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To Give or Not to Give: Three Things Swedish Can Do to Combat Roma Poverty

I remember the scene. Christmastime in Manhattan. A frenzied day buying gifts. A busy street filled with bustling, bundled-up shoppers. “Where did Dad go?” I asked my mother, having lost sight of him. 

“He’s giving someone money to get drunk”, she said to my disbelieving, ten year-old ears. “What?!” When my father caught up with us, out of breath, my mother asked “How much did you give”. “Five bucks” he said, obviously lying. My mother said something to him I won’t repeat here.

As an American, the idea of someone begging was never synonymous with Roma for me; although as the years went by when I was living in London (from 2006 to 2013) more and more people seemed to be Roma from the new Member States; now, in Budapest, most of the people asking me for money (at least once a day) seem to be down-on-their-luck Hungarians, Roma and non-Roma alike. But friends and colleagues in Sweden tell me that begging on the streets of Stockholm and other Swedish cities has become a Roma issue; a society that prided itself on eliminating poverty in their society now sees members of Europe’s largest minority, I’m told, bringing back what feels like Victorian scenes of street poverty.

If you are reading this article in order to find out whether the Legal Director of the European Roma Rights Centre gives money to Roma begging in the street, then the answer is no: twenty-five years later, I side with my mother. If that makes you feel better, I doubt the feeling will last long: unless you are a sociopath, it will never feel good walking by someone begging for money and giving them nothing. In any event, I don’t have a good reason why I don’t give, or why you shouldn’t. Maybe giving someone money will change her life; maybe it will go to a trafficker – I have no idea. My dad would say it is because I always listen to my mom, and that is probably it.

If you are a lawyer and you want to do something about the Roma poverty you see around you in Sweden, there are three things you can do. They are all harder than giving someone some money; they are also all more effective and satisfying.

1. Bring a race discrimination case in the next twelve months, or get someone in your firm to bring one. Directive 2000/43 – the EU’s Race Equality Directive – was introduced fifteen years ago. Despite the widespread segregation of Roma in schools and residential communities, only one Roma discrimination case has made its way to the Court of Justice of the EU. There is very little case law under the Directive at European level (particularly outside the employment field). Likewise, out of the thousands of judgments delivered by the European Court of Human Rights every year, often fewer than ten involve a finding of discrimination – we are lucky if one or two of those are about Roma. Roma face discrimination constantly. I know very little about the experience of Roma in Sweden but I can guarantee it is the case there. Talk to an NGO or activist in your area and ask about what kind of treatment Roma (or members of another minority) are experiencing. Are there restaurants or shops that do not serve them? Have they been unable to register with the local job centre? Will landlords not rent to them? Take the case (pro bono if you can). Do not think the work is already being done by someone else. The ERRC, for example, can only take a limited number of cases. We currently have about 80 cases pending in fourteen jurisdictions in Europe, all of them against public bodies. We need more cases to reverse centuries of anti-Roma discrimination. You can help.

2. Make your time and expertise available to an NGO. You know something that is useful to people supporting Roma rights. Contact a local NGO supporting Roma and let them know you are available to do something (a few hours of legal advice to the NGO, holding advice sessions for the Roma they work with). Make sure you are on the email lists of European pro bono clearinghouses. If you think you can’t help, you’re wrong: Roma are underserved by the legal profession and need access to the kind of expertise we have. You have something to offer.

3. Change your attitude. Roma poverty is not really about poverty. It is also not about culture, nor is it about things happening “somewhere else”. It is about discrimination. On a lot of levels. Centuries of oppression and exclusion leave minorities poor, everywhere. Roma cannot get jobs, in Sweden or elsewhere, because of discrimination in hiring. Not only blatant racism (a boss who says “We don’t take gypsies”), but discrimination of the subconscious kind. Remember the last time you hired someone or got hired? When an employer and the prospective employee come from the same background (national, ethnic, linguistic), it is more likely that employee will get hired. In a world where so few Roma are in a position to hire anyone, that makes for a lot of discrimination. I hear you grumbling as you read this. “I’ve heard it’s in their culture …” you want to say, and you want me to tell you whether begging is something that Roma do (just like you wanted me to tell you whether you should give money in the street). Well, too bad. This is all I will tell you: you know nothing about Romani culture if you think begging is a part of it; I probably know a little more than you do about Romani societies and I wouldn’t dream of connecting what you see on the streets of Stockholm with anything anthropological or sociological – it’s about rights violations; and anyone who ascribes poverty, begging, or criminal activity to the culture of an ethnic group is being racist.

 

The author is the Legal Director of the European Roma Rights Centre, a Budapest-based NGO combating anti-Romani racism throughout Europe.

You can reach him on adam.weiss@errc.org.