Workers Hammer No. 225

Winter 2013-2014


EU austerity fuels racism

Irish state abductions of Roma children

In recent months, there has been a dramatic increase in vicious attacks against Roma (Gypsies) across Europe, where the 10 to 12 million Roma make up the largest and one of the most oppressed minority populations. The capitalists’ chauvinist media has whipped up a storm recalling medieval lies about Roma stealing children, now repackaged under the rubric of “human trafficking”. In Greece in mid-October a pale-skinned little girl was snatched from a Roma settlement in a cop raid, but turned out to be not “stolen” but the daughter of Bulgarian Roma who had arranged for her to be raised by a family in Greece. Days later the Irish state authorities abducted two Roma children from their parents and subjected them to DNA tests to “prove” they were who their parents said they were.

In Britain, former Labour home secretary David Blunkett fanned the flames of anti-Roma racism by warning of “riots” if Roma from Slovakia who have settled in Sheffield do not “adhere to our standards”. Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg also weighed in, blaming the Roma immigrants — and not the state and vigilante mobs who are persecuting and intimidating them — for behaving in a “sometimes intimidating, sometimes offensive” way. Clegg opined that they should act in a more British fashion. As far as the Roma are concerned, the “British fashion” is the treatment dished out to the Travellers, who are mainly of Irish extraction and are a marginalised, vilified group subjected to widespread bigotry and violent state repression. In 2011, in a massive police operation, some 86 Traveller families were forcibly evicted from homes on land they owned at Dale Farm in Essex (see Workers Hammer no 216, Autumn 2011). Many now live in a squalid camp on a scrap of land adjacent to Dale Farm, with no running water, no electricity and nowhere else to go.

The racist outpouring against Roma in Western Europe is part of a broader campaign to deny basic legal rights to all workers from Eastern Europe. The majority of Europe’s Roma are concentrated in East European countries which were ravaged by the restoration of capitalism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1992, creating massive unemployment. Among the hardest hit were the Roma, 90 per cent of whom today live below the poverty line according to a European Union (EU) survey. Many of these countries — including Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic — joined the European Union (EU) in 2004, followed by Bulgaria and Romania in 2007. And while the EU supposedly regards the free movement of labour as a fundamental right, the imperialist bourgeoisies turn on and off the supply of cheap labour according to the needs of the capitalist profit system.

As proletarian internationalists we oppose the EU, an imperialist consortium designed to improve the competitiveness of the European imperialists while grinding the working classes, including by intensifying racism against minorities. We also opposed the eastward expansion of the EU into the former deformed workers states of Eastern Europe, which provided the European bourgeoisies with a vast supply of very cheap labour. At the same time we oppose work restrictions by West European governments on workers from East European member states.

With the 2004 expansion of the European Union, workers from the new EU countries were excluded from Germany and France, where unemployment levels were high, while in Britain and Ireland — where unemployment was relatively low at the time — the governments granted work permits to the East European workers, but stripped them of many of their rights as EU citizens. Bulgarians and Romanians obtained the legal right to visa-free travel to Britain in 2007, but the then Labour government placed temporary restrictions on what type of jobs they could take, limiting them to low-paid work. On 1 January 2014, these discriminatory measures restricting Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants’ right to work in Britain (among other EU countries) will end. However in the last weeks of 2013, the Tory-led coalition government is ramming through a host of discriminatory restrictions on the rights of Bulgarian and Romanian citizens to claim unemployment and housing benefits. This attack was swiftly denounced by a Labour spokesman for coming too late: “Labour called for these benefit restrictions nine months ago.” Migrants who have been deported for begging or not being “self-sufficient” will be barred from re-entering the country for one year.

It is in the interests of the whole working class to counter all racist divide-and-rule ploys by the capitalist rulers and to defend Roma and Travellers, as part of the defence of all immigrants and minorities.

We print below a report submitted by a comrade in Ireland in late October 2013 following the two cases there of state abduction of Roma children.

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DUBLIN, 31 October 2013 — On 21 and 22 October, the Gardai [police] entered the homes of two Roma families, one in Dublin, one in Athlone. Working with the Health Service Executive (HSE), the cops had been sent in because of so-called concerns as to whether the couples involved were the biological parents. Despite documents being produced, including passports and birth certificates, two children were abducted by the state and put “into care”. In one case, the parents also gave the name of the hospital and date when their child was born — the HSE initially said they could find no such record, only to miraculously find the record after the abduction.

All this happened against the backdrop of the racist abduction by the Greek state of the “blonde angel”, which was splashed across every tabloid and broadsheet newspaper and TV station in Ireland and Britain. Within hours the media were reporting as a “fact” that Roma regularly steal “white” children. The immediate trigger for the abductions in Ireland was simply anonymous tip-offs to gutter press journalists. If it was not the state itself which orchestrated the press campaign, the cops and their child “protection” services were only too happy to use these tip-offs as a pretext. The blatant racist nature of the raids was also clear from the immediate releasing of details about the children, despite confidentiality being stipulated in childcare legislation.

