International Roma Day on 8 April is a key date to mark Romani culture, made more significant in Romania since the passing of last year’s landmark legislation there, to combat hate-speech against the Roma – the first law of its kind in Europe.
Nonetheless, racist slurs and hate speech spiked on social media during the COVID-19 pandemic, with some people going as far as blaming the Roma - who are Romania’s largest ethnic minority - for the spread of the virus.
“Hate-speech is especially present in times of crisis,” said Csaba Ferenc Asztalos, President of the National Council for Combating Discrimination, Romania’s anti-discrimination and equality body. “Resources are less, society is more tense, competition is higher, and then people resort to prejudices, false news, to gain or to maintain economic or political power. In this context, the Roma are the target of prejudice.”
Legal force questioned
Many wonder whether the law, which has seen no convictions to date, will be effective in curbing hate speech. A former member of parliament who spearheaded the law, Daniel Vasile, considers it essential, to protect the basic human rights of Romania’s Roma minority.
“This law is to punish the dehumanization of human beings — when people aren't treated as humans anymore,” Mr. Vasile said.
“There are manifestations of hatred that are based on the perception that Roma are not actually human beings. So, you need a legal mechanism to defend our fundamental right, namely our right to life.”
Off the grid, on the margins
Living standards in Romania have been rising rapidly in recent years, with some of the highest economic growth rates in the European Union. Yet many Roma people are still having to endure social and economic exclusion, in addition to hate speech and discrimination.
All around Romania there are signs of Roma people living off the grid, in places where social services and utilities are scarce or nonexistent.
“Lack of infrastructure brings bad education, and bad education brings bad jobs, or no jobs, and so on. If you go to a Roma community even today, you will understand what it is, because there end the resources”, said Ciprian Necula, a human rights defender and journalist, who has devoted much of his life to changing the narrative about Roma people.
“You know, you can see (that the) road is ending, electricity is ending, water is ending, all the resources are ending,” whenever you approach a Roma community, he added.
These inequities have been hard-wired into Romanian society for hundreds of years. “Basically, Roma were slaves in the 14th century in Romania. And that's the history of Roma for the next 500 years. We've been slaves for 500 years and nothing else,” Mr. Necula said.
The anti-hate speech legislation, along with many other efforts by human rights defenders, aim to address some of the injustices of the past, curb hate speech and discrimination in its current manifestations, and pave the way to a better future.
Writing a new script
“I had to fight what the history brought into my life, the box where history put me, and the fact that to be born a Roma woman in the Romanian society is not the winning ticket,” said Alina Serban.
Ms. Serban is an actor, and the first person in her family to not only finish high school, but also continue to university. She is also the first Roma woman ever in Romania to earn acclaim as a theatre and film director.
Ms. Serban, whose plays have made the stage at the Romanian National Theatre, said that she has been driven to succeed in part because of the need to represent her community, but that being open about her roots is a double-edged sword.
“If I make a mistake, it’s ‘ah, it's the gypsies, I knew you guys would behave this way,’” Ms. Serban explained, insisting that anyone else would be given a second chance.
“Given the ideas of the majority, if you live in this society, it is virtually impossible for anti-gypsy sentiments not to come out,” said Daniel Vasile, a former lawmaker, pointing out that what begins as hate speech can easily end in violence.
Victimised and beaten
“I wanted to be cooperative, to communicate with them,” said Andreea Dragomir, who was roughed up by security guards in a hypermarket in her native Brasov in 2020, when she was 18.
Her case made the headlines after a national news organization ran her story on the Observator Antena1 Romania channel.
Ms. Dragomir said that she was suspected of shoplifting, simply because she’s Roma. She was then insulted and beaten, and surveillance cameras cleared her of wrongdoing, clearly documenting the abuse.
“The chief of the guards came, he was very outraged, saying that I stole,” Ms. Dragomir recalled. “After that followed a series of very ugly offences to me, telling me that I am Roma, that I am a gypsy and that gypsies steal. The aggression followed, the blows followed,“ Ms. Dragomir said.
Aggressions such as these are what spurred the legislative action. “We need to define these acts which are based on racism and hatred against the Roma. To regulate and sanction of these acts as offences,” Mr. Vasile said.
Human right defenders like Ciprian Necula and Csaba Ferenc Asztalos do not believe that the legislation will be especially effective in uprooting the deep-lying prejudices against the Roma.
They argue that what is needed primarily is more education - together with dialogue between communities – to bring about fundamental changes, both in cultural attitudes and social acceptance.
“You've been educated in a way that you don't even know that you are racist. That's the problem,” Mr. Necula said. “I don't say that you should be blamed or convicted for that. What I'm saying that we, first of all, need to be educated, and that this dimension of prevention, education and so on doesn't exist yet.”
A question of education
Asked whose responsibility it is to educate people in Romania, Ms. Serban had this to say: “It is not up to me to educate the people. It's up to other Romanians, the non-Roma, to do that, to question their privilege. Being a racist is definitely so easy, more than the opposite, of being aware of your privileges, of questioning racism.”
Warnings about the high levels of hate speech demonizing Roma people have been issued by UN human rights experts, including the Special Rapporteur on minority issues, Fernand de Varennes. They have also called for more education about the killing of close to half a million Roma people in the Holocaust.
“To solve a problem, you need to face it. You need to bluntly say, Romania has a huge problem with racism, with structural racism,” Ms. Serban said. “And if we if we say we don't have a problem and that the Roma are the problem, we don't reach any point, and situations like Holocaust may definitely happen again.”
Preventing the repetition of World War II’s tragedies is on many people’s minds these days.
Legislation, dialogue, education - and hope – will all be needed, activists believe.
“My biggest reason to continue is the light in the eyes of people that see me at work, that see my work. That light means hope,” Ms. Serban said about her performance career, which often carries messages of social justice to combat various forms of discrimination. That light, means they are being seen “as the Roma, as a community, as a collective: ‘I see you. I respect you. I feel for your pain.’”