“Reports of children being removed from Roma families have hit the headlines over the past week or so. At this stage it is by no means clear whether any offence has been committed, and if so, exactly by whom.
But the media frenzy over Maria – dubbed the ‘blonde angel’ because of her blue eyes and blond hair – has reignited right wing anti-Roma furore, ranging from Serb neo-Nazis trying to abduct a child in Novi Sad who, in their view, was not ‘as dark as their parents’ to Italy’s Northern League MPs calling for across-the-board inspections in all Italian Roma camps for missing children.
Popular reactions, buttressed by questionable media styles, police actions and irresponsible political commentaries, typically overshadow discourses based on context and systemic problems.
Persecuted throughout history
The Roma’s ancestry is generally traced back to the Indian subcontinent from which the first communities left around the 10th century. They have faced persecution throughout history, including by Nazi Germany, and many of them saw their living conditions deteriorate even further with the end of the Cold War and the displacement that followed the dismantlement of Roma settlements or sheer intolerance in both eastern and western Europe.
Many human rights advocates, including the Director of the European Roma Rights Centre, fear that this racial profiling will lead to more indiscriminate raids into Roma settlements and more cases of child removal on ethnic grounds. More broadly, they are concerned that this climate will significantly setback integration efforts made by civil society groups and international institutions, particularly in Europe, where many of the estimated 11 million Roma settled to pursue a sedentary life.
What is at stake is effectively whether we are capable of distinguishing alleged or proven offences by individuals, regardless of their ethnic background, from forms of collective punishment against minority communities that have been unfairly treated and demonized for centuries; whether we understand that racial profiling is morally and legally unacceptable; whether we are prepared to comply with specific obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the European Convention on Human Rights that condition child removal on parental consent or otherwise tightly construed and evidence-based best interests of the child, or require it to be assessed against rights to respect for private and family life; whether we recognize the need to act on multiple internal and international statistics revealing disproportionate representation of Roma children in state care institutions, segregated educational facilities, and precarious settlements from which they are likely to be forcibly evicted together with entire families.
There are at least two points that can be brought home in this context. One is that no state measures can be taken against Roma individuals and communities that are not in accordance with the principle of proportionality. Child removals cannot take place solely on grounds of poverty, let alone ethnicity. The special needs of Roma as a minority must inform the judgment of proportionality in terms of the support being provided by public authorities to Roma families and the extent to which Roma input has been sought and duly taken into account in the decision-making process. It is on this basis, for example, that Strasbourg has found breaches of Article 8 of the Convention (right to private and family life) in connection with eviction proceedings against Roma and Travellers by the UK, Bulgaria, and France (http://www.echr.coe.int).
The second point is that special vigilance is required of states parties in the context of racial discrimination under Article 14. The notion of indirect discrimination has been widely upheld by the Court in cases where segregation of Roma children in schools were found to have stemmed from general policies on, for example, learning disabilities or language deficiencies.
Possible racist motives
Triggered by several European Roma Rights Centre-sponsored applications, this new line of argument is the latest legal response to Roma’s endemic economic deprivation and social exclusion. It has begun to generate a framework that is gradually exposing structural dimensions of abuse across Europe and the need for responsive and effective public policies. This approach has several components, and may or may not be prompted solely by statistical data. The most basic requirement is for the authorities to conduct an investigation into possible racist motives behind a particular act or practice which may turn out to be incompatible with the Convention.
One can only hope that ongoing investigations in Bulgaria, Greece, and Ireland will generate responsible narratives and action on the part of the authorities and the media in the days and weeks to come. In times of economic crises and strong anxieties over national and sub-national identities, being able to tackle Roma’s poor living conditions and appalling marginalization while respecting their distinctive way of life in a way which is consistent with human rights standards is undoubtedly bound to prove one of the most challenging tests not only for individual countries, but also for Europe’s chances to survive as a meaningful transnational project.”
A longer version of this blog also appeared on The Conversation