First and foremost, I want to thank the committee for giving me the opportunity to present the far-too-often ignored human rights situation of Romani people across the world today, a people whose very existence remains threatened, a people whose human dignity is continuously denied today across the world, a people whose fight remains largely invisible, and on which I will attempt to shed light today through my presentation.
In the Romani language, when greeting people, we say
[Witness spoke in Romani]
This translates to “I greet you with good will.”
I'm really hopeful that my presence here today will give you the will to take action on the often invisible human rights situation of Roma, which remains largely ignored today across the globe.
Seven years ago I founded a not-for-profit organization called Romanipe, whose main mission is to defend human dignity against human rights violations that Romani people face across the world. Our organization was built on the principle of unity. In that regard, it has worked in collaboration with many groups of people with whom we share suffering and has built collaborations with many different groups who have been victims of genocide. In the spirit of standing in solidarity but also in action with those groups, we also want to acknowledge our solidarity with people who have presented before this committee, namely indigenous peoples as well as the people of Burundi and the Rohingya in Myanmar. We stand with them in solidarity.
Almost 75 years ago today, the remaining 2,998 Romani prisoners of the gypsy family camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau were murdered en masse by the Nazis and their collaborators. According to the latest estimates, at least half a million Roma were killed by Nazis and their collaborators during the Second World War. Unfortunately, this history remains largely ignored, unknown and untaught globally.
Our organization has been fighting for the past eight years for the Canadian government to officially recognize the Romani genocide. On August 2 of last year the Canadian government, via and , acknowledged the commitment of the government to recognize the Romani genocide. Today we are still waiting for an official act of Parliament to be adopted so that recognition can officially be granted.
Recognition of the Romani genocide is highly important since the human rights situation of Roma and the hatred and racism against Roma remain very normalized forms of racism today given that the history of the Romani people, specifically during the Second World War, remains largely unknown and unrecognized.
During the Second World War, rhetoric portraying Roma as criminals was used by Nazis and their collaborators to justify the mass murder of at least half a million Romani people. Across European countries today, unfortunately we see that rhetoric being repeated. In many European countries, physical walls have been built to separate Roma from non-Romani citizens. These walls are not at borders but have actually been built within cities to separate Roma from non-Romani citizens. In countries like Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Romani children are disproportionately placed in segregated schools without prior testing based on the idea that Roma are mentally inferior to non-Roma.
This segregation has been documented and condemned by many organizations, such as Amnesty International, the European Roma Rights Centre and many others, which have spoken out and actually called on those countries to take concrete measures to end the segregation of Romani children in those countries. Unfortunately, as reported recently by Amnesty International and many other organizations, the segregation of Roma is still present in almost all of those countries.
As recently as 2012, cases of forced sterilization of Romani women were also documented in countries like Hungary and Slovakia. Governments of those countries have actually acknowledged that this was the case, yet no measures have been taken to actually offer compensation to the women who were forcibly sterilized in those countries.
Just recently, in fact last year, in countries like Ukraine, despite the many warnings of organizations like Amnesty International of the violent attacks inflicted on Romani settlements in Ukraine, a young Romani man was actually killed by members of the far right on the basis of the idea that Roma need to be killed to eliminate so-called gypsy crime.
In Italy, the minister of the interior, Matteo Salvini, recently announced his intention to create a Roma census, a policy that is very reminiscent of the 1933 policies inflicted upon the Jewish population in Italy at the time. This policy gained wide public support and in fact has led to an increase in hate crime against the Romani population in Italy.
Just last year, after the violent killing of three young Romani girls, graffiti throughout Rome praising the deaths of those three girls was actually documented. In fact, some pictures show graffiti saying “three less Roma”. This was just last year.
This month, in fact, in Bulgaria, neo-Nazis have marched threatening Romani villages, chanting anti-Romani slogans and encouraging anti-Romani violence.
In France, a few months ago, as a result of a medieval stereotype, Roma were accused of stealing children. There have been many violent attacks that have left many Romani families, including children, hospitalized. These things were the results of fake news being spread via social media.
Our colleagues in France are part of the only organization that has spoken out against this. Due to their efforts, the government has actually taken action.
There are many, many, many countries. These things took place in just this past month. We're not talking about years ago. We are talking about a few weeks ago that Romani people were actually killed, including in Bulgaria, simply because they were Roma.
I would like to read some of the quotes from the ruling parties in those countries with those marches. “Whoever runs over a gypsy child is acting correctly if he gives no thought to stopping and steps hard on the accelerator.” This is a quote from a political columnist and a founding member of Hungary's governing Fidesz party. “Gypsies to the gas chambers.” “Set them all on fire.” “Bury them alive.” “Stab them in the back.” These were quotes from ethnic Czechs during a demonstration against Roma in the Czech Republic.
Between 2012 and today, we have seen what we call anti-Romani marches. Most of the time these have been organized by the far right but they have also been widely supported by everyday citizens. People march carrying signs with swastikas and often dress up as Hitler and chant anti-Romani slogans.
How has the world reacted to those situations? Unfortunately, it hasn't, because, as I mentioned before, one of the most normalized forms of racism today is actually the violence committed against Roma, which is unfortunately based on the belief that Roma are fundamentally criminals.
