Commentary: Pope Francis is right - Roma are often modern-day slaves
Recently several famous figures or those enjoying a certain authority have been standing up for Romani people and human rights in general. For example, Madeleine Albright has been following the lack of respect for Romani people in the Czech Republic and elsewhere and has expressed how disturbing she finds it.
Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has also expressed her own distress over the rising racism and xenophobia in Europe. Primarily, however, it is Pope Frances who has stood up for Romani people in a very knowledgeable and open way.
The elections to the European Parliament, in which extremist and populist political parties enjoyed great success, seem to have woken up some of these democratic politicians and humanist figures. However, their pointing out the danger of extremism and calling for human rights to be upheld will probably not have an immediate impact on the lives of Europe's migrants and Romani people, even though such statements serve as an example worth following for other intellectuals, journalists, and politicians.
A few days ago, the head of the Roman Catholic Church made what was perhaps the most erudite statement on this issue, displaying an unusual knowledge of what is involved. Speaking at an international meeting of workers who focus on the pastoral care of Romani people, Pope Francis condemned the contempt and enmity that Romani people must face in their everyday lives and called for greater efforts to integrate them.
The Pope recalled several specific cases of discrimination for his audience. "Romani people often end up on the fringes of society and are very often viewed with enmity and suspicion. I remember, for example, how here in Rome it often happens that Romani people get on a bus and the driver immediately announces: 'Watch your wallets!' That is an expression of contempt. Maybe it might sometimes be true, but even if it is, it is still an expression of disdain," the Pope said.
He then discussed the most essential aspect of the integration of this minority: The Romani ethnic group does not count in economics, local social events, or politics.
The Pope emphasized that Romani people to are called to contribute to the general welfare, to bear co-responsibility for it, to fulfill their obligations and to support the rights of every individual. Pope Francis then discussed the reasons for poverty, pointing to the lack of educational structures, the restricted access to health care, the discrimination on the labor market, and the undignified housing suffered by many Romani people.
He reminded his audience that such systemic failures always most affect those who are most vulnerable. "These flaws in the social fabric afflict everyone irregardless of who they are, but the socially most vulnerable groups more easily fall victim to new forms of slavery. People who are unprotected fall into the snares of exploitation, forced begging, and various forms of abuse. Romani people are among the most vulnerable, especially when there is no aid available for their integration or support for individuals in various spheres of civic life," said the Pope. "The difficulties and hardships suffered by our brothers must provoke everyone to focus his attention on the dignity of every human being."
As a reporter, I travel very often to socially excluded localities in the Czech Republic and write about the lives of those who live there. As
measured by my own experience, Pope Francis is not only right, he has hit the nail on the head.
The impoverished people living in the ghettos of the Czech Republic are not free, at least not in the sense we understand that to mean today. They live in bondage to the mafia, to the traffickers in poverty who are often interchangeable with some local bureaucrats, police and politicians.
Some of these mafiosi are Romani themselves, which is a testament to the fact that in addition to disdain, Romani people are suffering from a social problem. Without exaggeration, it can be said that those who control life in the ghettos get wealthy on the backs of the most impoverished (they exploit them, as Pope Francis says).
This is the main reason why all the effort and all the money spent on integrating impoverished Romani from the ghettos is not succeeding (other Romani people here are more or less integrated). The mafia does not want to give up its resources and needs the people it controls to remain unfree, not to take control of their own lives.
Everything began in the 1990s, when instead of ancestral, natural authority figures, people began to come to the forefront of Romani communities whose authority was based solely on their financial power. The closing of factories and other firms, as well as the low demand for the work performed by the most impoverished, Romani people as well as others (e.g., as asphalters, diggers, etc.), led to a sharp growth in unemployment during the 1990s.
Romani families gradually began to fall into debt, and as a consequence lost their housing because they had no money for rent and utilities. The first wave of internal migration affected the Moravian-Silesian Region (the Ostrava district most of all), and at the other end of the country, the northern Šluknov foothills, where anti-Romani outbursts took place in 2011 and 2012.
