EUROPEAN ROMA AND TRAVELLERS NEED OUR OWN ROSA PARKS

By Jonathan Lee

“‘No blacks, no Irish, no dogs’ signs disappeared long ago, but ‘No Travellers’ signs […] are still widespread,” said Human Rights Barrister, Marc Willers. In fact, ‘No Gypsies’ policies are quite commonplace pretty much everywhere, and Romani and Traveller people are frequently and willfully refused access to public places all over Europe.

Ask any Romani or Traveller person and they will be able to tell you at least one story about when they, or their friends or their family, were kicked out of a pub, park, pool or supermarket. It is one of the most obvious, most normalised, and most despicable expressions of racism in our society: the segregation of physical space on the basis of ethnicity.

It is what provided the initial spark for the civil rights movement in the United States, and what drove activists and lawyers in their campaign which resulted in Congress passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, forbidding discrimination in public places. Unlike the civil rights movement, however, Roma & Travellers in Europe have never had our equivalent ‘Rosa Parks’ moment.

There are already national laws in place in every European country with anti-discrimination provisions that make it illegal to deny a person access to public spaces or services on account of their ethnicity, sex, or religion. Some of these have been enacted for many decades, such as the United Kingdom’s Race Relations Act of 1965. This means European Roma and Travellers are not facing a struggle for the legal recognition of their right not to be discriminated against: this is already in place on paper.

Conversely, it is a struggle against the culture of antigypsyism which allows and normalises this denial of rights, and a society which fails to put a stop to these injustices.

Roma and Travellers are always being dictated to about which spaces they can occupy. Though it is illegal, it is rare that those responsible for denying entry, kicking people out, or putting up signs are held to account. Rarer still that it happens in a court of law. Partly, this is down to Roma and Travellers not reporting this type of discrimination. It’s just too commonplace.

I’d be reporting something every week” is something you commonly hear about why discriminatory incidents go unreported. But it’s also because biases in the police and judiciary mean that reporting discrimination could result (after a lengthy legal process) in nothing happening at all. Or worse yet, with the case being flipped on its head and the blame put on the victim. In Slovakia and Serbia, for example, Romani victims have been blamed when they reported racist crimes committed against them.

When Fikri Jasharov, a 37-year-old Romani man, was denied entry to a swimming pool in Macedonia last summer, however, he didn’t let it slide. He took his case to court with the help of the European Roma Rights Centre, and on October 10th 2018, the Dovledzik pool in Bitola was ordered to pay Fikri €977 and cease the practice of denying Roma entry to their premises. His is still an isolated case, though. There are only a few similar victories scattered across Europe where Romani and Traveller people have fought all the way to a court decision: respectively, these include a group of Travellers refused entry to a pub in London in 2015, another in 2017 in Bristol, a campsite in Sweden in 2007, a hotel in Ireland in 2017, and a store in Finland in 2018.

They are few and far between, with each case being an exception to the norm when Romani and Traveller people are discriminated against in their right to access public spaces.

In the main, segregation of Roma and Travellers from the public sphere doesn’t operate through discriminatory ordinances or overt denial from officials. It simply doesn’t need to.

Roma throughout most of Europe are already out of sight – tucked away in ‘settlements’, ghettos, and slums which are segregated from non-Roma. Romani children in several countries are taught in Roma-only schools where they receive an inferior education. This further marginalises them when they try to get a job, and find that the only one they are qualified for is low-income work where most (if not all) of their colleagues are also Roma. For the 20% of Romani and Traveller people in Europe who do not live in poverty, they must either try to hide their ethnicity, or deny it, in order to become invisible in public spaces.

The exclusion of Roma in society which results in segregated living, education, employment, and access to services cannot be wholly separated from the denial of access to public spaces for Roma. The system of antigypsyism which excludes Romani and Traveller people socially, and economically, also creates a climate in which it is acceptable for them to be refused entry to a pub, made to use different buses, or get kicked out of a public park. It is also the indifference of non-Roma to this racism that perpetuates the problem.

We need condemnation, boycotts, solidarity marches, noise.

Instead, we have articles like this one describing racism against Travellers as “discrimination”, as if it is a matter of opinion.

Perhaps what we need is a person who acts as an spark for social change, who shines a spotlight on the antigypsyism which is so obviously manifest in all of our daily lives that most hardly notice it. Maybe we need the equivalent of a Roma Rosa Parks. A figure that challenges the institutional racism which makes it okay for the No Gypsies policies to exist without any serious consequences.

But under the circumstances, it is unlikely a single person in one country would be able to spark a wide scale equality movement against antigypsyism throughout Europe.

For now, we can rally around local heroes like Fikri who fight back. We can stand up to racists who deny Roma and Travellers access to public space. We can make it clear that such actions are racist and illegal. We can refuse to back down when discriminated against, and we can encourage others to do the same and take those responsible to court.

Most importantly – we can make sure these actions are broadcasted as loudly as possible, to as many people as possible, in our own countries and to the rest of Europe. We can make sure that Roma, Travellers and allies around Europe (and the world) are kept informed about our victories, and we can organise, so that when the revolution does eventually come – we are ready.

Featured image credit: Jonathan Lee


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