Roma MEP: Italy’s fingerprinting should be seen in wider context

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Lívia Járóka, a Hungarian MEP from the centre-right EPP-ED group, spoke to EURACTIV Hungary in an interview about Italy’s Roma fingerprinting measures. [Note: Following a mistranslation from the original version in Hungarian, euractiv.com has modified parts of this interview. The following text has been corrected and is the exact verbatim version, translated into English.]

Lívia Járóka, who is of Roma ethnicity, is also Director of a working group on Roma in the EP and vice-president of the Anti-Racism and Diversity Parliamentary Intergroup. 

Italy’s Interior Minister Roberto Maroni put forward a proposal, late July, to collect fingerprints from all Roma people living in Italy, including children. The EU and human rights’ organisations slammed the plan, accusing the Italian government of racism. Yet Maroni defended it, saying a fingerprint database would make Roma integration faster and easier, while also serving as an instrument for crime prevention. Do you agree with him? 

I would like to specify: according to Maroni, the “Security Package” that has been adopted on 30th May is needed to provide official identity for children and immigrants without official documents. That is what the whole Italian foreign ministry is now communicating through Frattini. Most of those children got to Italy as victims of child trafficking.

I much more agree with those experts, who say that the Italian government is aiming to estimate the number of Roma living in Italy. I heard, that the proposal would be applied to those of muslim religion; they were targeted as well. Fingerprint databases are no novelties however, neither in Italy, nor in the region. In Spain everyone gives fingerprints.

Since late night 17th July the Italian Parliament accepted that the fingerprint database will apply to each and every Italian citizen, the defeasibility of the proposal for being discriminatory towards immigrants seems to eclipse. By all accounts, it was a daring act to submit the proposal in that form.

However there is also the question that those people without any identification papers must by all means be provided with documents to ensure they are included in the social system. This way we can make sure that they will not be victims of trafficking and it also decreases the chance of them joining criminal gangs or having to live on the streets in awful conditions or in gruesome camps.

Therefore, I could see some good intention on the side of the Italian government, but it was also a decisive objective to satisfy the public in that taut situation before the elections. Public opinion in Italy is very much against immigrants at the moment and this is a political answer to public will.

It is the implementation where we can discover the specific mistakes. According to our information, questions referring to ethnic and religious identity have been included in the forms, and fingerprints were also collected from Roma. Henceforward the process is illegal.

We have raised our voice in the European Parliament, nevertheless by the time the EP adopted a resolution on Thursday, the Italian government had stopped collecting data this way.

Will the delegation visiting Italy reveal the mistakes? 

As the summer holiday is starting today in the European Parliament, the visit will take place from 18th to 20th September. The fact-finding mission was welcomed by the Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee. Many members agreed, that it is beneficial to travel to Italy only later, because not only will the national situation be more relaxed but the fingerprinting procedure will also have been implemented as general practice by then. This will allow us to determine whether the methods are illegal or not. I very much hope they are not.

However, unfortunately we will have much fewev means to reveal whether there was illegal ethnic data collection between 27 June and 2 July 2008.

You mentioned a motion for a resolution by the Parliament, issued on 10 July. This refers to “recent incidents involving attacks and aggression against Roma in Hungary”. What incidents does it refer to and why was this sentence included in the resolution? 

The motion for a resolution was the initiative of socialist, liberal, communist and green MEPs, and was not supported by the European People’s Party, which I am a member of. We had a debate about whether or not we could name specific countries. It is always an interesting question in the EP.

Although it is against national interests, the final version of the text included that such incidents have occurred in Hungary as well. As far as I know, it was suggested by a fellow Hungarian MEP. In the end the European People’s Party agreed to vote against the resolution; I, however, abstained.

As for the Parliament’s motion for a resolution, I think it is paramount that we discuss the atrocities on a European level. If we open our eyes, it is obvious that ethnicity plays a part in the attacks. Nevertheless, the protection of our rights is so weak, that in most of the cases it is really hard proving it. Nowadays a whole range of evidential criteria must be met in order to reach a verdict which claims that somebody is attacked for his/her Romani origin.

The tendency that we experience in Italy, fits to Hungary as well. A very strong anti-gypsy attitude is evolving. Roma people are driven to the streets during the night, Molotov cocktails are thrown at them, tens of thousands of people are standing in the streets shouting anti-Roma slogans; this indicates such anti-gypsysm, that has been uncharacteristic in Europe so far. Also in Hungary, we can see Roma intimidated in the media and in public as well.

In some regions of Hungary it goes beyond the slogans. There is direct hostility. What specific steps do you think can help prevent this mutual hatred? 

It is a problem, that very few people are familiar with the Roma, they do not know enough about of Roma. Stereotypes still live on today. Here I would like to emphasize the role  and responsibility of the media, which has significantly increased over the past 20 years.