These families have been moving from place to place ever since in both the Ostrava district and the Šluknov foothills and have not settled to this day. The reason is the mafia's need to remain in the background - if the impoverished were to begin to rise up against them because
they are living in circumstances of greater and greater difficulty, then the bureaucrats, police and politicians would have to intervene whether they liked it or not.
The moving of families who might pose such a problem from place to place is part of the mafia's tactics for preventing such a revolt. For example, during 2012 and 2013, several ghettos were created in the municipal department of Moravská Ostrava a Přívoz in Ostrava, including one on the infamous Přednádraží Street, while in the municipal department of Vítkovice several new residential hotels were opened at the same time.
According to several testimonies, in the town of Litvínov all Romani residents are now being moved into one location - the private firm that owns apartment buildings there is allegedly assigning Romani people apartments only in the Janov housing estate, which has long been considered a socially excluded locality. In 2008 neo-Nazis attempted a pogrom there which was participated in by several locals in addition to other extremists.
Back then, loan-sharking had fully taken off and many Romani people were in such debt that it was no longer in their power to get out of it. The term "debt trap" is indeed the correct one to describe the situation.
Once again, this state of affairs has a purpose: It makes it easier to keep the "subjects" who owe the mafia money in bondage. The mafia often run a wide range of criminal activities linked to the culture of poverty.
Loan sharks (often) also own their own gambling establishments, are pimps, and are the dealers or even producers of hard drugs. Sometimes they also own the buildings or residential hotels in which the inhabitants of these localities live and the stores where they shop.
Even when the loan sharks don't own property, they reach agreements with those who run the apartment buildings, residential hotels, and shops. Ghetto residents can, of course, go shop elsewhere, but they don't like to because they are automatically viewed as criminals and thieves whenever they leave their neighborhoods.
The mafiosi, therefore, determine the levels of indebtedness, the prices of drugs and prostitution, the numbers of slot machines in a neighborhood, the rents, including for sublets, and the prices of groceries and other goods. Should someone be unwilling to carry out their assignments and wishes as instructed, the mafiosi then decide who will be evicted from an apartment or residential hotel room.
Several people were evicted onto the street from one minute to the next last year in just this way. During our work, we have more than once come across tiny apartments in which the mafia are housing (at least temporarily) entire extended families, perhaps 10 or 15 people, as a response to their behavior.
Romani people pay for everything with the cash they earn - of course, a bare minimum of people in the ghettos have work, sometimes getting a temporary position or work under the table, but most of them have long been unemployed. If they were to be officially employed, their wages would be garnished, which means most of their salary would be taken away.
Collections procedures are an inextricable part of the debt trap. Some people from the ghettos pay for their needs using state money provided as aid to those in material distress, but those benefits are not as large as some members of the public believe (thanks to the various hoaxes and inventions spread online).
Welfare, therefore, is often not enough to meet basic needs. The main reason is that the rents and sublets in apartment buildings and residential hotels for the impoverished are set very high.
A large part of these rents are covered by the Czech state through its housing payments system. However, even those payments are usually not enough to cover these usurious rents, and therefore people must often use their aid to those in material distress to cover their rent.
They then do not have enough left over for clothing, food, school supplies for their children or transportation. In such a case, Romani men often collect scrap iron and other metals for resale, while others sometimes steal.
The women beg, with young girls or women often being forced into prostitution and most of their earnings staying with their pimps. The impoverished inhabitants of the ghettos thus lose any kind of perspective on their lives - they are indentured, under the tutelage of mafiosi whose orders and wishes they are forced to obey.
They have no chance of finding a job, and many of them have abandoned all such efforts after years of looking for work in vain. Tired out by their loss of a chance for at least a minimally decent life, these people resign themselves to their fate.
The only thing that can give them that chance is a good integration method in which Romani people themselves, of course, must participate, from design to implementation. In other words, Romani people must be involved in social events and in making decisions together with others, as Pope Francis said.
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