It’s time to take the human rights of Roma seriously

Focus for discrimination: Roma people in France. Alain Bachellier

Two families in Ireland will have spent last weekend trying to forget the drama that engulfed their lives last week. Garda officers arrived on their doorsteps and took away young children on the spurious grounds that they looked insufficiently like their parents. The families had one thing in common. They were Roma.

The children were taken into temporary care, amid a media frenzy, until DNA tests and the production of birth certificates and other documentation, proved they were who their parents said they were. The garda said they were acting in good faith by taking the children away, an assurance that has been accepted by the taoiseach (prime minister), Enda Kenny, and the minister for justice, Alan Shatter. “I don’t accept at all that there would be any institutionalised racial tendencies within the gardai,” Kenny told the Irish Independent. However, Alan Shatter has expressed concerns about these cases and declared his intention to review them.

Last week’s media frenzy began with the discovery of a young girl called Maria – dubbed the “blonde angel” because of her blue eyes and blond hair – at a Roma encampment in Greece. Maria’s story led directly to the removal of the two children in Ireland after members of the public who had seen Maria’s story contacted the garda to alert them to children in their area who, in their opinion, were too fair to be Roma.

The furore has reignited right wing anti-Roma hatred across Europe, ranging from Serb neo-Nazis trying to abduct a child in Novi Sad who was not “as dark as their parents” to Italy’s Northern League MPs calling for across-the-board inspections in all Italian Roma camps for missing children.

Many human rights advocates, including the director of the European Roma Rights Centre, fear that the racial profiling from the past few days will lead to more indiscriminate raids on Roma settlements and more cases of child removal on ethnic grounds. More broadly, they are concerned this climate will represent a setback for the integration efforts that have been made by civil society groups and international institutions over the past several years, particularly in Europe, where many of the estimated 11 million Roma settled on the continent pursue a sedentary life.

There are indeed many reasons for caution and reflection. Countering the centuries-old stereotype of the child-stealing “gypsy”, a Roma lawyer and civil rights activist in Bulgaria told the BBC last week that Roma families have in fact been traditionally keen to adopt children abandoned by families, including non-Roma ones. Whether a crime has been committed by Roma members in Greece or Bulgaria, or whether Maria’s case can have a different explanation, will hopefully be the subject of a thorough inquiry. But whatever the outcome, the fallout from these incidents is bound to transcend their specific dynamics.

Human rights legal framework

What is at stake is effectively whether we are capable of distinguishing alleged or proven offences by individuals, regardless of their ethnic background, from forms of collective punishment against minorities that have been unfairly treated and demonised for centuries.

It matters that we understand racial profiling is morally and legally unacceptable. It matters that we comply with specific obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the European Convention on Human Rights. These obligations state that child removal be conditional on parental consent or otherwise tightly construed and evidence-based best interests of the child, or require it to be assessed against rights to respect for private and family life. It matters that we recognise the need to act on multiple internal and international statistics revealing disproportionate representation of Roma children in state care institutions, segregated educational facilities, and precarious settlements from which they are likely to be forcibly evicted together with entire families.

From a human rights perspective, the European Court of Human Rights has addressed, and continues to address, many of these questions acknowledging their systemic nature. There are least two points that can be brought home in this context. One is that no state measures can be taken against Roma individuals and communities that are not in accordance with the principle of proportionality. States are under an obligation to pursue the least intrusive forms of intervention. Child removals are only a last resort and cannot take place solely on grounds of poverty, let alone ethnicity. Convincing evidence of a real risk of abuse is needed.

Proportionality will be measured by the extent to which the special needs of Roma as a minority were properly taken into account, particularly in terms of support to Roma families and their involvement in the relevant decision-making process. It is on this basis, for example, that Strasbourg has found breaches of Article 8 of the Convention (right to private and family life) in connection with eviction proceedings against Roma and Travellers by the UK, Bulgaria, and France.

The second point is that special vigilance is required of states parties in the context of racial discrimination under Article 14. The notion of indirect discrimination has been widely upheld by the Court in cases where segregation of Roma children in schools were found to have stemmed from general policies on, for example, learning disabilities or language deficiencies.

Triggered by several European Roma Rights Centre-sponsored applications, this new line of argument is the latest legal response to Roma’s endemic economic deprivation and social exclusion. It has begun to gradually expose structural dimensions of abuse across Europe and the need for effective public policies to combat this abuse. This approach has several components and may or may not be prompted solely by statistical data. The most basic requirement is for the authorities to conduct an investigation into possible racist motives behind a particular act or practice which may turn out to be incompatible with the Convention.

One can only hope that ongoing investigations in Bulgaria, Greece, and Ireland will generate responsible narratives and action on the part of the authorities and the media in the days and weeks to come. In times of economic crises and strong anxieties over national and sub-national identities, being able to tackle Roma’s poor living conditions and appalling marginalisation while respecting their distinctive way of life is bound to prove one of the most challenging tests: not only for individual countries, but also for Europe’s chances to survive as a meaningful transnational project.