We don’t need to look further than Australian discourses about parasitical migrants arriving by boat to see how arguments of the past are played out again and again. In the Australian example, successive governments have repressed the truth about who actually did steal the country after turning up by sea. In the official narrative, the bad guys remain those who are not white – be they Indigenous land owners or asylum seekers.
While the wealth of the colonies funded Europe over hundreds of years, cruelty and slavery were not new to the colonial bureaucrats and masters. But, if colonial societies have become discursive contortionists to appear to break with the bloody past, justification for violence against Romani people in Europe – from legislative and socio-economic exclusion to physical attacks – simply builds on the pre-modern discourses of enslavement.
Romani people are still largely referred to by the names they were given as slaves and outcasts five hundred years ago; they are still stereotyped as dark skinned and uncivilised invaders from the East rather than as citizens of European Union states; physical violence against Roma as a specific ethnic group is not only under-prosecuted but often actually perpetrated by state institutions.
Romani people first appeared in what is now Greece in the ninth century CE, when they were known as Atsingani. This name was associated with non-Christian foreigners in the Byzantine empire. The gradual travel of people called by variations of the word Atsingani, (Țigani in Romania, Cigany in Hungarian, Zigeuner in German, Zingari in Spanish), can be followed west across the European continent.
Between 1385 and 1848, every Romani person who entered Wallachia and Moldova, now the southern and northern parts of Romania, became a slave of the state, who could be bought and sold by the clergy or private landowners. All slaves were known as Țigani, and no Romani person could be free. Țigan was synonymous with ‘slave’, and slave children and families could be separated for sale at any time – they were not citizens. Any free man could rape any slave woman, and if a slave was ‘damaged’ through sex or physical violence, the offender had to pay compensation only to the owner – any child born of a slave belonged to the slave master.
The first Romanian statesmen argued for manumission of the 250,000 slaves. With great ceremony, Țigani slaves were freed in 1848 – to be (still) known as Țigani and to continue living in shacks on the landowners’ estates and working for their board.
Those Roma who migrated West and avoided Wallachia were given safe passage in 1417 within the Holy Roman Empire. Already aware of the power of papers, many Romani leaders drew up documents announcing that they were from Egypt. That was why in England, they were known as Egyptians – and later by the G-word (‘Gypsy’), which remains pejorative to many.
Romani peoples were socio-economically important travelling tradesmen in the medieval communities across Europe. They worked as horse traders, metalworkers, builders, and, most notoriously, as fortune-tellers.
Governments attempted to control and limit the presence of Roma, alternately legislating their movement and expelling them entirely. In England, for example, ‘Egyptians’ arrived in 1514, were expelled in the Egyptians Act of 1530, were allowed back in 1540, were deported en masse to Norway in 1544, and so on. At various stages, Romani people were branded with a G on their forehead – surely the most explicit sign that, if Roma were to be allowed to exist in England, it would only be under the physical control of those who pejoratively named them. During the Second World War, hundreds of thousands of Romani people across Europe were deported to concentration camps and murdered under the names Zigeuner/Cigany/Țigan alongside those of their countrymen who were named Jews.
The refusal of Europeans to refer to Romani people by the names they call themselves continues. The EU today does not force the Italian, Czech, Romanian, Hungarian or French governments (to name a few) to prosecute or prevent violent crimes against Romani communities. On the contrary, the governments themselves continue to demolish Romani slums (without providing alternate accommodation) and deport EU citizens because they are Roma. As Nando Sigona has highlighted, teachers and doctors are now also used to monitor the movements of European Roma in the UK for the purposes of racialised border control. Valeriu Nicolae, who has worked for over a decade with the European Commission on ‘Roma integration’ projects, also writes what everyone knows: the money is not spent on Romani communities in need; the laws are not used to punish violent anti-Roma policies. The money is spent for white bureaucrats to discuss ‘the Roma problem’ in conferences held at five star hotels. Romani people continue to provide black market labour, especially illegal underage sexual labour, in the European Union.
The diaries of Romani slave owners in the eighteenth century read very similarly to the speeches of politicians in the European Union about Romani people today. The slaves (today, the Roma) are the problem. They don’t want to work. Sure, they are poor, they are hungry, they have no homes (clothes, passports, identity cards) but they refuse to behave.
Romani slaves were accused of wandering away from their masters, of being irrationally unable to live separate from their children and partners who were sold to another master. Today, Roma people are a problem because they travel across borders within the European Union to join family members working where they can.
Slaves needed constant education about the civilised world: how to work until the clock said it was time to rest, how to not upset the master if he spoke to them. Today, Roma people need education about ‘European values’ – despite the fact that it is the staff in hospitals across Europe who refuse to issue the paperwork for birth certificates for children to prevent them accessing future health care, education or welfare within their own state.
Slave owners lamented the energy it took to control and educate the Țigani slaves. Masters had to whip slaves, tie them up, sell troublemakers to far away estates – and all the while the slave women were seen as promiscuous household servants, there to be physically exploited in all ways.
Today, European police forces combine their efforts across the continent, scouring impoverished Romani communities for stolen blonde children, and finding them everywhere. Meanwhile Romani children are drugged, trafficked, and sold into prostitution to non-Romani Europeans – and their parents cannot find police to prevent this happening.
Then, slave masters complained of social pressure to clothe their near-naked slave possessions. Now, the European Union is pressured to write a statement to the Italian government regarding the ‘nomad camps’ where all Romani asylum seekers have been put since the 1970s, without being allowed to apply for asylum or citizenship. Italian citizens often violently attack the ‘nomad camps’, and the Red Cross fingerprint every Roma person over the age of three months in the camps.
Yes, the Italian government complains that Roma are criminals even as babies, and they need the help of charities to protect ‘their’ people from those who have been there for three generations, working without papers in the worst jobs in Italy.
The way that Roma are stereotyped, spoken about, and targeted in government policy now in Europe has not changed since the times of slavery, persecution and the Holocaust. The single important difference is that, in the time of slavery, Romani people could not be killed without the master receiving compensation, a deterrent to physical violence against them. Today in the European Union, however, there is virtually no deterrent to anti-Romani violence at all.
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