The Roma: Victims of Toxic Discrimination
The story is not new. A group of people stands out due to their colourful traditions and unique way of life, and the dominant culture sees their differences as threatening and primitive. Indeed, Palestinians and North American First Nations are both protagonists within this mired plot that normally climaxes in expulsion and extermination. Pushed into small pockets, both groups are internally displaced persons unprotected by international law and are considered invisible by governments insofar as their right to basic needs mandatory to the survival of any tangible human presence is continually ignored. But there is yet another character in this horror tale, whose distinguishing trait is that it remains largely unknown by the world, despite the fact that it is presently fighting for its life: the Roma.
Originally from northern India, the Roma started migrating westwards in 224 CE. Possessing a history of unwarranted persecution, they were victims of the Renaissance Christian genocide against witches, were enslaved throughout Europe from the 14th to 19th century and were killed during the Holocaust. Today, they face abuse and segregation conditions in Europe not unlike those that African-Americans once faced (and still do) in the US. The subplots within the masterpiece are hair-raising: Romani women sterilized to reduce birthrates, police sexually assaulting Romani women in public and innocent Romani men incarcerated and tortured.
But it is the plight of the Roma in Kosovo that is perhaps the most Draconian. Facing more blind hatred there than anywhere else in Europe, Roma populations have been living in lead-poisoned camps since the Kosovo conflict in 1999. There, the soil, air and water, toxic with lead from years of processing the substance on site, are leading to infertility, neurological disorders, birth defects, stunted mental growth and death. Affecting those under the age of six the most, lead poisoning will wipe out an entire generation of the Roma if populations are not relocated immediately. Sickeningly, the UN knew the camps were contaminated in 1999, stating that the Roma would be there for only 45 days. According to Paul Polanski, an activist for the rights of the Roma, a well-qualified doctor confirmed five years ago that the land was a deathtrap, but the UN insisted he keep this a secret and that it would only provide assistance if there was an AIDS or TB epidemic.
So what is the title of this chapter in the story: ‘old-fashioned discrimination’, ‘ethnic cleansing’, or ‘full-blown genocide’? Why is it that the Serbians and Albanians got compensation from the UN after 1999 while the Roma got a death sentence? Why are the Roma not included in Kosovo’s official population count? And why, in a comparatively wealthy continent, are the Roma experiencing a quality of life close to that of Sub-Saharan Africa? Indeed, Polanski shows the link between the bloodletting answer to these questions, namely discrimination, and lead poisoning in the following extended metaphor:
What about the big dusty
Slag heap behind us
When it’s windy
The red wind
covers all your clothes
in red dust
stops you breathing
Requesting that the government grant the Roma asylum in Canada and spreading the word about the situation are ways we can prevent the Roma’s story from ending in their permanent invisibility.
EuropaWorld. “Living Standards for Europe’s Roma Comparable to Sub-Saharan Africa.” 17 Jan, 2003. 8 Aug, 2005.
Mandel, Ilanna Sharon. Interview. Vancouver: 7 Aug, 2005.
Polanski, Paul. “Red Wind.” UN-leaded Blood. Czech Republic, 2005. 43
Refugees International. “Kosovo Lead Pollution Requires Immediate Evacuation of Roma Camps.” 15 June, 2005. 8 Aug, 2005. <http://www.refugeesinternational.org/
“Internally Displaced Persons (IDP’s).” 2004. 8 Aug, 2005.
Robinson, B.A. “The Religion and Culture of the Roma.” July, 1998. 8 Aug, 2005.