Gypsies and Genocide

Cain and Abel in the Anthropocene

What happened in the United Kingdom a couple of months ago is an example of the rule that attacks on wider rights and freedoms frequently start with a minority. It also warns that when any human group is labeled as redundant, inferior, and removable, the crime that follows will be monstrous. On 4 November 2019, as the elections neared, Priti Patel, Secretary of State for the Home Department, presented a written statement on an “important issue”: “Strengthening Police Powers to Tackle Unauthorised Encampments”. The text is peppered with words like “criminalizing”, “distress and misery”, and “criminal offence”. They refer to Gypsies, a word Patel scrupulously avoids though it’s spread all over her project. It’s an old Tory election trick to blame others for “distress and misery” and Gypsies (the term embraced by the UK community), Roma, and Travellers (who are native to Ireland), or the GRT community, are a handy culprit. The wider issue is human rights. In the 2005 election campaign, the Tories scapegoated the GRT community—who allegedly use the Human Rights Act to bend planning laws—when they tried to scrap the Act. After the latest Tory win and with Brexit looming, this project and withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights is high on the agenda of Dominic Cummings, Chief Special Adviser to Boris Johnson, who is “coming for that next”.

Priti Patel’s project raises the question of genocide because it aims to abolish Gypsy and Traveller existence altogether, basically by criminalizing the presently civil law matter of using stopping places without permission. Taking their cue from her, thirty-four councils have taken out injunctions threatening Gypsies and Travellers with fines and imprisonment if they camp on public land within their boundaries. The culture, the identity of many of Britain’s still itinerant 63,000 Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers will be eradicated by the only alternative offered to them: council housing. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, two thirds of their ancient stopping sites were closed, and after the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994 local authorities were no longer obliged to provide sites. The aim now is to give councils greater powers to expel Gypsies, Roma and Travellers and confiscate their homes which represent, “Every single thing of value, financial or emotional”, as one woman told Foreign Policy. Two men captured the essence of the Tory project when they called it a “legal pogrom” and “ethnic cleansing”.

Demonization of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers comes hand-in-hand with racist violence. Last year, caravans were set alight in several Traveller sites and there were threats to fire-bomb any new sites. Many Tory officials whip up violence with their hate speech. Midlands councilor Mike Bird speaks of “parasites” that cause “mayhem” and, in 2014, Berkshire councilor Alan Mellins said that Travellers who refused to leave should be “executed”. They have been called a “disease” and likened to Genghis Khan. The press does its bit, figuratively abolishing them by refusing to capitalize the names Gypsy and Traveller, arguing that they don’t represent a distinct ethnic group.

The good news, this time, is that at the end of January, the GRT community won a major victory at the Court of Appeal against eviction by councils. Citing the European Convention on Human Rights, the court ruled that Gypsies and Travellers have an “enshrined freedom” to move from one place to another, and also that “Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers are separate ethnic minorities protected by the Equality Act 2010”. The bad news is that the Tories will “coming for” these protections. Worse, their attacks on human rights legislation and attempts to abolish the Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller way of life almost seem commonplace because of a much more general pattern in Europe.

There are some twelve million Romani worldwide, mainly in Europe but with about a million in the United States and 800,000 in Brazil. Everywhere, to a greater or lesser degree, they have been persecuted and discriminated against. Raising the fear of genocide is no exaggeration. The report Countdown to Annihilation: Genocide in Myanmar details six stages of genocide: stigmatization (and dehumanization); harassment, violence and terror; isolation and segregation; systematic weakening; mass annihilation; and, finally, symbolic removal of the victim group from the collective history. The first four are common anti-Roma practices and the fifth happened not many decades ago with the Pharrajimos (“Cutting up”, “Destruction”) when, according to the recently updated figure of Romani scholar Ian Hancock, 1.5 million out of two million Roma were murdered by Nazis. It could be argued that the sixth stage of removing the victim group from memory is also happening with the attempt to hide them away in council housing.

Genocide is not necessarily a fast process like the Pharrajimos. It can be slow, stealthy, and long-unnoticed as happened with the Rohingya and West Papuans. A series of deliberate steps are placing Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers at high risk of annihilation. The Roma are already greatly handicapped. Only a few thousand survived the Pharrajimos and concentration camps, after which they had to try to rebuild their lives after losing many family members, health, and property. The Pharrajimos was not considered at the Nuremberg trials.

In a slow ethnocide by legal decree the Roma (the term commonly used, together with Sinti, in Europe) have been forced into settlement by official enclosure of their traditional stopping places. Today’s awful irony is that when the Roma travel across Europe it is often because they are seeking asylum after being driven from their settled homes. Legal ethnocide goes back a long way, for example to sixteenth-century vagrancy laws which, by the eighteenth century, included punishment by whipping, imprisonment, and removal to a place of “settlement”. The Roma were also confined by peddlers’ and hawkers’ licenses which, not easy to obtain, were a kind of laissez-passer for crossing unwelcoming territory. More recently, legal obstacles to itinerancy have forced them into wasteland areas. Denied potable water, sewage treatment facilities, and exposed to hazardous waste sites, incinerators, and factory refuse, they are vulnerable to dysentery, hepatitis, tuberculosis, skin diseases, and respiratory illnesses.

