Margaret Swink

Margaret Swink (Dzeno Association, Czech Republic): Originally from Michigan, Margaret received her B.A. in international relations from Michigan State in 2000. Seeking a warmer climate, she joined the Peace Corps and spent the next two years teaching English and building a library in Cameroon. At the time of her fellowship, Margaret was finishing her first year of her Master’s program in International Relations at Yale University with a concentration in comparative foreign policy and human rights.

The Enduring Legacy of Racism

01 Jul

Sometime in the 15th Century, King Zikmund of Bohemia expelled all the Roma from his kingdom. This wasn’t terribly unusual at the time: colorful, fun-loving and constantly on the move, Gypsies weren’t exactly welcome in the Christian communities of Europe. In this case, the exiled Bohemian Roma ended up in France where they were nicknamed “les bohemiens.” The term was recycled by author W.M Thackery in the early 19th Century to mean writers, artists and other disaffected persons who wished to pursue a non-traditional lifestyle; since then bohemian has been absorbed into our language, our history, and our wardrobes. Although the gypsy roots are still visible in the word, we tend to forget (if we ever knew) that behind the whole concept was an exodus, and a lifetime of suffering and isolation.

However, Roma people are still unwanted. Not because they aren’t Christian enough, but simply because they are Roma; darker and more restless than the majority peoples of Europe. I am now deep into researching this report on evictions for Dzeno, and am appalled by the sheer scope of the problem. Roma are facing evictions in EVERY country in Europe. Even Denmark. DENMARK!!! Isn’t Denmark one of the most human rights respecting countries on earth?!? Yet today I got a report from an NGO in Denmark (yes…it was in response to the questionnaire..yay!) which detailed at great length the prejudice and discrimination faced by Roma people in Denmark. The NGO recounted several cases that they have worked with: an old woman wrongly evicted because of a dispute with the heating company, a young mother and child refused housing because of their race, a family evicted because their four year old son peed on the lawn, the stories go on and on. The reports were heartbreaking, especially as it focused on the expertise of the Danish authorities in using legal means to discriminate. All for nothing. As the report states: Denmark is so rich – there is no need to discriminate against Roma – there is no economically justifiable need to discriminate at all, but if you investigate the labour market, you will find discrimination everywhere�

In Romania, 80 people were evicted from a slum in the center of Miercurea Ciuc. In this case the city actually did provide the victims with alternative housing: eight huts surrounded by a high wire fence in a contaminated area of the city long polluted by a waste treatment dump. The entire community is now living with one water tap, and no sewage system. Garbage is only hauled away once a month.

In the United Kingdom (another supposed human rights champion), over 500 Roma families (with 150 children) are awaiting eviction from land that they already own in a city called Dale Farm. The District Council is paying 3 million euros to a private security company specializing in Gypsy evictions to bulldoze the entire settlement. This is all legal because the Roma community doesn’t have a planning permit for the site. Why don’t they have a planning permit? Official statistics state that 90% of all planning permission applications are initially rejected. Is it any wonder that so many Roma in the UK are living without permits?

We’ve received reports this week of similar incidents in Spain, in Greece, in Belgium, in Albania, in Russia. And of course, several in the Czech Republic. No country is immune.

The whole thing is shocking to me. The problem seems so immense, and somehow, so out of place. This isn’t the 15th century anymore. We are more tolerant, more enlightened, right? Isn’t Europe supposed to respect human rights? Don’t they have laws against this? How can this be happening?

Of course I knew when I came here that the human rights of Roma weren’t being respected. But the sheer magnitude of the problem blows me away. How can this problem be so big, and yet so unknown? The whole thing makes me realize how important it is to get information out there about these situations. The more this is talked about, the more pressure there will be to solve it. Then maybe 500 years from now, we won’t be repeating the same mistakes.

Posted By Margaret Swink

Posted Jul 1st, 2005

Enter your Comment


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *