EU Struggling to Preserve Human Rights

Ana Turck • Feb 09, 2009

The European Union is facing a challenge regarding the preservation of human rights as the economic downturn creates fertile ground for governmental terrorism against socially marginalized people. Recession and job losses, rising crime and homelessness are all helping to refuel racism in public and private discourse, creating an environment ripe for hate crimes and policies that threaten to annihilate specific groups of people.

Some of the most vulnerable groups are undocumented immigrants, who in many instances could be viewed as economic refugees. The creation of the EU, and the free movement of labor across borders is seen by those fleeing economic and civil calamities as an opportunity to feed their families. A new wave of undocumented immigrants is finding Italy a perfect point of entry, and many are staying.

The Italian economy, which has been in a severe recession for almost ten years, cannot bear this influx of cheap labor. To thwart undocumented immigration, Italy has passed several new laws. Many of these laws, such as the detention of undocumented immigrants, mandates prison sentences for up to 18 months. This, along with a recent decision for the wholesale fingerprinting of entire populations is a violation of basic human rights, and is helping sanction violence against foreigners.

Bearing the brunt of these attacks is the Roma population. The government’s disregard for their human rights is justifying mob attacks and an overall hateful environment. While dissenting voices are present, finding a solid platform for that dissent is challenging in a fragile economic situation.

But the Roma’s continuous struggle for human dignity and civil rights is obscured since they are regarded as a problematic undocumented immigrant demographic. However, the issue of citizenship and the sociopolitical marginalization of Roma is not a new concept brought on by the Italian crisis. For centuries Roma have been forced to the outskirts of societies, having to justify their right to existence, fight pogroms, forced assimilation and systemic attempts to destroy their language, culture and history.

The color of their skin, differences in language and a culture unlike that of mainstream Europe has made them an easy target to scapegoat. A long history of ostracism and discrimination in their native countries of Eastern Europe has created environments in which survival was possible only on the margins of society. Self-preservation for Roma meant community isolation, and this helped fuel further distrust and fear from mainstream society.

Privately, Roma are marked as a menace to civilized Europe, a problem that will never go away. Many Europeans instruct their children to avoid Roma since they” steal and kill at the drop of a hat.” This culture of distrust is reflected by the Roma community into an instrument of mutual antagonism.

Cultural racism fuels public policies that are direct violations of basic civil and human rights. Through forced sterilizations in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, the relegation of Roma children to segregated classrooms with reduced curriculum and a complete denial of secondary education, the rights and privileges of citizenship are denied. The Roma are officially mandated to an existence on the margins of society.

This criminalization of an entire group of people is not a symptom of the economic crisis. The issue has a long and checkered history. It is also not unique that scapegoating of certain ethnic, racial or national groups is rising to dangerous and often tragic levels at such times. What is different now is that we have examples of this sort of hate to call upon, and a responsibility to heed the bitter lessons of the past. The only question remaining now is will we?

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