Issue 241 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
Readers jammed the Sun 'asylum hotline' last month to say, 'We're the laughing stock of Europe' because of the way in which eastern European Gypsies are allowed to claim asylum in Britain. To prove the point the Sun's intrepid reporters, along with journalists from the Daily Mail and the Evening Standard, flew to Romania to discover 'Gypsy palaces...festooned with marble and gold' in 'Beverly Hills', Bucharest. Good socialist that you are, you will want this article to tell you the numbers and how many have been given full asylum in Britain and are now 'safe'. Guess, write down the number and read through to the end, where you will find the answer.
Meantime let us recognise that--just as Hitler could point to rich Jews, so there are better off Gypsies. 'Better off' rather than rich, because their palaces are not quite at the level of Ceausescu, and not quite at the level of the westernised Bucharest hotels that the Sun's reporters most likely stayed in.
And, yes, it is true that some money dribbles back from Britain to families in Romania and other parts of eastern Europe. In a country living on the edge of destitution, with a Gypsy community in which the majority take it for granted that their lives will be bound by discrimination and oppression, the few dollars or marks that you hide in a package, and which you pray survives the search procedures to get home (it often won't) can make all the difference.
But this is not the way it is presented here, because of all racisms anti-Gypsy racism is the most acceptable. Hitler managed to get rid of half a million Gypsies. A couple of months ago two Gypsy survivors of the Holocaust were compensated for their suffering and offered £200 each. Where? In Bucharest? No. In London, a short ride from the offices of the Sun, or parliament where the likes of Ann Widdecombe and Barbara Roche compete in preaching their hatred of the asylum seeker.
So how many Gypsies are there in eastern Europe? The answer is that we do not know. Many Gypsies are frightened to identify their origins. Look at the figures (below) for Romania, that land of 'Gypsy palaces'. When the last census was held there it is estimated that over four fifths of those with Gypsy backgrounds hid it rather than risk official discrimination. And the variation in the estimates for other countries reveals the same fear mechanism at work. In neighbouring Bulgaria, where conditions are difficult, but better, the majority still preferred to hide what they were. After all, the Nazis had used census records for their own ends and Gypsies know that they are the universal scapegoat east and west. Dressed in folk costumes, dancing and singing, they evoke a romantic image for the tourist. In real life they are 'black' (their term) and this is white society. They are at the bottom, reviled whenever they appear in real life.
Contrary to popular belief, Gypsies in eastern Europe do not 'roam'. They are oppressed in ghettos, and trapped in the worst housing. The language is brutal--no political correctness here, -- for Gypsies are beyond political correctness. Under the Communist regime Gypsies were regimented. But the paradox of the regime was that it regulated everyone. With the transition, however, Gypsy communities collapsed as the industries on which they were based collapsed. Unemployment for working class Gypsies rose to 60 percent, to 70 percent, and even higher in some places. Middle class Gypsies now found themselves the object of suspicion too. Skinheads found their ideal victims and the authorities stood by, and often stand by, while they do their worst. The victims of anti-Gypsy violence are only known approximately but they grow by the month.
The governments of eastern Europe admit this, but they are also happy to show their brochures about how much is being done for the Gypsies. And here the sorry tale gets worse. When the walls came tumbling down in eastern Europe many believed that the door to the European Union would be opened. But it remains shut. It will only be opened if the applicant countries have vigorous market economies, which means bankrupting even more industries. But they must also have a good minority rights record which means, in part, treating Gypsies fairly. The contradiction is obvious, for it is the economic bankruptcy that is the breeding ground for the despair and hate that seek their revenge in attacking scapegoats.
It is because of this hypocrisy that the leaders of eastern Europe are so willing to present a good image of the way they treat their 'Gypsies' to prove their worth, even as they discriminate against them and deny them full citizenship rights. In the Czech Republic one local government even tried to build a wall round Gypsy housing to establish a new formal ghetto.
But the hypocrisy of the EU is wider still. Many argue that it should force the eastern European governments to contain racism. Yet it is EU politicians who happily connive in outdoing one another to close its borders and condemn the victims of the system they happily preside over. But don't worry--the EU has also set up a European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia with an action plan that enjoins politicians and newspaper editors not to stir up hatred against immigrants. Perhaps if you ask the editor of the Sun, Ann Widdecombe and Barbara Roche to have it as bedtime reading? But then probably not.
And the figure of Gypsies who had applications for asylum accepted by the UK government by late 1999? Three.