Roma Rights and Brexit: Understanding the Rights of Others

by Abhaya Ganashree

The narratives of inclusion and diversity were very much at the centre of ongoing debates in the UK when I first moved here. Immigration, discrimination and inequality were being widely discussed as always, but now with increased fervour after the Brexit referendum. In the few years since then it has become painfully clear that the challenges faced by minority groups will only be heightened once Brexit becomes a reality.

One such group I would like to particularly focus on are the Romanis, whose way of life resembles those of gypsies or travelling people. For those who are unfamiliar with the subject, the Romanis are native to India and have had a long history of persecution, discrimination and abuse. This migrant group is said to have entered Europe in the 12th century. Over the centuries, they have been treated as pariahs of society, due to the idea that travelling people are often seen as untrustworthy. They have been enslaved, hanged, deported to colonies and slaughtered without impunity. Women and children alike have been subject to atrocious treatment. During the Second World War, the Romanis were once again persecuted by the Nazis, who embarked on a systematic genocide which the Romanis refer to as ‘Pharrajimos’; they were marked for extermination, imprisoned in concentration camps and shot at sight. The night of August 2nd, 1944 saw the peak of this genocide, which saw the death of 500,000 Romanis – accounting for 25% of European Roma. Post-WWII their persecution continued. In 1945, Romani women were sterilised to reduce their population as part of the Czechoslovakian state policy. New cases of forced sterilisation were recorded up until 2004. A 2016 report showed that 45% of people held a negative view of the Roma population.

Academics and human rights lawyers have found growing intolerance towards the travelling people in post-legislative UK. Between 1968 and 1994, all of the UK’s major political parties agreed that the travelling people should be given decent accommodation. When the law was passed in 1968, 80% of travelling people had nowhere to live and this had reduced to 30% at the time of its repeal in 1994. The present moment has been characterised by activists as one of rising intolerance due to the repeal of the 1968 law. Parliament now seems to view travelling people as the problem, rather than the problem being the social regulatory system outlawing their way of life.

The story of Roma rights is one of sizeable victories and huge setbacks. Even when UK law obligated councils to provide them with decent accommodation, few complied and most provided isolated and environmentally unsuitable accommodation. Even though the courts strongly curbed the eviction powers of such councils, these councils then responded by following a policy of rendering inaccessible most places at which Travelling People camped. Over the years, both domestic UK courts and the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg have seemed unsympathetic to the plight of this minority and incapable of delivering strong and imaginative judgments in their favour. The loss of their right to decent accommodation has cost the Roma people their health and their children’s education.

But this story is one of victories as well, and the Roma people have since become politically active and institutions such as the European Roma Rights Centre have been set up to champion their rights. Since the centre was founded in 1996, it has come a long way in both raising awareness of the plight of the Roma people as well as fighting for their rights. The centre has been instrumental in preserving their rights against ill-treatment, right to housing and equal treatment in education.

In the UK, however, Brexit is another setback in the narrative.  In the past, some Roma people have said that the diversity of the UK population allows them to blend in and avoid the stigmatisation that has plagued them for centuries. But with the Brexit vote, this security has come under strain. A report published by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) recognises that post-Brexit the Roma community in the UK will face a ‘triple-whammy’ of challenges legally, socially and financially.

Legally, there is some uncertainty about the status of Romani people post-Brexit. This has seemed to create increasing unrest among their population. In order to apply for ‘settled status’ as proposed by the government, they would have to complete a timely online application form. This raises the question of accessibility due to language and literacy barriers. Their ‘suitability’ might also come into question. As a result of anti-Roma sentiment and their subsequent criminalisation in their countries of origin, many Roma people have criminal records. Furthermore, due to their low levels of literacy or education, most Roma people are employed irregularly by ‘gang masters’.

Socially, as a vulnerable group with a history of being persecuted and discriminated against in Europe, the surge of reported hate crime reported after the vote is likely to instil feelings of insecurity. It is well-known that Roma people face substantial discrimination in the fields of education, employment and housing; owing to language and literacy barriers, they are unable to access the NHS. The plight of Roma women is even worse as they face discrimination within their own communities.  The UK response to EU Framework of National Roma Integration Strategies has garnered a lot of criticism and much work needs to be done. Brexit will only serve as another setback to the social rights of this much maligned ethnic group. Their cause will even suffer financially, as funding from the EU for Roma integrations services is likely to cease.

The UK government has set out its Brexit plan in the White Paper and its letter to Donald Tusk triggering Article 50.  Although the plan conveys a European sentiment in referring to ‘our continent’ or ‘fellow Europeans’, there is a conspicuous absence of separate stipulations for minority rights. Unsurprisingly, the government is more concerned with post-Brexit trade relations with the EU.

Liberal democracies are mechanisms of domination and empowerment. It is important to acknowledge that two Britains co-exist in this narrative – a cosmopolitan Britain that fights isolationism and defends the rights of the vulnerable, and a conservative Britain keen to return to nationalistic values but perseveres to preserve feelings of sympathy.

As a result, the next few years are going to bring about uneasy questions and perhaps some unpalatable answers. But in furtherance of the Roma cause, it is important to keep in mind that being told to return to their countries of origin would only result in further persecution. The only practical and proactive solution would be to allow heterogeneous migrant voices to be heard. If migrants are treated merely as objects of these policies, we will only be repeating history by failing to understand those with different needs and realities. We would be failing to empathise with their basic need for human dignity.