No welcome for the Roma
Time to fight back against racist hysteria
J M Thorn
29 July 2007
The deportation of the Roma families who had set up camp on a roundabout on the M50 for the last two months has highlighted once again the racism that runs through Irish society. This racism was made even more frantic by the obvious penury of the Roma, which allowed sections of the Irish gombeen caste to give vent to the class hatred that they normally find politic to express behind closed doors.
The group had travelled to Ireland in May in the hope of taking advantage of Romania's recent membership of the European Union. The aim was to find agricultural work and improve their standard of living. One of the group, Daniela Rostafa, explained why he had made the long journey to end up on Dublin's M50 motorway:
"I have come to Ireland to provide shelter over the heads of my family and have some kind of minimum existence, get a job and have a better life."
However, when they arrived in Ireland they immediately found barriers being thrown up to frustrate this aspiration. They discovered that while Romania was an EU member its citizens did not have the same rights as those of other states in the union. Under the terms of membership, Romanians (and Bulgarians) are barred from working in other states unless they are granted a work permit. The granting of these permits is at the discretion of national governments. In the case of Ireland, Romanians and Bulgarians can only stay legally for three months at a time before having to prove employment. Also, they cannot claim welfare benefits unless they have lived legally in the country for two years. Moreover, as EU citizens, they cannot claim political asylum. Officially there is no persecution in EU states. (This is despite the well documented discrimination against the Roma people).
The Roma were therefore in a legal bind that made it impossible for them to settle in Ireland. This is why they ended up camping on a roundabout on the M50. The conditions here were truly appalling with ninety people, including babies and grandparents, crowded into makeshift shelters made from scraps of wood and rope from rubbish tips. Conditions at the camp were made even worse by the wet weather. In taking such drastic action the Roma were drawing public attention to their plight and essentially making an appeal to the Irish Government and wider society to show mercy and let them stay.
However, such sentiments were in short supply. The Government rejected such appeals and immediately started the legal process to have them removed. The majority public reaction, encouraged by the media, was one of racist hostility. The familiar mantra was that the Roma were in Ireland to sponge off the state. At the camp itself they were subjected to a campaign of harassment which ranged from verbal attacks to physical assaults. The Romanian Embassy also played a major role in the propaganda campaign. The ambassador accused them of misleading Irish aid agencies. While the Roma said they preferred the squalor of the camp to their life back home in Romania, the ambassador claimed that many of them had permanent addresses. She accused them of “using this difficult situation .... in order to accuse the Romanian government of discrimination”. The mayor of the town from where the Roma came was also deployed. He claimed that they had refused offers of work there and that they had houses and kept horses. All this was gleefully disseminated by the Irish media. At no stage did anyone refer to the iron repression and discrimination against Roma within Romania or check the facts of the case.
The camp on the roundabout came to an abrupt end when a large body of Garda descended in the early hours of the morning to serve deportation orders. The Roma were told they would be rounded up and deported by force if they did not leave willingly. This is despite the fact that some of them had obtained an injunction from the High Court staying their deportation for fifteen days. The Roma were told that they would be deported anyway and were offered €40 to go quietly. The months-long stand-off was finally brought to an end when nearly a hundred Roma were flown back to Bucharest. A spokeswoman for Ministry of Justice claimed that had "all chosen to go home" and were "being voluntarily repatriated". The truth was that, given the increasing coercion of the state, they were left with little choice.
While the majority public response to the plight of the Roma was one of racial hostility, there was a minority who supported their case. This group was largely based on the NGO sector, and focused on humanitarian aspects. Their appeal was for a humanitarian response from the Government, so limited that they refused to respond to ‘political’ points such as the racist slurs about the Roma supposed wealth at home. To their credit, the Socialist Workers Party bucked the racist hysteria and campaigned in support of the Roma. However a weakness of their intervention was that it fell in behind the line already established by the NGOs, with the SWP condemning the authorities’ lack of "compassion". The weakness of this intervention, like so many recent campaigns, was that it was founded upon moralism. It did not challenge the Government politically. There was no demand for the basic democratic right of people to travel and reside in the country of their choice. Indeed, by claiming the Roma as a special case, the wider issue of discrimination and the second class status of some Europeans was ignored.
The Irish NGOs also accommodated to racist sentiment by calling on the Irish Government to use EU institutions to force new member states to improve conditions for their Roma populations. The underlying assumption of this is that if things were better there the Roma wouldn’t be here. This completely ignores the Irish Government's own record on racism. This was confirmed once again in the aftermath of the Roma deportation when the Justice Minister ordered a review of immigration regulations covering those living "illegally" in the state. This is to enable the authorities to deport people in an even shorter period. The minister also applied the screws to the NGOs by indicating the review would examine the support and legal advice given to immigrants by charities such as Crosscare and Pavee Point, hinting that their own funding was at risk if they offered even the timid level of support offered to the Roma in future cases.
The case of the Roma demonstrates the deep level of racism that exists in Irish society. Despite many on the left trying to ignore it (e.g. the complacent reaction the citizenship referendum) we have to recognise the danger it poses. It is likely that racist sentiment will grow as the era of the Celtic Tiger draws to a close. Immigrants who came to Ireland when the demand for their labour was high will find themselves less welcome when demand declines. The Government will also use racism as a means to deflect hostility to unpopular polices and create divisions within the working class.
Moralistic campaigns, as we have seen, are not adequate to challenge racism. They depend upon a public sentiment supporting fair play for migrants that this, and the previous Afghan hunger strike, clearly indicate is not there. We need a campaign that is based of advancing democratic rights for migrants and linking their rights and conditions to those of the whole Irish workforce, not appealing for compassion from those responsible for whipping up racism. We must also look to the working class as the force in the society that overcome racism. The sheer weakness of the socialist movement means that such a strategy could not have saved the Roma, but then the compassionate appeals failed anyway. The advantage of a class approach is that even in battles that are lost we can retain a fighting nucleus that can learn lessons and prepare for the next struggle. The left is a small force, but not a negligible one, and a united class approach would bear fruit.
Most immediately we should challenge the current leadership of the working class, the leaders of the trade unions, who have been promoting racist ideas such as preferential treatment for Irish workers. This is just a populist cover for the policies of social partnership that have eroded the relative living standards of the working class and provided fertile ground for the racist sentiments that are prevalent today.