The Guardian: Gypsies and Human Rights

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Subject: The Guardian: Gypsies and Human Rights

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The Guardian: Gypsies and Human Rights

Final frontier
Gypsies are challenging the most fundamental of Europe's ideals and
Anthony Sampson
Saturday April 1, 2000
Why should the arrival of a small number of Gypsies in Britain be
greeted with a burst of xenophobia out of proportion to their numbers?
Why should a few Romanian women in brightly coloured shawls, begging
with their babies, have suddenly provoked a national phobia? It is
important to recognise that Gypsies have always
provided the most difficult test of tolerance of human rights; and
that they are a forewarning of the problems Britain will inevitably
face in an enlarged European Union. They have to be faced before they
provide a rallying-point for the forces of intolerance.

Journalists and politicians have made racial attacks on Gypsies which
they would not dare to make against other peoples. "All the racism
that the national press feels too ashamed to express against black
people," said the black newspaper, the Voice, "it felt free to aim at
the Gypsies". But in central and eastern Europe, they provoke much
fiercer reactions. When I talked to the distinguished Czech
scientist-poet Miroslav Holub before he died last year, our
conversation came to a painful end when I asked about Czech Gypsies:
"There are some rights," he said frostily, "which a young democracy
cannot concede."

There has always been a difficult duality in European attitudes to
Gypsies, as I learned through my grand-father John Sampson, who
compiled the first Romani dictionary. He acquired a passion for their
culture which left him with many Gypsy friends; but the romantic
interest of intellectuals in Gypsies was very detached from the fears
and resentments of ordinary people, which are now again being

It is crucial to understand the historical background. Gypsies have
always provoked strong reactions, ever since they first migrated to
Europe from India in the late middle ages, bringing their nomadic
habits, their proud and separate communities and their tradition of

At first they were protected by Catholic rulers, and seen as penitents
entitled to alms and succour. But the Reformation produced a more
intolerant attitude to outsiders who would not accept protestant
disciplines; and for centuries they suffered persecution as vagrants
and petty thieves.
The industrial revolution and the motor car provided a still greater
threat to their lifestyles, depriving them of livelihoods based on
horses, and extending the cities and suburbs which encroached on the
open countryside, their favoured habitat.

There were always two sides to the Europeans' attitude. Many romantic
artists and intellectuals were enchanted by their wild songs, exotic
clothes, their closeness to nature and their unique language,
developed from Sanskrit. But government bureaucrats were determined to
educate them, tame them and fence them in, and the romantic interest
was not much help.

Each new government had its own reasons to hate them. The Nazis saw
them, like the Jews, as a threat to racial purity: they murdered about
half a million Gypsies - who remain shamefully neglected in memorials
to the Holocaust. The post-war communist regimes saw them as a threat
to their elaborate state planning and controls: while they did not
massacre them, they hemmed them into minimal housing and restricted
their movements.

But many post-communist governments in eastern Europe have in some
ways treated them worse, seeing them as a threat to law and order and
economic prospects in a capitalist world. In Romania, as Britain's
Refugee Council reported last year, "the post-Ceausescu period has
been marked by horrific mob violence against Roma, with hundreds of
The Gypsies provided a fundamental challenge to the principles and
idealism of a united Europe. Gypsies were true Europeans, in terms of
their mobility and ignoring of national frontiers; and their
alternative lifestyle, defying the constraints of cities and
capitalism, provided a test of individual freedom and human rights.
The European Union cannot now ignore the test, at a time when the
countries with the biggest Gypsy populations are clamouring to join
The most prosperous and western countries are not necessarily the most
tolerant, and the Balkans are not always the worst. When I visited
Serbia five years ago, I talked to the leader of the Gypsies in
Belgrade who reckoned that the most intolerant were the Czechs - who
are now closest to joining the European Union. But the 4m Gypsies in
eastern Europe present a much bigger long-term problem, of which
Britain is now having its first
taste. The first British response to the small inflow of Gypsies
across the Channel has been essentially nationalist; but we cannot
make sense of the problem except in the context of Europe.
If the "second tier" of eastern Europeans, including Romania (with 2m
Gypsies) and Hungary (with 600,000) - are eventually to become members
of the European Union, the British and the other richer western
cannot realistically be expected to provide open frontiers for
refugees from countries which maltreat them. But they have an
obligation to insist on their freedom from persecution within an
enlarged Europe.

The European Union will have to link more firmly the applications to
join the union with the acceptance of human rights, for which their
treatment of Gypsies would act as a yardstick. The Council of Europe
in Strasbourg, which embraces eastern Europeans, has shown much
greater interest in Gypsies than the Brussels bureaucrats; but
Strasbourg will have to play a more positive role in monitoring and
publicising their persecutions.

The Gypsies are certainly awkward victims - as if they were determined
to test tolerance to its limits. Their tradition of begging with their
children and assuming an obligation to charity is now out of keeping
with the western spirit of self-reliance and commercial competition.
Their attitudes to the law and the police are more defiant and less
obedient than those of the bourgeois citizens of the west; while their
nomadic habits cut across all the neat assumptions of national and
local planning.

But their contrariness still has some resonance among the more
adventurous young British, beyond mere romanticism and sentimentality,
as shown by the travellers and caravan dwellers who cannot stand
circumscribed city life. And any political system which provides no
escape-valve from the pressures of conformity carries the danger of
eventual explosion.

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