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Living on the Fringes: Roma in Europe Today

On Februrary 23, 2009, Robert Csorba and his four-year-old son Robert, Jr. were shot dead as they ran from their burning home that had been firebombed in Tatárszentgyörgy, Hungary. The attack became the latest in a series that involved Molotov cocktails to set ablaze houses that belonged to Romani families. According to Human Rights First, these attacks "reveal a widespread pattern of violence that is often directed both at causing immediate harm to Roma -- without distinction between adults, the elderly, and small children -- and physically eradicating the presence of Roma in towns and cities in several European countries."

For centuries, Europeans stigmatized the Roma, sometimes referred to as gypsies, as social outcasts and scapegoats. When World War II broke out in 1939, the Nazi regime intensified its persecution of the Roma, transporting them to ghettos and concentration camps across Europe. While it is not known precisely how many Roma were killed in the Holocaust, scholars believe that the Nazis killed up to 220,000 Roma, which was around one-quarter of the entire population of European Roma.

Today, the Roma make up perhaps the largest minority group in Europe. While they do not face the existential threat they once did during the Holocaust, the Roma continue to suffer from violent hate crimes and state discrimination, including police abuse, segregation in housing and education, and cases of coercive sterilization of Romani women in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

In an alarming series of actions in 2007 and 2008, Italy's national government and municipal authorities pursued dedicated policies aimed at driving out their Roma population. Claiming a security interest, emergency decrees required the registration of all Roma in major Italian cities, and a census was used as an excuse to fingerprint and photograph Romani people, including children. Encouraged by these official acts, mobs formed that attacked Roma residents and burned Roma settlements to the ground.

Despite being party to agreements that forbid these actions, many countries in Europe have failed -- whether through indifference or intentional disregard -- to protect the Roma community. Responding to calls from human rights activists to do more to end violence and discrimination against the Roma, members of the European Commission and the European Parliament have issued repeated criticisms. These have, however, proven largely ineffective against the entrenched prejudices that have kept the Roma on the fringes of European society.

For more information, please visit the Open Society Institute, the European Roma Rights Centre, or listen to the Voices on Genocide Prevention podcast interview with Rob Kushen, Managing Director of the European Roma Rights Centre.