma in Hungary have experienced expulsion of some kind. Roma organisations in Hungary have decried the paradox whereby, under the 1993 Housing Act, municipalities are both obliged to provide housing to those in need, and have an interest in selling off flats for revenue.
Italian authorities have responded to an influx of Roma from Yugoslavia over the past several decades by inventing the category "nomads" and locating all Roma under it. This effectively absolves them of the responsibility for providing housing or, in fact, any infrastructure whatsoever. It also allows authorities the luxury of the creation (and dissolution) of large unsanitary camps, as well as of periodic expulsions from municipalities. One such expulsion took place in Florence on September 4, when police and municipal officials liquidated a camp where approximately fifty Bosnian Roma were living.
Following a 1992 to fire in a row of barrack houses in Štip, Macedonia, 150-180 Roma were rendered homeless. Local authorities subsequently both refused to provide them with alternate accommodation and refused to allow them to rebuild. As a result, many of the families made homeless by the fire now squat abandoned buildings around the city. They are subject to eviction and threat of a eviction and have little to no access to proper plumbing, running water or electricity. In Prilep, a Roma neighbourhood of ten thousand has no sewage, so excrement runs in the streets, with accompanying outbreaks of disease. In Tetovo, the entire Dolna Mala neighbourhood is presently threatened with destruction because a businessman wants to build a block of flats on the site. Although the Roma living there have been promised flats, their legal status is unclear and Roma report pressure by the businessman as well as by municipal authorities.
Following a meeting of local authorities from villages in the area of the northeastern Slovak town of Medzilaborce, two municipalities issued settlement bans on Roma and a Roma settlement in a neighbouring village burned to the ground in unclear circumstances. The Roma affected had been made homeless following the loss of accommodation related to their place of employment in 1990, and have lived as forced nomads since.
According to articles appearing in the Slovene press, relations between Roma and non-Roma have deteriorated considerably in recent weeks due to vocal racist opposition by non-Roma to a series of local government decisions aimed at the integration of Roma. In one incident, non-Roma in the town of Malina prevented a Romani family from moving into a house in the village, in acts described by locals as "defending the territory". In a similar event, attempts by local authorities to legalise two of five local Roma settlements met with open protest, with local non-Roma bearing signs with slogans such as, "Roma get rights, workers get taxes!" The settlements concerned presently lack running water and electricity. One area mayor, Mr. Joze Tanko, told the Slovene daily Večer that although there are many locations where adequate housing possibilities exist for proper housing for Roma, all efforts have been blocked because local authorities do not want to fight "the will of the people" for the rights of Roma. Local Roma reportedly now fear recrimination if they attempt to claim housing which has been legitimately allocated to them. The ERRC is also monitoring cases in which Roma are ghettoised or face community expulsion in the towns of Brežice, Krško, Mala Gora, Ribnica and Semič.
***Roma in the OSCE region came to the forefront of the international imagination this Summer when Roma began attempting to flee Eastern Europe and find refuge in first Canada and then Britain and Ireland.
In response to the arrival of several hundred Roma in Britain, articles in such otherwise respectable newspapers as the Independent began publishing articles with racist headlines such as "Gypsies Invade Dover, Hoping for a Handout". Recent reports from Britain indicate that a sped-up procedure to handle what British Home Secretary Jack Straw called "abusive asylum seekers" has been put into place, and there are allegations that government officials are putting pressure on ferry companies not to accept Roma on board to make the crossing.
Similarly unsettling reports have come from Canada; in response to the "exodus", visa requirements were reimposed for Czech citizens on October 8. Border authorities additionally imposed a special delay only upon Czech Roma, making them wait three weeks for initial interviews to allow checks of potential applicants' criminal records. Passengers arriving in Canada from Frankfurt, Germany report that they had their passports checked in Toronto before they left the plane because, according to immigration officials, Frankfurt was a possible departure point for Czech Roma and it was easier to prevent them from entering the country if they were found before they deplaned. Similar bureaucratic tricks have taken place against a background of demonstrations in Canada featuring slogans such as "Hoot if you hate Gypsies" and inflammatory articles in the national press.
In all societies in which they live, the position of Roma remains tenuous. Recent events in Canada indicate that even in countries where gross violations of the rights of Roma are not regularly documented, the potential for sudden outbreaks of racist anti-Roma hysteria is never more than a media event away. The ERRC welcomes efforts by the OSCE to address the issue at an international level, as well as its efforts to hold member states accountable to their obligations under international law.