BERLIN -- In mid-October, French police interrupted a school fieldtrip to whisk away a 15-year-old girl. Her crime? Officially, the French government had just turned down the family’s asylum request and decided it couldn’t wait until the end of the school day to get her and her family out of the country.
Police escorted her off a bus filled with her classmates and she was quickly expelled to Kosovo, a country where she had never lived.
Many believe the bum’s rush was really a reaction to the girl’s ethnicity, Romani, or in the more common and derogatory word, Gypsy. Experts say that harsh treatment is all too common for members of one of the last ethnic groups in Europe for whom slurs and abuse remain widely acceptable.
A report by the charity group Oxfam recently described the Roma “as the most vulnerable and deprived ethnic group within Europe.” It went on to say Romani are “disproportionately affected by poverty and discriminated against in employment, education, health care, administrative and other services” and that “they face considerable obstacles to the full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
The story of Leonarda Dibrani’s expulsion from France took a surprising turn. Hundreds of French students and supporters flooded the streets of Paris to demand that she be allowed to return in what many thought might mark a turning point in deeply negative views Europeans hold of their centuries-old neighbors.
But such hope disappeared within days when news outlets reported that a Greek Roma family might have abducted a blond girl who police found when they searched a Roma settlement north of Athens as part of a drugs and weapons investigation.
A Greek children’s charity official quickly noted: “This case has reinforced our suspicions of Roma involvement in child trafficking. . . . Blond, blue-eyed children are clearly being targeted.”
It was a stereotype that stretches back centuries. The Spanish author Cervantes in 1613 made child theft the theme of his story “The Little Gypsy Girl.”
“The Italians gorged themselves on this story of a little blonde girl who they believe was snatched by evil Gypsies,” said Rome-based human rights attorney Claudia Tavani. “This is despite the fact that, to this day, it has never once been proven that the Roma have had anything to do with kidnapping.”
Tavani said the recent European economic crisis has increased discrimination, especially in struggling nations such as Greece and Italy. When times are tough, people want scapegoats, and the Roma, who are thought to have originated in northern India but have lived in Europe since the 1300s, are an easy target.
In Italy, the Roma are trotted out every time a government or a politician is in trouble, Tavani said. “Politicians see easy votes in vowing to rid Italy of these thieves, robbers and kidnappers,” she said.
The demonization of the Roma is hardly limited to Italy.
In Slovakia, city governments build walls around Gypsy camps. In the Czech Republic, neo-Nazis lead protests against their presence. Famously tolerant Norway banned outdoor camping in Oslo to keep homeless Roma away.
In Romania, a right-wing political party recently offered cash to any Roma woman who would get sterilized. In France, Gilles Bourdouleix, a 53-year-old member of Parliament, this summer said of the Roma: “Maybe Hitler didn’t kill enough of them.”