The Roma provide ideal scapegoats in a country where anti-Traveller racism has been a cornerstone of the state — not only are Roma associated with a nomadic lifestyle (mostly not true), but are considered to be foreign (both children abducted were born in Ireland) and to have dark skin (often not the case). The government, the cops, the HSE and the media whipped themselves into a frenzy. But two days after the children were snatched, DNA tests confirmed that the Roma couples were indeed the biological parents and the children were reunited with them.

In a Catholic country, where respect for the institution of the family is strong, the abducting of these children by the state led to a huge outpouring of anger particularly at the naked racism involved. With the media glibly changing sides, the government launched an “inquiry”, the outcome of which is fairly predictably a whitewash. Meanwhile, politicians proclaim in one speech after another that “the children are our utmost concern”, this from the same politicians who condoned the abductions and slashed funding of child health and welfare services and benefits.

Initially, the so-called rescuing of these children came as a godsend to the government, which had recently presented yet another vicious austerity budget. At the behest of the EU, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, the “troika”, the budget was geared towards speeding up repayments of the “bailout” monies and enabling “a return to the markets” — somewhat akin to repaying your mortgage with money from a loan shark. Since the beginning of the bailout, the primary concerns of the troika have been that Ireland must slash spending on its sick, poor, disabled, unemployed and pensioners. Also, they demand privatisation of state-run utilities, which inevitably means union-busting. The Irish government and ruling class have complied, with massive cuts to the health services — particularly to the medical card system that provides free (if fairly poor quality) medical care to schoolchildren, the elderly and many on social benefits, including many single parent families. The current government — a coalition of Fine Gael (right-wing bourgeois party) and the Labour Party — is in its third year of administering austerity. While Fine Gael is catering to its base among big farmers and business owners, Labour ministers have been attacking the party’s base among the working class, administering cuts in welfare and public finances. And this is reflected in the current polls. Fine Gael is holding its support at over 20 per cent, Labour is currently at six per cent — having entered government with an historic high of 20 per cent. With the more populist Republicans of Sinn Fein and even, to a much smaller extent, Fianna Fail, eating away at Labour support, the Labour Party is very keen on scapegoating. The chief executive of the Immigrant Council, Denise Charlton, connected the raid on the Roma families with comments made by Labour’s Joan Burton: “Ms Charlton said the events of recent days had come on the back of comments made by the Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, last week in which she indicated that half of social welfare fraud was carried out by immigrants, something which the Immigrant Council said is not supported by any evidence” (Irish Times, 23 October 2013).

With the huge and quite sudden rise in unemployment over the last few years, the massive cuts in the standard of living of those with jobs, the eradication of many pensions, an increase in immigration etc, there has been a sharp rise in racism in Ireland, always an ideal weapon for the capitalist state. Historically, the southern Irish state has been a rather homogenous, white, Catholic population, and up to a decade ago, racism had been directed almost exclusively against Travellers. Despite constituting only around 0.5 per cent of the population — numbering some 40,000, of whom 18 per cent live in caravans or mobile homes — they are often scapegoated for every crime in the book. During the 1980s and 90s, when I was growing up, open racist abuse against Travellers was commonplace. Campsites were often ploughed over by the local council and surrounded by huge mounds of dirt to prevent the Travellers spending the summer months there. In some suburbs of Dublin, locals would bring in JCB equipment to tear down campsites while Travellers were living there.

The composition of the population has changed quite dramatically, to the point where over ten per cent of the population now comes from a non-Irish background. There have been a number of racist attacks, including murders of black and Chinese immigrants. An Irish Times article by Vincent Browne (29 October 2013) makes the point that Travellers still suffer the most prejudice in Irish society. In fact, prejudice against Travellers has increased over the last four decades. Since 2008, Irish government spending on programmes for Travellers has been all but eliminated, with funds for education cut by 87 per cent, accommodation aid by 85 per cent, and so on.

Closely behind the Travellers as targets for racist abuse are the Roma, who are targeted by campaigns against “aggressive begging” etc. Roma and Romanians are often treated as a single ethnic group — despite the fact that the Roma are hideously oppressed in Romania and subject to ingrained prejudice by the majority population. In an Irish survey published in 2011, quoted in the Browne article, 5.3 per cent said they would deny Polish people citizenship, 16.6 per cent would deny Romanians citizenship and 18.2 per cent said they would deny Travellers citizenship! The latter is quite staggering, given that you would be hard-pressed to find a more Irish, more Catholic or whiter group of people.