Monday, May 26, 2014

The Roma - The Vote As A Weapon

The Euro-elections are over and the right-wing anti-immigrant parties are crowing about their success. It should be mentioned that if organized as a nation-state, the EU’s Roma community of 6 million would qualify for 13 seats in the European Parliament, as many as Denmark, Finland or Slovakia. The poverty of the Roma community is longstanding. After the horrors of World War II, when approximately half a million Roma were killed in the Holocaust, the community slowly began to assimilate into the labour market by gaining employment in the ‘communist'-era factories that dominated the landscape. However, after the fall of state-capitalism and the region’s exposure to the forces of globalisation, most of these factories were closed and the markets where Roma sold their traditional handicrafts swept away by competing cheaper imports from Asia. This compounded the poverty of the Roma — driving many into unsafe, dilapidated housing and a life of unemployment with no access to public services. Many Roma children do not attend school, and those who do attend find themselves in segregated classes receiving substandard education.

EU officials are rarely held accountable for the failure to deliver better housing, health care, schools, or safety from discrimination and violence for the group. Many low-income Roma, who live in dire poverty, invest most of their time and energy trying to meet immediate basic needs — a struggle that is made all the more difficult by discrimination and violations of human rights, including police brutality and insufficient recourse to the judicial system. Massive debt — incurred through loan sharks, since Roma are usually shut out from banks and normal lending — has reduced the community to destitution and a dependency resembling slavery. Too many suffer from the effects of illiteracy spanning generations, depriving Roma of any ability to get a decent job.

 In 2007 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Roma children in the Czech Republic face systematic discrimination from a policy that channels them into special schools for those with mental disabilities. The Czech government has yet to take steps to remedy continuing school segregation. Illegal Roma housing evictions are rampant around Europe. In one instance in 2010, the mayor of Cluj-Napoca, Romania, forcibly evicted around 300 Roma in the depths of a bitterly cold winter, moving them to a site near a waste dump. Similarly, last year a Hungarian court sentenced three neo-Nazis to life in prison for a murder spree against Roma; in one attack, where a father and son were shot to death as they fled their burning home, the police originally classified the attack and murders as the result of a domestic fire.

Each election season, politicians across Eastern Europe manipulate, bribe, extort and threaten the Roma community into selling their vote to local gangsters in the pocket of political parties. Some voters select multiple candidates so as not to show any favoritism, thus spoiling their ballots. But most Roma voters are pressed to sell their ballots for a sack of flour or surrender them in the face of intimidation from creditors, or mafiosi who endanger their families. This leads to voter apathy, disillusionment and a sense of political powerlessness. Evidence comes from the Institute of Public Environment Development, a nonprofit that promotes political and social change in Bulgaria that the exploitation of impoverished Roma populations by local mafias leads many to consider whether the money or goods they receive in exchange for their vote will do more good than using the ballot box to effect change. Some are threatened with dismissal from work if they don’t vote a certain way. Buoyed by these kinds of manipulation, politicians elected in this way sit in national parliaments with little regard for the plight of the Roma who elected them.

 Roma communities are increasingly becoming aware of the underlying causes of their own predicament and taking action. Political and economic empowerment is key to ending the Roma community’s continued marginalisation. The Roma must also move beyond the focus on social welfare programs dominated by gadje (outsiders) and tap into their political and economic potential.  This could take many forms including self-organisation; rooting out structural obstacles such as debt, evictions or generational illiteracy, which entrench dependency among new generations of Roma; overcoming harassment by loan sharks and vote brokers; enhancing accurate counts of the Roma population; and improving voter education, registration, turnout and keeping the elected accountable. Voting alone cannot solve the problems Roma face, but making sure they have real access to the ballot box will go a long way toward the lasting change Europe’s Roma so desperately need.

Taken from here

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