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Friday 24 March 2023 Dublin: 12°C
Markus Schreiber/AP/Press Association Images
Column Just words? Anti-Roma and Traveller rhetoric has serious consequences
Following recent comment made about Travellers by a French MP, in which he suggested more should have been murdered during the Holocaust, Martin Collins considers the impact on hateful speech on violence against minorities.

“MAYBE HITLER did not kill enough”.

This is a recent comment made about Travellers in France, by Gilles Bourdouleix, a French MP. This comment was made in the country that has been called to account by UN human rights experts for the forced eviction and collective expulsion of Roma. This is the latest of a series of statements by French politicians, which have targeted Roma and Travellers.

The timing of this comment resonated for many as it was in the wake of the 2 August, which marked Roma Holocaust memorial day, known as Porrajamos. This marks the day in 1944 when almost 3,000 Roma were exterminated in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The victims of genocide

In 1938, the German doctors association magazine stated “Rats, roaches and fleas are also natural occurrences, just like the Jews and Gypsies. All life is a struggle. Therefore, we must bit by bit, annihilate all of these vermin.” An estimated 11 million people were murdered during the Second World War because of their nationality, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, religious belief, political affiliation, or because they were prisoners of war. The largest single group of people to be murdered during the Holocaust were 6 million Jews.

It is estimated that over 500,000 Roma and Sinti died during the Holocaust. At least another 500,000 were displaced and dispossessed, their identity papers lost or destroyed. The Holocaust marked a deep trauma in the Roma community and impacted the whole community.

Roma Holocaust Memorial Day invokes a series of emotions – it is a day to commemorate and honour the victims of this genocide. As the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, stated “there can be no reconciliation without truth and remembrance”. But is also a reminder of the need to highlight the experiences of Roma today. If we did a trip around Europe we would hear shocking stories of anti-Roma racism, which poses the question – how far have we come?

Freedom of speech is not incitement to hatred

Racism and hate speech towards Roma is acknowledged to be on the rise. When talking about the Holocaust, the Romani activist, Romani Rose, states “Our humanity was taken away so later it wasn’t too far off to start exterminating.” This brings into stark focus the need to challenge racist discourses as they are happening today. We cannot disconnect racist discourses with the violent attacks that occur and we cannot underestimate the danger of racist discourses.

A small snapshot of recent incidents across Europe, creates a grim and frightening picture. If we think about the quote above in the German Doctors magazine in 1938 and compare it to the following statement. “A significant portion of the Gypsies are unfit for co-existence, not fit to live among human beings. These animals should not exist. No way. This must be solved, immediately and in any way possible.” This statement was published in a Hungarian daily newspaper, just a few months ago, by Zsolt Bayer, a journalist and co-founder of the ruling Fidesz party.

The European Roma Rights Centre noted how dangerous this language is, in a country where six Romani people were murdered in racially motivated attacks a few years ago.

Legitimising more extreme forms of violence

In Slovakia, the European Roma Rights Centre has reported many serious and racially motivated attacks on Roma, including firebombing, shooting, stabbing, beating and other acts of violence. Just last year an off-duty policeman shot five Romani people, killing three of them. He claimed he was trying to “solve the Romani problem”.

In 2012 in France, in the midst of forced evictions and collective expulsions of thousands of Roma by the state, a group of residents in Marseilles, forcibly moved a group of Roma from their camp. When the men, women and children fled the camp, the residents burnt the camp to the ground. It is when state policies actively exclude and discriminate against Roma and mainstream public figures make anti-Roma statements, that space is created for extreme violence and hate crime. This legitimises more extreme forms of violence, and all too often across Europe, there has been no accountability for such violence.

This is relevant in the Irish context, as negative statements about Travellers and Roma by public figures have been notable. Judge Seamus Hughes in 2012, talking about Travellers said “they are like Neanderthal men living in the long grass, abiding by the laws of the jungle”. This was followed by further anti-Traveller and Roma statements by Judges. When talking about Travellers, the Fianna Fail councillor, Sean McEniff said “I think there should be an isolated community of them some place. Give them houses and keep them all together”. It was not long after these comments that a house to be allocated to a Traveller family was burnt down. No public figure faced any sanctions for negative comments about Travellers or Roma.

Clear actions to combat discrimination

Indeed the impact of anti-Roma and Traveller statements cannot be underestimated and the continuum between statements and violent incidents is too clear to be ignored. Another year has passed and last week we commemorated the Roma who suffered so terribly during the Holocaust, but we also need to focus our minds on the Roma and Travellers who continue to suffer today, who continue to experience racism and exclusion.

What we need is leadership and concrete actions by states. In Ireland we need a strong national Traveller and Roma strategy that will identify clear actions to combat and challenge racism and discrimination. This is something Ireland is obliged to do as a member of the European Union. We also need to reform the law on racist crime, which is ineffective. We have to learn from the past and we need our leaders to show leadership and to communicate the message that racism is not acceptable in our society.

Martin Collins is the Assistant Director of the Pavee Point Traveller and Roma Centre.

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