Hate speech by politicians and in the media draws on ancient stereotypes based on cultural and ethnic difference which have always made the Roma easy targets for persecution in many parts of Europe where, genetic evidence suggests, they first appeared after leaving northern India around 1,500 years ago. In many regions of the Balkans they were enslaved until the nineteenth century, in Romania until 1856. In medieval England, Switzerland and Denmark, they were put to death, and other countries like Germany, Italy, Spain, and Portugal ordered their expulsion. They were branded with hot irons, some women had their ears cut off, and children were taken from parents. Their language was banned in some countries and, in others, they were not permitted to marry among themselves.

Today’s anti-Roma speech and action recall the Nazi methods that preceded the mass killings. In 2009, the Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borissov referred to Roma as “bad human material”. His countryman Angel Dzhambazki, Member of the European Parliament, posted on Facebook a photo of a group of Roma men with the caption “Euthanasia”. Egged on by politicians, demonstrators in Sofia were soon shouting “Gypsies into soap”. A 2011 Amnesty International report documents “systematic discrimination” against some ten million Roma across Europe. Romani children are often segregated from regular schools and sent to “delinquent” or learning disability centers. Adults and children are routinely assaulted. A 2019 Pew Research Centre survey shows that 83% of Italians, 76% of Slovakians, and 72% of Greeks, for example, have negative views of Roma. In 2005, Germany deported 50,000 Kosovar Romani asylum seekers and, in 2010, French authorities demolished at least 51 Roma camps and started to repatriate their residents. In Norway, many Romani people were forcibly sterilized until 1977, and, in Great Britain, children were taken from their families and given up for adoption. Italy, and Romania have shameful records of recent violence against the Roma, and anti-Roma aggression is especially virulent in Hungary where the extreme-right party Jobbik has used “Gypsy crime” to rise in the polls.

It’s as if all these persecutors forget that humans began as a migratory species in the savannah of East Africa, following food and the seasons, and genetically geared to keep moving. Nomadism is generally viewed as a primitive state that was superseded by the “civilization” which developed after the Neolithic hunter and gatherer became a sedentary farmer. International law is based on this agricultural premise, on property in land. It’s argued that nomadic peoples don’t occupy land, as happened with the Terra Nullius argument in Australia, which paved the way for some 270 frontier massacres over 140 years, taking the Aboriginal population from 250,000 to 60,000, a horror story never forgotten in Aboriginal oral traditions—“Many kartiya [whitefellas] were too greedy for our land and didn’t see us as fully human”—but erased from white history. Colonial history offers many examples. It’s all about landed property.

Nomadic peoples can only survive if they have right of access to territory. This is a basic question of international law. Denying it is a legal form of cultural genocide. It affects not only Gypsies, Roma, and Irish Travellers but also other roaming peoples like the Nenets in Russia, the Sami in Scandinavia, and nomad shepherds. All over Europe, they are being forced into settlement. They don’t demand political autonomy, or independence but just the right to move. Like other mobile people, immigrants and refugees, they are seen as a problem, harbingers of the dystopian world which, with its praise of “resilience”, the World Economic Forum describes as having a “civilized” walled-in part threatened by health-hazard, mayhem-causing hordes outside.

Nomads traditionally lived as part of the land, leaving a light ecological footprint for conservation was essential to their way of life. The civilization founded by the landgrabbers has led to the Sixth Extinction. This calls for a rereading of the story in the Book of Genesis. The settler Cain, original embodiment of greed and violence, killed his wanderer brother Abel and, for his crime, was condemned to a life of vagrancy. But his crime was somehow projected onto the Abels, the free, untainted wanderers, and now it is claimed that Gypsies bear the mark of Cain. Who brought the Sixth Extinction upon humanity? It wasn’t the Abels. The original curse was on Cain: “When thou tillest the [exploited] ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength”. According to Josephus, Cain, once established in the lawless land of Nod, imposed property lines and shaped human culture in cunning and deceit. He even built a fortified city like that envisaged by the WEF. Grabbing, enclosing, and plundering the land, the Cains have destroyed it for all of us.

Daniel Raventós is a lecturer in Economics at the University of Barcelona and author inter alia of Basic Income: The Material Conditions of Freedom (Pluto Press, 2007). He is on the editorial board of the international political review Sin Permiso.   Julie Wark is an advisory board member of the international political review Sin Permiso. Her last book is The Human Rights Manifesto (Zero Books, 2013).

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