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BRUSSELS — The order for their eviction came on Oct. 31. The children, dressed in makeshift Halloween costumes — one boy's ghost outfit consisted of a tea cloth with two holes in it — played amid graffiti-sprayed walls as anxious parents in the Roma-dominated squat discussed the news. A heavily pregnant resident in a dressing gown paced up and down the neon-litcorridor, looking distressed. She asked if anyone knew what would happen next. No one did.
After five nights, the police arrived at 6 a.m. on Nov. 4. "The urgency of the situation has forced local authorities to stop infringements of safety, security and public tranquility," said Emir Kir, the mayor of the St. Josse borough of Brussels, in a statement defending his decision to evict the estimated 200 squatters living in the deconsecrated church and monastery called Gesu. The building, he said, had become a den of "criminality related to drugs and prostitution." According to local newspaper Le Soir, 200 officers in riot gear removed the residents, 38 of whom were children.
This kind of forced removal of Roma is becoming more common in cities across Western Europe. Most of the estimated 10 to 12 million Roma in Europe — a group believed to have migrated from India in the 14th century — live in Eastern European countries. However, thanks to the expansion of the European Union, many now have the right to travel freely among most EU member nations. Their arrival in places like Belgium has frequently been greeted with hostility. In neighboring France, more than 10,000 Roma were forcibly evicted in the first half of 2013, according to Amnesty International.
Critics frequently justify harsh tactics by citing criminality; in 2010, the Romanian foreign minister suggested that Roma are genetically disposed to illegal behavior. Discrimination in their home countries makes going home — as some Belgian politicians have called on them to do — an option to be avoided at all costs.
My teacher smacked me very hard in the face. I was badly hurt and had to have two teeth taken out.
Hedviga Hankova, 28, is a Roma mother of two who has been a resident in Gesu since January. Despite working in Brussels from 2009 to 2012 as a cleaning lady, she says, the government told her she was not eligible for unemployment benefits. Faced with homelessness, she preferred to live in the squat than return to Slovakia, her home country and that of the majority of Gesu residents. Košice, the city where she grew up, was the target of international condemnation this August for erecting a wall in the city to segregate the Roma from non-Roma residents.
For Hankova, memories of segregation go back to her early years in school. "All the blond Slovak children were put at the front of the class and us, the Roma, were put at the back," she says. "They said we smell and that we might have lice, which is why we have to be separated." According to a 2012 United Nations Development Program survey, around 43 percent of Roma children in Slovakia are segregated at school.Amnesty International, which published a report this week on the segregation in Slovakia, has recently called for the government to end the discriminatory practice.
According to the European Union, one-fifth of Roma in Europe have experienced a violent, racially motivated attack in the past 12 months.Hankova, who applied for asylum when she arrived in Belgium nine years ago, cited a long list of attacks and discrimination in her application. When Hankova was 10, she says, her teacher assaulted her during class for making noise. "My teacher smacked me very hard in the face," Hankova says. "I couldn’t go to school for a month after that. I was badly hurt and had to have two teeth taken out."
Life outside the confines of school, she says, was even more dangerous. "When we left school there were often skinheads there, who carried hockey sticks. We were often afraid to leave school. They would say things like 'Look, the dirty gypsies are there,'" Hankova recalls. In her teenage years, the violence she witnessed grew in intensity. At 14, Hankova watched as a female Roma friend was burned repeatedly with lit cigarettes by local youths. A few years later, at 17, an unprovoked attack at a discotheque led her to lose a year of school. "Someone stamped on my foot many times," she recalls. "It needed to be operated, and after that I couldn’t walk to the bus stop to go to school, as it was too far."
Out of options
Life in Belgium has been safer but not free from discrimination. "When I take the tram, people sometimes call me a dirty gypsy," says Hankova. "One time, children started throwing snowballs at me, but nothing worse than that has happened to me here. It is better than Slovakia," she adds. While Belgian politics is not known for the kind of vocal Roma-bashing that is found in France, human rights abuses — and comments from politicians disparaging Roma — have occurred here too. In 2002, for example, the European Court of Human Rights said that Belgium had violated the European Convention on Human Rights when it expelled, in October 1999, 74 Roma from Slovakia who were seeking asylum in Belgium.
Crime and hygiene concerns are often cited as reasons for evictions and forced deportations; this was the case in Gesu, too. According to local media reports, police are investigating whether a 14-year-old in the squat was forced into prostitution. However, supporters of the Gesu residents say they are not to blame for outbursts of violence at the squat.
Georges-Henri Beauthier, a prominent Belgian lawyer who has been representing the Gesu residents since 2010, says that up until this fall they were living in the former monastery with the permission of the building’s owner, who is awaiting a permit to builda hotel on the site. During the period in which the contract was being renegotiated, the residents were left stranded by the local government. This, he says, caused criminality to spike.
"Because of a lack of aid from the public services to secure the site, some outsiders arrived [in the squat] and caused problems," he says. During this time, he said, gangs operated in the squat, which had become lawless. "There was no order. The front door was left open. It was so dirty," he recalls. "If the eviction would have been done then, I would have understood that. It was a very bad situation back then."
After efforts by local associations and residents to re-establish order, crime dropped, according to Beauthier. The owner was willing to extend the contract for the residents, but the cooperation of the local borough was required. The residents asked the local borough to provide a security guard and help find long-term solutions for the occupants of Gesu. Beauthier says he approached Kir for assistance but was turned away. "He had already made up his mind that he was going to expel them," Beauthier says.
It is unclear what will happen to Hankova and others like her. On Oct. 24, just a few days before the Gesu occupants were evicted, a number of civil society organizations warned in a statement that the Roma in Brussels were being condemned to wander "from squat to emergency shelters, from streets to the squats again, they are buffeted from one municipality to another."
This prediction seems to be coming true. Hankova and other former Gesu residents moved to a homeless shelter, but they have been informed that they need to leave by Nov. 15. The shelter needs to make space for other homeless people and there are not enough beds for everyone, according to Beauthier. "I am scared," says Hankova. "Of course I am. I don't know where I will go with my daughter. They said they will give us some information, but we still don’t know what will happen."
For Hankova, one thing is certain. "I will not to return to Slovakia," she vows.