NOVEMBER 14, 2007 – The Council of Europe has stated that during the last decade the Roma populations, in particular in South Eastern Europe, have been hit by instability and turmoil. They often have been the victims of forced migration and are still today refugees or displaced persons. Their social and economic situation already precarious has been deteriorating throughout this period with serious consequences on education of children and employment. The Roma in many European countries only live to an average of 42 years.
The following special report is by Vanja Montenegro-Ljujic.
The What and Why of Romaphobia
You cannot fight discrimination simply with laws and rules
The Roma (gypsy) population forms one of the largest and, according to recent research, one of the most disadvantageous and stereotyped minority groups in contemporary Europe. In the last decades, scholars mostly used the term “anti-Gypsyism” as a generic term for a broad set of negative feelings, stereotyping, and discriminatory practice against Roma. In order to avoid negative connotations attached to the word “Gypsy’, some authors use the term “Romaphobia” for negative affects associated with the Roma.
Romaphobia is a predominantly racist phenomenon, encompas singelements of cultural racism and dehumanization. Similar to other forms of modern racism, Romaphobia derives from socio-economic competition, and often manifests itself through opposition to minority benefits. On this account, we can argue that Romaphobia is linked to (perceived) threat to welfare of an in-group or its members.
However, what makes this type of prejudice peculiar is not pure competition for scarce material and immaterial resources.
Distinguished criteria concerns symbolic threat posed by Roma culture, which is perceived potentially threatening towards in-group’s values, morals and beliefs. In this respect, negative stereotypes regarding Roma’s work ethics, laziness, proneness to criminal behaviour, are the main indicators of anti-Roma prejudice.
Furthermore, negative stereotypes create a climate where people fear that Roma could contaminate national culture, and pose the threat to their physical and material well being. This brings us to another relevant indicator of Romaphobia, which is inter-group anxiety.
As experience has shown, ethnocentric people are likely to perceive the members of visible minorities as threatening national unity and cultural cohesion. This is where a vicious circle begins: ethnocentrism discourages inter-group contact, resulting in social distance and ignorance about the out-groups, which in turn increase prejudice.
Broader ethno-cultural interactions reflect similar trend. In the last two decades, while promoting multiculturalism and diversity (i.e. maintenance of one’s own cultural identity together with maintenance of strong ties with the host society), most of Europe denied the Roma’s right to identity. Particularly in South-Eastern Europe, where the large numbers of Roma minority have been routinely subjected to forced assimilation, segregation and marginalization. In order to escape growing discrimination and racist violence, many Roma immigrated from Eastern to Western Europe.
Western media however promptly responded to “Gypsy invasion”, emphasizing social threat from a new economic immigration. It can be argued that negative sentiments towards Roma are predominantly symbolic and racist phenomena.
Romani scholar and activist Ian Hancock, points to metaphorical association between darkness and evil in literal interpretations of medieval Christian doctrine. Other authors refer to a controversial myth of wondering Gypsy, according to which the Roma are reduced to controversial symbols, including, on one side, open-mindedness, cosmopolitanism, and freedom, and destructiveness, wildness, and criminality, on the other. In the words of anthropologist Van de Port, “every Gypsy image has its anti-image; every statement about Gypsies has its counter statement”.
We can agree that negative side of this symbolic, ‘imaginary figure’ of Gypsy defines the scope of everyday stigmatization, social exclusion and discrimination of Roma.
Vanja Montenegro-Ljujic was born in Serbia and now lives in The Netherlands. She is a lawyer, specialising in human rights law. She is currently writing her Ph.D. at Rommert Casimir Institute (Leiden University). Her professional experience has been in peace education. She is a leading authority on negative attitudes towards Roma.