Police action against Roma Travellers community in Belgium

OPINION

Unprecedented police action against Roma Travellers community in Belgium

A huge police action took place in Belgium in the morning of 7 May resulting in a massive arrest of Belgian Roma Travellers accused of trafficking of illegally obtained vehicles. The last action of this kind took place during the Second World War when 351 Roma Travellers from Belgium were transported to Auschwitz Birkenau. Today we see again a targeted action of the federal police towards the entire Roma Travellers community in Belgium.

 

We highly appreciate the work done by the police to tackle criminals in our society. This step was needed as we all are citizens of Belgium and we are responsible and stand as equals before the justice system as Belgian citizens. At the same time, we have concerns with the way these massive arrests have been conducted and we will allow ourselves to be critical towards the way justice is delivered.

 

Early in the morning 1200 police officers entered simultaneously in 19 locations in Belgium where Travellers parked their caravans. More than 200 persecutions took place. According to the media 76 people were arrested, while community members speak of a higher number. All belongings of the families were seized, including pocket money, jewellery, cars, caravans and other personal belongings. They could not even take food from the fridge before having to leave their homes. Bank accounts of innocent people were blocked without giving a reason. Some of the community members were released from custody without having been questioned, but their belongings are still confiscated. The spokesperson of the Prosecutor announced that 90 caravans and 91 cars are confiscated and one million Euros was seized on the spot. Today the families concerned are still without housing. Many of them stay with neighbours of other family members. 18 members of one family currently share one settled caravan that could not be moved by the police. There is still no clarity about whether and when they will be able to get back their belongings.

 

Arresting innocent people without any investigation or proof of crime is unacceptable today. This resembles a terrible historical moment for the Roma communities 80 years ago, when in the very same manner Roma people were arrested as entire communities during the Nazi persecutions. We are surprised to see that very similar actions are taking place today, in a time before elections. Arresting a community and not responsible individuals is an alert. We are seriously concerned that the Roma Travellers Community (similarly to refugees) is being used as a scapegoat to legitimize the racist attempts of some state representatives to be elected or re-elected, following examples of right-wing political movements across Europe.

We, as citizens are concerned about the violation of one of the very basic and universal human rights: the right to housing. According to Belgian legislation, caravans are recognised as housing. Confiscating caravans resulted in a great number of families: men, women and children deprived of their homes. Children, disabled people and pregnant women had to spend days and nights on the street without being offered appropriate alternative shelter. We were very critical towards similar attacks against Roma in Eastern Europe and signalled this to the EU institutions. Today an attack against Roma happened in the very heart of Europe: Brussels.

 

Today we are wondering what will happen to the families left on the street. For years, many Roma Travellers had to resettle every two weeks because of the lack of caravan sites in Brussels. We were continuously persecuted by the police, which led us to change our standing place constantly. Our children could not take advantage of the right to education, leading to a high illiteracy rate in our community. In addition to that on May 7, our housing rights were also violated. Today, in the 21 century we, the Roma community still have to fight for our fundamental rights, which are supposed to be granted to everyone.

 

We are calling the Belgian Ministry of Interior to take the necessary actions and to give the Roma and Travellers back their caravans, their only homes. We are demanding a stop to arrests of entire communities for the crimes of certain individuals. We are calling human rights organizations to support us in finding a way to solve this harsh situation for our families who currently suffer injustice and to call for a constructive dialogue with Belgian and international authorities.