Officials Warn of Modern Racism Against Roma at Commemorations for 'Forgotten Holocaust'

Roma Holocaust
Bulgarian Roma kids react to being photographed as they salvage materials from a demolished shack in a Roma suburb in the city of Plovdiv, central Bulgaria April 25, 2014. Stoyan Nenov/Reuters

Commemorations marking the 71st anniversary of the Roma holocaust were held throughout Europe over the weekend including at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where 2,897 Roma men, women, children were killed on August 2, 1944.

Roma or Romani is ethnic identifier held by a variety of peoples including: Roma, Gypsies, Travellers, Manouches, Ashkali, Sinti and Boyash.

It's estimated that 220,000 Roma were killed during the war, though the genocide, known as the Porajmos, was only first officially recognised by Germany in 1982. Historians estimate 25% of the European minority's entire population were killed.

The leaders of prominent European human rights organisations spoke about the importance of educating people about the Roma holocaust during World War II, in order to help combat the discrimination the community continues to face.

Attending the memorial event at Auschwitz in Poland, Romani Rose, the head of Germany's Central Council for Sinti and Roma people, spoke about the rise in racism and prejudice across Europe. "In Germany, where refugee homes are again up in flames today, we are experiencing an increase of violent acts by the extreme right," she said.

Flowers were laid in memoriam of the massacred Roma at the National Memorial to the Defence Forces in Merrion Square in Dublin on Sunday as well. The Irish Times newspaper reported that members of the Roma community held up a banner, referring to the Roma genocide the "forgotten holocaust."

Nils Muinieks, the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights, called attention to the issue of anti-Roma sentiment in Europe in a comment piece entitled "Time to cure amnesia about the history of Roma in Europe," in which he highlighted the fact that there is widespread ignorance regarding Roma's history on the continent. "Knowledge of Roma history in Europe is crucial to understanding their current situation. Although many people I have encountered have views about Roma, few know anything about their history. Keeping in mind this tragic past helps to understand why some Roma may find it difficult to trust majority societies and public institutions today."

The Director of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), Michael Georg Link released a statement ahead of the anniversary calling for the 57 OSCE states to use education to combat discrimination against Roma people. "Education about the genocide needs to be a fundamental part of curricula across all OSCE participating States in order to overcome persisting 'anti-Gypsy' sentiments," Link said.

"Over the past year we have continued to receive worrying reports pointing to a rising level of hate speech and prejudicial remarks against Roma and Sinti by public officials, of forced evictions of Roma from their homes, and of instances of attacks against individuals and communities," Link said. "Ensuring a greater understanding of this catastrophic event from the past can help Roma and Sinti youth work today and in the future against racism, discrimination and violations of their human rights."

Roughly 10 to 12 million Roma live in Europe today, making them Europe's largest minority. A study conducted by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) in 2011 showed a majority of Roma live below the poverty line despite actively looking for work. They are more likely to live in segregated neighborhoods than non-Roma and continue to be accused of petty crimes as well as being targets for violent assault, murder, torture, and various denials of human and civil rights.

On April 15 of this year the European Parliament called for August 2 to be officially recognized as "European Roma Holocaust Memorial Day" in recognition of the murdered Roma from the 'Gypsy camp' (Zigeunerlager) at Auschwitz-Berkenau.

The European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), an international organization working to combat anti-Romani racism across Europe, teamed up this year with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) to launch a campaign across social media aimed at drawing awareness to the atrocities committed during World War II. The campaign consisted of 10 photographs which illustrated of hardships and atrocities experienced by Roma individuals throughout the war. One was released each day in the lead-up to Sunday's anniversary.