Today’s media is unfortunately not interested enough in presenting positive examples and true stories. We can rather see sensational, negative and discrediting coverings of Roma. Before the transition there were public places where Roma and non-Roma people could be seen together, like at workplaces. So could mixed marriages occur. There were more opportunities to learn together in schools. Today a huge proportion of Roma children study in segregated schools. The gap is becoming so wide between the two groups that we won’t be able to bridge it, unless we develop the prospect of a peaceful and respectful atmosphere of living together. For that, the Roma need jobs. Not only for being able to support their own families, but also to give them the chance to open up to others in society.

The financial fear, the total exclusion experienced in schools, villages and towns – because most Roma live in settlements – causes that some Roma sail close to some kind of criminal behaviour. This must be changed. The awful health conditions must be improved too. Without these there is no chance for a peaceful and mutually constructive coexistence between Roma and non-Roma to evolve.

Here we are talking about a very long span of time, 20 years at least. At least two generations have to grow up to see real results. And we haven’t spoken about how to change the way people think.

Could you recommend specific steps? 

There have been media programmes in the past 10-15 years to improve tolerance. I do not really see the results. An article fanning hatred is still more impressive for the public, than a half hour-long positive documentary on television.

This is why the emphasis is on the individual. Change can only be achieved, if there is a switch in people’s thoughts and souls. You simply have to say no to hatred and acknowledge that it is our children’s interest to develop the peaceful and trustful cohabitation of the two communities.

There is a high number of Roma living in Central and Eastern Europe. And their number is still growing. The prosperity of countries will largely depend on the individuals being able to tolerate and accept each other in everyday life. And this must develop in people’s minds.

Politics can do very little, media could help much more. Although we have been looking for partners for a very long time, I still expect help from the press.

You mentioned that Roma primarily need jobs. Do you think that the initiative put forward by the mayor of Monor (in Hungary), which aims to make aid dependent on working, would ameliorate the situation of the Roma? 

I don’t think this would help, moreover I believe it is harmful. As long as there is only 2000 Ft (apx. 8 euro) difference between between social aids and the minimum wage, we cannot hope for a change. Aids are aids. It is needed for  People bereaved of other opportunities to be able to fall back on them. Principally jobs and work can improve the situation of Roma in Hungary and they want this too. Jobs for real salary. This can turn Roma into tax-paying citizens.

The European Parliament also said that a European Roma Strategy is needed. You played an important role in the fact that the EP accepted a contribution on this topic on the 31st January. On the 13th of July an international Roma conference was held in Budapest and participants restated this need. Have any concrete steps been made on the topic since then? Have the European institutions made any progress? 

Of course, and there also are some visible signs for that. I have been working to achieve this paradigm-shift for four years. Also, the atrocities in Italy and in other member states contributed to it. The European Council understood that steps must be made. Urged by the Parliament, also the Commission admits now, that a European Roma Strategy is indispensable, because Member States are unwilling or unable to do anything. They must be forced.

Last weeks conference will be followed up by the first High-level Roma Summit in September where European political leaders and European Roma leaders will reconcile on the content of the Strategy. 

The Commission prepared a quite thorough policy paper, but it contains only a few good practices. The Council will react on this paper in the middle of December. I hope the Commission will get the mandate for creating a European Roma Strategy that has a stable financial background and defines professional minimum standards in the field of desegregation, creating jobs etc.  

The European Commission seems to think more about emphasising ‘best practices’. They would use this measure to urge Member States. In the field of community legislation I reckon the sanctioning of discrimination necessary, and as for professional matters, I await the Commission to define the minimum standards.

I believe this is important, because the situation in every Roma community is different and the problems that Roma face are different in every every Member State, so the Commission will not be able to determine specific measures. Nevertheless, a European-level coordination is necessary and I hope that this staff will be formed under the supervision of the Commission’s president and will be able to steer this process and help the Member States in the following 10 years.

Do you think that Roma organisations are active enough? Can they help the Commission? Do European institutions ask for their opinion?

There are shortcomings on both sides. The Commission is not consulting them properly. I have raised my voice also against this, and last week’s conference was important also in this respect. Beside the 60 Roma leaders, I have also invited the representative of the European Commission to this event, in order to have an opportunity to change information in the light of the September 16th summit. 

In the meantime, I also see that Roma NGOs are very weak both in terms of good ideas and professional preparedness. This is especially alarming, because it is Roma who really know what needs to be done in terms of planning, implementation and controlling.
For the present there are no independent ideas, or if there are any, they do not reach the European NGOs. Therefore, our office acts almost in an NGO-like way trying to connect local initiatives with wider politics. We ask academics, we do intellectual work on this topic, but we miss the proposals of Roma NGOs regarding what they need exactly.

In many questions the internal dialogue between Roma is also missing. There is no inner consensus in such sensitive questions as child-begging or early marriages. The reason for this is also that there are very few Roma intellectuals. 

Since the launch of the European Roma Strategy is imminent, I initiated programs for training Roma intellectuals as well as creating a professional group of academics. The objective of the latter is to elaborate the recommendations and their implementation for national and European Roma communities.

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