By Ulrikke Agerup
Immigration has always been a contested issue in Europe, but in recent years, public discourse on the subject has taken on a rather dark dimension. This has been particularly evident since the financial crisis severely affected the economies and job markets in European countries. Events in Norway over the summer provide a good example. Alarmingly, some of the online rhetoric used to describe a group of immigrants, the Roma, resembles the hate speech used during the genocide in Rwanda. There is a risk that this sort of public discourse not only reflects opinion, but can also shape it, with potentially dangerous consequences.
Traditionally, the people formerly known as ‘Gypsies’, the Roma, are a travelling people and, as such, they do not easily conform to the values and norms of more static societies. Originating in India, the Roma immigrated to Eastern Europe in the 12th century, and have been moving about Europe ever since. They are a people without a nation-state and are thus viewed as guests or squatters in every country in which they reside. Historically, the Roma have been highly discriminated against. During the Holocaust, the Nazis murdered an estimated 400,000 Roma. With limited access to education or the job market, and thus with limited means of supporting themselves, some Roma are driven to begging.
The presence of the Roma in Oslo is nothing new; they have been recognised as a minority in Norway since 1998. Yet, media attention this summer brought the issue to the forefront of public debate. Due to discrimination and the simple inability to pay for lodging, some Roma are forced to live in tents. Many Roma in Oslo were living under unsanitary conditions, mainly due to the fact that the city council refused to provide them with public toilets, in case that would prolong their stay. The concern was that the Roma could spread diseases near the areas and parks they inhabited.
Newspaper articles covering the debate were not in themselves very xenophobic, but they sparked a public debate that allowed people to voice derogatory views that were nothing short of shocking. The following examples are taken from social media and the comment section of online Norwegian newspapers, such as Aftenposten and Dagsavisen: “The sooner we get that garbage out of our country the better”; “The gypsies are equal to us other human beings? Wrong. They are subhuman, and I stand by that!”; “These are nothing but parasites that nobody wants in this country”; “Get out of our country! Rats”; “Get them the hell out of here, or do a Breivik in Romania. SHOOT them all!”
This rhetoric can without hesitation be compared to the rhetoric used during the Rwandan genocide, where Hutus extremists used the radio to dehumanise the Tutsi, calling them rats and cockroaches. This kind of dehumanisation made it easier for many Hutu to go from verbally and physically abusing the Tutsi to actually taking their lives (Mamdani, M. 2002).
Of course, I’m not implying that Norway is now a society on the verge of genocide; it is not at all as polarised as Rwanda was in 1994. But the dehumanisation of the Roma in Norway and the negative discourse ties into a broader context of identity politics and the generally negative European attitude towards the increase in immigration and the immigrants themselves, exemplified by the expulsion of the Roma from France in 2010. Public responses to immigration have been dominated by a deep-seated animosity towards the new immigrants, particularly those who do not integrate well. This gives the debate surrounding immigration policy a very dangerous undertone, especially when considering the increasing popularity in many European countries of extreme right-wing parties.
The way the public discourse portrays a part of the population can be a very powerful tool in shaping the people’s opinions. For this very reason, we should be careful of how we address an issue and be especially mindful of the underlying currents in a society. History has shown us, in Nazi Germany and Rwanda, to name two extreme cases, what such currents can lead to.