Artur Conka

The Romani population migrated from India to Europe in the 12th century and became one of Europe’s most significant minorities. Since then, Roma have been widely persecuted across the continent. The persecution of Romani populations came to an apex in World War II and their brutal massacre during the Holocaust.

On August 31st, 2020, staff writer Juliette Chesnel met with the founder of Romanipe, Dafina Savic. Romanipe is a Canadian non-for-profit organisation founded in 2013 whose main mission is to defend the human rights and the dignity of Romani populations. The organisations leads the efforts toward the recognition of the Genocide of Roma and Sinti during the Holocaust.

Romanipe seeks bringing dignity to Roma. What does this mission entail?

We wanted to focus on dignity because the very humanity of Roma as a people is something that we still have to fight for on a daily basis, especially in North America. Indeed, Roma have been present in North America for at least – if not before – the 1900s and it is their invisibility that contributed to their emancipation because most people do not know who Roma are.

Focusing on dignity is hugely important because we also wanted to shift away from a rhetoric of stereotypes. The current human rights discourse is very oriented around fighting the stereotypes that are used today as a vehicle to justify human rights violations against Roma.

Troublingly, these stereotypes mirror the rhetoric that was used during the Second World War. Roma continue to be portrayed as asocial criminals. A rhetoric was used to justify the persecution and mass murder of Roma and Sinti during the Holocaust and is still used today.

We often hear that in order to fight against anti-Roma discrimination, we must counter stereotypes. However, it is essential to acknowledge that the right to life, to security and to equality is a universal one that should be granted to every human being regardless of whether or not they fit a stereotype. That is why we are focusing on fighting for the human rights and dignity of Roma.

As you said, Roma suffer from a lot of stereotypes and society only knows so little about these populations.

Indeed, yes, and essentially racism against Roma is still normalized. They are not seen as human beings in many countries.

We often confuse social behaviour with humanity and identity when it comes to Roma and we use those to justify discrimination and violence. The romanticisation of Roma in the media and literature throughout history has and continues to dehumanize us.

Being Roma is often portrayed as a lifestyle choice, as an expression of liberty and freedom, as a nomadic and romantic life, especially in North America. These representations are not only very far from reality, but they also have detrimental effects on Roma. In Italy for example, the placement of Roma in camps is a direct result of this perception of Roma being nomads. The camps are in fact called “Campi di Nomadi”. We always try to mix culture and social behaviour when the real issue at stake is the identity of people.

The plight of Roma in North America is invisible, but worldwide the presence of Roma has been portrayed in a very negative light, especially in literature and films. It contributes to the dehumanization of Romani as a people because we often equate criminal behaviour or nomadic lifestyle to Roma identity. That is one of the most common stereotypes that is used against Roma to justify hatred and discrimination. It is the same thing when we talk about asylum seekers and migration when it affects Roma or the sterilization of Romani women for example. So, the issues that are affecting Roma are often reduced to social behaviours or stereotypes and what we want to do is really shift the conversation towards human rights.

I think it is safe to say that the Romani population suffers from great discrimination in Canada. 

The situation in Canada and the situation in Europe are quite distinct for many different reasons. In Canada, Roma are not a visible minority because the demographic pool and diversity that exists means it is not easy to recognize that someone that is Roma. Whereas in Europe Roma are very visible minority, mostly due to the color of their skin.

The historical context of Canada and Europe are also quite distinct. We see that walls are built in at least 25 European countries to separate Roma from non-Roma citizens. There were cases of forced sterilization, killings, and anti-Roma Nazi marches with active call for violence. There is also the rise of the far-right in Europe which promotes a dialogue of hatred and discrimination and the history of those very countries, namely the history of the Holocaust, which happened on Roma gene soil. And of course, there is a bigger population of Roma in Europe than there is in Canada, so in Canada they have been able to emancipate due to their relative invisibility.

Can we say it is a state of equality, in Canada?

It is questionable because when your equality comes from of your invisibility it cannot be considered full equality. There were many different events where Roma migrated to Canada. There was the 1900 stander’s group, a second group from the Hungarian revolution in 1956 and then in the late 1990s two group from the Czech Republic and the Balkan wars came as war refugees. Then starting in 2012 we saw Roma, for the first time since 1997, coming to Canada as refugees escaping ethnic oppression and persecution in Europe. Even though Canada have their own gross human rights violations, namely with their indigenous peoples, Canada was a model of equality for Roma in Europe.

However, in 2012 the enactment of Bill C-31 essentially targeted Roma as bogus refugees who came from “safe” countries and publicly stated that Canada did not want to accept Roma because they were criminals seeking to abuse the social welfare system. The list of safe countries was basically decided arbitrarily. There were no standards by which those countries were identified as “safe” and no inquiry into who are they were safe for in reality. In countries like Hungary, for example, there were killings of Roma in 2012. It was clear that it was not a safe place because Roma were killed simply for being Roma. Therefore, Romanipe called for the government to revise the safe country list and to eliminate Bill C-31.

Fortunately, after many years of advocacy, the government complied with these requests in 2019. That was one of our core missions because we were working a lot of unjust deportations and also talking about the responsibility of the Canadian government to receive people escaping discrimination and gross human rights violations in Europe.