How has the Canadian government reacted to this? Unfortunately, in 2012 under the previous government, a lot of Roma were coming to Canada to seek asylum and seek protection from the rise of the neo-Nazi movement. This was just in 2012, when the far right reached its peak. Actually, in a village in Hungary, six Roma were killed, including a six-year-old boy, as a result of these attacks by the far right.
A large number of Roma came to Canada to seek asylum. The response of the government at the time was unfortunately to repeat that rhetoric of criminality, accusing Roma of being bogus refugees undeserving of Canadian protection.
Our organization has asked that you work to address these issues with every single minister since Jason Kenney was minister. He was in fact responsible for the introduction of Bill , under which specific measures were taken to restrict the entrance of Romani asylum seekers, whereby billboards were actually placed in the villages, such as in Hungary, where Roma were known to come from, discouraging Roma asylum seekers from applying to Canada. The policy measures that were taken have proven to be efficient. According to the statistics, Roma acceptance decreased by 90% between 1998 and 2012.
Our organization has actually worked with many families who have been unjustly deported. We are in fact still working with a family that is to face deportation in the next two weeks because Bill is still in place, and the countries that I have mentioned, where Roma are perceived to be animals and are threatened with being killed, are considered safe by the Canadian government. One of the provisions that we suggested be made to Bill C-31 was that the criteria of what constitutes a safe country be revised and that there be a board of experts deciding under what criteria those countries are safe.
A new government came into place, and Minister was given the mandate. That was dropped from the mandate of the minister, so those countries are still considered to be safe.
Of course, there is an increase in the acceptance of Roma, especially those from Hungary, in light of the well-documented evidence of persecution of Roma in those countries, yet there are still consequences to that bill, which we have seen from our organization's point of view. In the past three months, we have worked at least on three cases of deportation of Romani families who came here around 2012. There are still consequences to the policies enacted by the Canadian government.
Just to give you a bit of the background of our organization, when we started the organization, our intention was actually to use Canada as a model for Europe, despite Canada having its own human rights issues, in terms of how Europe could do better. Unfortunately, the Canadian government led us to do the opposite of that, because Roma coming from those countries were actually facing discrimination in their countries and were sent back to situations of discrimination, which actually doubled the discrimination of the home countries.
On that, just to give you a concrete example, according to the 1951 refugee convention, which the Canadian government has ratified, a country cannot send people back to situations where they will face persecution, whereas in the case of the Roma, that is exactly what happened. We've worked with many families, especially Romani children, who knew that they were to be refused because of the high refusal rate of refugees whose education was not recognized in countries where they already face segregation. They were sent back to their countries, faced double discrimination and actually had to drop out of school.
I'll end on that note, but I just want to take 30 seconds to make some concrete recommendations, if I may.
Essentially, what we're asking the Canadian government for is to eliminate Bill or to at least appoint a board of experts to determine what constitutes a safe country; to work with European governments to address the ongoing human rights situation in those countries; and, to officially adopt an act of Parliament. I have drafted a bill that is ready to be presented. It simply needs to be presented by members of Parliament so that the Romani genocide can be recognized. I think the committee's very mission is to prevent future atrocities from happening. That really begins with recognition.
Just to build on that notion in terms of your mentioning the police, often when there are situations like that, the police are called to intervene, but they're actually contributing to the violence. This was documented in Ukraine. There's video evidence of that. That rhetoric is often used for this.
As I said before, it's unfortunate, but the Canadian government itself used that rhetoric in saying that Roma are bogus refugees who are coming here to abuse the social welfare system. Their claims were deemed to be unfounded, whereas obviously the situation in Hungary and in most of the countries where Roma were coming from at the time was very documented. This was actually followed by the killings of six Roma in Hungary.
That rhetoric, as I mentioned, is not limited only to Europe. It has really spread across.... Even in Latin America, we see it as well, and in the Americas and the United States. It's a very predominant rhetoric that we often see justified in terms of equal access to opportunities. Educated Roma will not be able to access jobs because there is a structural racism and people don't want to hire Roma. There is a concrete example in Italy, for example, where local Roma developed a food truck and nobody wanted to eat there on the presumption that they were cooking rats or things like that. This mentality is very entrenched.
In terms of the structural racism, as I mentioned, there's a higher proportion of Roma across the world who are highly educated but are not able to access employment, often because of racism, so they have to hide their Romani identity. Of course, some Roma who are not as visibly Roma and who have lighter skin are able to do that, but also, with last names, it is difficult to identify if one is Roma or not. This has also been documented: Roma have sent in their CVs and, when they show up for interviews, they are not given the jobs because they're obviously Roma.
Also, as I mentioned, in terms of political participation, despite the strong population in most of those countries where Roma are actually the main minority, very few Roma are a part of political processes or elected officials. Also, in terms of Roma inclusion policies, they're often not done in consultation with Roma; they're often done by non-Roma. Some of the European Union's policies are, for example, “come and volunteer to teach Roma hygiene”, which obviously is itself problematic in addressing the human rights situation of Roma.