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Racism against Roma: mainstream phenomenon?

Roma population faces widespread expressions of racism in Europe and far-right parties blame them for financial crisis.
Last modified: 19 Jan 2014 18:41

Not since the Second World War has there been such acceptance across much of Europe of far-right sentiment. As if by magic, the crisis of capitalism around 2008 turned into a series of sovereign debt crises and from that a new group of parties came to prominence.

From country to country, they directly blame immigrants, rather than the banking system, for their financial and social problems.

All this is particularly acute in the Roma heartlands of Slovakia and Hungary. The Roma first settled in these areas a full thousand years ago, and have been treated like cattle ever since, either enslaved or otherwise excluded and left on the margins. The longer they've been there, the less chance they ever had to move with the times. As recently as World War Two, Slovakia paid the Nazis to send the Roma to Auschwitz. Hungary was with the Fascists too. The Roma didn't have anything to do with the banking crisis, but they're being blamed for Europe's new poverty now.

Both Slovakia and Hungary are trying to forget about the past and are fully paid-up members of the European Union now. Yet, in both places, the far-right is alive and thriving. There's a growing trend in Slovakia for right-wing parties to be voted into local government. One mayor bought a big plot of land on the promise he would then kick the Roma off it. In many places, local authorities have erected walls to keep the Roma out. In Hungary the far-right Jobbik party is the third-biggest in parliament.

We spent a week driving through Slovakia and Hungary for a series of reports which set out to see whether some of the most obvious ethnic slurs trotted out about the Roma - and often people mean all Roma - actually stand up to scrutiny. These views, so frequently repeated in the media, have become accepted truths across the continent.

Challenging accepted wisdom

From London to Bratislava you hear the public and politicians saying they don't want the Roma because they're a burden on society, on public spending; that they don't want to work, they just have more and more kids and then don't even send them to school; that they're lazy thieves. This is what the Fascists said about them, too. But nowadays, apparently it's OK for the mainstream to say these things as well.

We ended up with three reports. One is on how some brilliant people across this region are challenging the accepted wisdom that Roma children are stupid and won't go to school, with some amazing results in the face of abject poverty.

During another, on the often-repeated line that the Roma don't want to work, we found older Roma men looking back wistfully to the days of the Warsaw Pact, when the Soviets ran these countries, and when every Roma had a job in a factory, even if it wasn't up to much. And we found that at every turn, from school traineeships through to adult life, the Roma now face a wall of racism in the jobs market.

A third report questions the common complaint that the Roma don't want to integrate. Time and again we found they do but are blocked at every turn by an intransigent white society.

And everywhere we found people - white and Roma - who refuse to accept what most people take as granted - that there is no solution to the Roma problem.

At a time when the language of the far-right is becoming accepted across the political spectrum, it's well worth listening to what some of these people have to say for themselves. Judge for yourself.

Click here to see pictures from Al Jazeera's special series on the Roma

Video: Europe's Roma minority struggles for jobs