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by Andrew Ryder and Nidhi Trehan
14th December 2020

A recent report by Margaret Greenfields and Carol Rogers, “Hate as Regular as Rain” highlighted in The Guardian last week, sheds light on a sensitive, charged, and often overlooked subject: racism and discrimination vis-a-vis Gypsies, Travellers and Roma (GRT) in the UK and its links to self-harm and suicide.

This is a deeply painful truth rarely discussed within the affected communities nor among mental healthcare professionals and social workers within the broader society. Indeed, the compounded harm of race hatred directed towards the GTR communities remains unacknowledged and this pilot project report contributes significantly to filling this gap and improving our understanding of suicidal and parasuicidal behaviour in these vulnerable populations.

Across Europe, research indicates that Romani people from diverse backgrounds are at a higher risk of mental illness on account of a lack of life opportunities and chances linked to income, education, employment, and safe and stable housing. Such marginalisation is accentuated by unfair social policies and individual experiences of discrimination. Roma, Gypsies and Travellers experience exclusion from public spaces, hygienic and secure accommodation, with some even being subject to forced eviction or deportation. Such acute marginalisation can lead to family support networks and cultural identity becoming fragmented, making Roma more vulnerable to depression and substance abuse and self-harm.

During the time that the Greenfields/Rogers study was undertaken in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic increased the marginalization of GTR communities, exacerbating a sense of hopelessness. The lockdowns have often left families, especially those dependent on informal and casual work, without an income, bank account or access to savings, and with little or no emergency welfare support coming from the state. A poor health profile and high levels of diabetes and other debilitating pre-existing conditions, together with overcrowded substandard living conditions in rural settlements and tenement housing, leave many Gypsies, Travellers and Roma vulnerable to the virus. Moral panics and hysteria in countries with large Romani communities such as Spain, Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia have become amplified, with claims that they are the principal carriers of the virus. For instance, in Bulgaria, some politicians and media outlets referred to Romani people as ‘a threat to public health’ and requested special measures targeting them on that basis (see our book, Romani Communities and Transformative Change).

A common thread in this marginalisation is ‘anti-Gypsyism’, which is a specific form of racism towards Gypsies and Roma centred on tropes such as criminality and cultural dysfunctionality; it is a distinct form of racism against Roma that is both similar to, different from and intertwined with many other types of racism. It is a term that is now part of mainstream discourse and has even entered the lexicon of institutional power in Europe, having received growing support within EU agencies; for example, in 2018, the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) acknowledged that institutional and societal anti-Gypsyism was a key barrier to GTR inclusion within Europe. In 2019, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for the EU and its member states to adopt strong Romani inclusion plans post-2020 and to step up the fight against anti-Gypsyism.

How does anti-Gypsyism manifest itself? The expressed rhetoric of hate speech against Roma results in tacit forms of their exclusion from public services, such as access to electricity, water, sanitation and so on. Such hate speech is not just orchestrated by elites, but enters everyday language and social media discourse, creating ’micro-aggressions’ namely, unthinking remarks that betray underlying assumptions and make the people targeted feel uncomfortable or violated (see Markus End’s chapter here). We must also consider the policy actions taken by those in power that negatively impact GTR communities and contravene the protective function of the state towards members of the public, such as forced evictions, allowing Roma to reside only at the margins of localities, police violence and the myriad forms of inequity in education, including school segregation. Systemic and institutional manifestations of anti-Gypsyism have profound repercussions for the effective socio-economic inclusion of Romani communities in access to housing, health and education. What makes it a special form of racism in Europe today is the involvement of the state in the production and co-production of these discriminatory norms, knowledge and politics in relation to GTR communities.

Negative media representation fuelled by misleading tropes and sensationalism has been a crucial factor in shaping anti-Romani sentiments and orchestrating forms of moral panic against the Roma. Such reporting is, in part, a product of the increase in anti-Gypsyism being orchestrated by unscrupulous (often right-wing nationalist) politicians, but as authoritarian regimes and their allies take control of media outlets, this interplay in stoking moral panics intensifies. Anti-Romani sentiments also have an economic dynamic. As the influential economist Piketty argues, the growing accumulation of wealth by the top 1% has led to neoliberal globalization and populism increasingly working together and/or reflecting shared xenophobic narratives in the scapegoating of immigrants and minority ethnic groups such as the Roma as undermining the position of a previously incorporated (white) working class, who are now the ‘left behind’ as an underclass. This has been most evident in the UK referendum vote to leave the EU in 2016 and in the election of Donald Trump as President of the US in the same year, where we can see a fusion of neoliberal competition and populist nativism. Romani people and other vulnerable groups thus serve as a scapegoat for those dissatisfied with the status quo to blame for their misfortunes, distracting blame from those in control. This in turn impedes their inclusion and life chances, having profoundly negative impacts upon their mental health.

In their pathbreaking work, Wilkinson and Pickett rightly posit that redistribution and fairer societies benefit all: socio-economic inclusion reduces the cost and trauma of inequality, creating social stability. In Romani Communities and Transformative Change, we highlight how greater inclusivity will benefit Roma and non-Roma alike. We support such a reorientation and are calling for a new Social Europe that would see the EU take innovative policy pathways in promoting stimulus, redistribution and new approaches to diversity and inclusion. Such new approaches will clearly have huge material and social consequences for the Roma but let us not forget the huge mental health benefits that are to be derived from alleviating the trauma of deep and profound marginalisation. Ending systemic anti-Gypyism must be a public health priority.

It is important to note that the case for government funded research for the study came about after Josie O’Driscoll a community member and Chief Executive of GATE Herts raised awareness of the problem. You can find out more about the valuable work of GATE Herts at: https://gateherts.org.uk/

Andrew Ryder is Associate Professor at the Institute of Communication and Sociology, Corvinus University of Budapest and board member of the Roma Education Fund.

Nidhi Trehan is Affiliated Senior Research Fellow of the CEU’s Romani Studies Programme and Fellow of the Institute of Social Sciences (ISS) in New Delhi. She was formerly Visiting Scholar at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin.

Romani Communities and Transformative Change edited by Andrew Ryder, Marius Taba and Nidhi Trehan is available on the Policy Press website. Order here for £10.39.

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