For centuries, Romani people have been the victims of sustained and violent oppression. As their rights once again come under threat, when will we start talking about the ‘last acceptable form of racism’?

For centuries, Romani people have been the victims of sustained and violent oppression. As their rights once again come under threat, when will we start talking about the ‘last acceptable form of racism’?

“Census data from Germany and Austria from this time was generally quite good – mainly because they were planning for this. From other parts of Europe, particularly eastern Europe, it’s less reliable.”

Dr. Barabra Warnock is talking me through a map affixed to the wall at the Weiner Holocaust Library in London’s Russell Square. The venue is running an exhibit called Forgotten Victims: the Nazi Genocide of the Roma and Sinti. The map, covering countries from Croatia in the west, to the USSR in the east, details how Romani people were rounded up and slaughtered in those particular localities during the Porajmos – the gypsy holocaust. 

“Estimates vary wildly because of the data, but it’s generally accepted that up 500,000 roma people were killed in Europe. Some estimates put it as high as one and a half million.” 

In Croatia, the fascist Ustase doggedly persecuted the Roma population, deporting them to labour camps and the Jasenovac concentration camp (where somewhere between 10 and 20,000 Roma were killed). In Serbia, massacres of Roma people were carried out in special camps and in mobile gas vans. In Crimea, roving gangs of Nazi soldiers and their collaborators shot Roma on sight. 

Later that day, I tried to recount the exhibition to my Romani mum. She asked me if I had ever thought about the people in our family tree who had been caught up in these atrocities; about the branches of it cut off many decades before either of us were born. The thought hasn’t left my mind since.

On November 26, 1935, Roma people were defined by the Nazi regime as “enemies of the race based state”. The Weiner Holocaust exhibition chronicles what happened after this, tracing the ghettoisation, persecution, and industrial slaughter of Europe’s Romani population. It shares stories of people like Magarete Kraus, who was deported to Auschwitz in 1943 as a teenager where she contracted typhus and was experimented on. People like Hermine Hovarth, who witnessed the rape and murder of other Romani women in “the Gypsy camp” at Ravensbrück concentration camp, before being tortured herself. People like Hans Braun, who was forced into labour in a munitions factory before being sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau and being reunited with his family, only to watch them die from illness, starvation or gassing. 

In the aftermath of the holocaust, those that survived the camps were able to claim “compensation” from the German government. Hans Braun applied to do just that. His British Red Cross form stated the reason for his incarceration had been “Zigeuner” – the german word for Gypsy. His application for funds was rejected on the basis that he was imprisoned, not on the grounds of race, but because he was “a criminal”. 

It would be 1982 before West Germany formally accepted that a genocide against Roma people had occured. 

The stories of the “liquidation” of tens of thousands of people like me hollow me out. They’re so horrific, so graphic and nauseating that it’s impossible to fully comprehend. But it’s perhaps the details that scare me the most; the almost mundane minutae that show how anti-roma sentiment was institutionalised not just during the holocaust, but for years after, even to this day. 

In May 2017, three young Roma girls were burnt alive as they slept in their caravan just outside of Rome in an intentional arson attack. In 2003, 15-year-old traveller Johnny Delany was kicked to death. As his attackers fled the scene, they were alleged to have been heard saying “he’s only a fucking gypsy”. They were convicted of his murder, but the judge refused to accept the attack was racially motivated. 

A 2017 report by the Traveller movement found that 91 per cent of Gypsy, Roma and traveller people had experienced discrimination. 77 per cent of us have been victims of hate speech or hate crimes. The same survey also found that 40 per cent of British parents would be “unhappy” with a close family member forming a relationship with a traveller. According to a 2018 ECHR report, 44 per cent of people feel comfortable expressing openly negative prejudice towards gypsy communities. 

Earlier this year, a UN special rapporteur condemned the British government for its failure to tackle systemic racism against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people – and yet it still continues. Just last month, travellers caravans in Glastonbury, Somerset were intentionally set alight (though mercifully, no-one was hurt). Days after, Home Secretary Priti Patel announced a raft of new measures specifically targeting the traveller community, which eventually found themselves in the Conservative Party manifesto, under a section on crime. “We will tackle unauthorised traveller camps,” it reads. “We will give the police new powers to arrest and seize the property and vehicles of trespassers who set up unauthorised encampments, in order to protect our communities. We will make intentional trespass a criminal offence, and we will also give councils greater powers within the planning system.” 

Under the Government’s “planning policy for traveller sites”, local authorities in England are required to provide five years worth of land for Gypsy and Traveller pitches. Fewer than a third of the pitches needed have been built. The Government’s new proposals outlaw Roma people pitching up anywhere that isn’t an authorised traveller site, but lay out no plans to increase or enforce their own traveller site policy. These measures are a direct attack on the culture and customs of a people who have been in the UK for almost 300 years longer than the Conservative Party has been in existence. 

Holocaust comparisons, or invoking it in an argument about the persecution of a certain people, can seem extreme. But, as I look around, I’m genuinely scared about what the future looks like for Roma people in the UK. To say that the demonisation of an already persecuted people has echoes of 1930’s Germany would not be unfair. 70 years on from the industrial scale slaughter of Romanis across Europe, we look back at those unthinkable horrors, and wonder how they could possibly happen? The answer is: they begin like this. With the institutionalisation of centuries old prejudice. With the slow creep of criminalisation, demonisation and ghettoisation of an entire people.  

There has, quite rightly, been much focus on the hypocrisy, the lies and the massaged figures within the Tory party manifesto, but as we edge ever closer to December 12th, it’s important not to forget the very real threat the Conservatives pose to denigrated communities across this country. We cannot allow this to be the start of another, more determined, more sustained attack on Roma people. A vote for the Conservative party is exactly that.

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