To give a bit of context here, in 2013, the government initiated a billboard campaign in the predominant countries of origin of Roma claimants in order to deter Roma from seeking asylum in Canada. Canada is often perceived as the archetype of a refugee-friendly country, but its doors remained closed to Roma until 2019. Why was the government curbing Roma immigration in particular?

It is very hard to answer to the question of “why Roma”. We need to understand that at the time of the billboard campaign Canada and Europe were in the middle of discussing the CETA agreement. One of the conditions that Bulgaria and Romania requested before signing that agreement was to lift visas on those countries. Those were also the countries where Roma refugees were predominantly coming from so as soon as they lifted the visas, they enacted Bill C-31.  That is why a parallel there can be made with the political economic context of the time and this immigration policy.

On top of that, Roma were facing tremendous human rights violations at the time. The Bill was passed under a conservative government so there were already restrictions on the immigration system. Of course, this did not only affect Roma, but it specifically targeted Roma as being “bogus refugees” who came to Canada to abuse of the social welfare system. There were also cases of profiling by the Canadian Border Services Agency where we saw people being refused access to the plane simply because they looked Roma and that the authorities feared were going to seek asylum. Despite a growth in acceptance rates under the liberal government, the effects of these policies unfortunately continued, and we have seen cases upon cases of unjust deportations until 2019.

Artur Conka

The government adopted a motion to make August 2nd an official day of commemoration and remembrance of the genocide of the Romani people in World War II and I understand from what you are saying that this recognition was long overdue.

It was indeed long overdue. […] In 2013, the first motion that was introduced in the House of Commons was refused under Minister Baird who was the Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time. We have since renewed the efforts to obtain official recognition of the Romani Genocide, but the wide support we received, this request was refused for two years consecutively in 2016 and 2017. It was only in 2018 that the government finally issued a statement in recognition of the Romani genocide. However, without an official act of parliament, the statement remained symbolic. It was important to make this recognition official and to declare August 2nd as the official day of commemoration dedicated to the remembrance of the Romani genocide to honor the Roma and Sinti victims. When we had the statement of recognition by the government two years ago one survivor told us that she could not believe that this was happening. She unfortunately passed away and did not live to see the day that the recognition was officialized.

It took many years for most countries to give Roma that recognition. In Germany, recognition only came in 1982 after Romani Rose, who lost 13 members of his family during the Holocaust, went on a hunger strike. It was his advocacy and his work that led to the recognition. It was only in 2015 that the European parliament recognized August 2nd as the official day of commemoration and remembrance of the Romani genocide. This year Romania and Latvia also officially recognized August 2nd, making Canada one of the very few countries to officially recognize it, along with Croatia, Czechia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Ukraine inter alia.

Memorial pool at the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma victims of National Socialism in Berlin
Filip Maljković – Memorial to the Sinti and Roma victims of National Socialism in Berlin

Do you think this lack of recognition opens the door to discrimination toward Romani communities?

Discrimination has definitely been used to justify the human rights violations of Roma.  I think the first step to prevent future genocides from occurring is to recognize those that have already occurred and understand why they have occurred. That is why we must be mindful of the very present hate speech and the calls for violence and discrimination against Roma as well as the actual acts of violence. We need to react before those situations fester and lead to genocides.

Unfortunately, we often act too late. We see the past being repeated across the world today when it comes to the situation of Roma. We have Roma being killed simply for being Roma, we have seen arson attacks being carried on Romani villages, we have seen Neo-Nazi movements promoting a rhetoric of hatred against Roma and calling for anti-Roma violence, we have seen Romani children forcefully segregated in schools across Europe and, until 2012, Romani women were forcefully sterilized.

I think one of the main examples of discrimination against Roma in Canada was in 1997 when 25 neo-Nazis staged a protest in front of a motel where Roma refugees were staying. This case eventually reached the Supreme Court of Canada in R v Krymowski. What impact did this have?

Romanipe’s founder, Ronald Lee, was very active on that case in Toronto. In terms of impact after the Supreme Court passed down its judgement, the organization has been able to work with police to address and visibilize the situation of Roma in Canada. This case is perhaps the most visible instance of hate speech against Roma in Canada and allowed us to explicitly address the problem. However, in 2012 we saw hate speech and discrimination resurging, so I think, going back to history repeating itself, we have to be mindful of actions of the past. 

The way we react to them will allow us to avoid repeating the same patterns in history today. Just recently there was a class action against the Canadian government around Bill C-31. We are asking for a formal written apology from the government for its discriminatory treatment of Roma under that policy. Not so long ago, we saw the Prime Minister apologizing for the treatment of Jewish Refugees in 1939.  That apology came 80 years after its occurrence so we are hopeful this apology will come much sooner for Roma. We are also hopeful that the government will pursue its engagement to address the ongoing human rights violations Roma face. 

Since their very existence, Roma have been invisiblized and persecuted. They are a group who have experienced human rights violations on different scales throughout their history. The normalization of human rights discrimination and violence against Roma is ongoing. Raising awareness about the plight of the Romani populations is therefore essential to prevent the history of their struggle from falling into oblivion.

Juliette Chesnel

Juliette Chesnel is a Political Science major and International Development and Russian language minor at McGill University, Canada.

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