Migration politics

Threatened Peoples – “Europe must initiate massive programmes”

Tilman Zülch; © Katja Wolff/GfbVD

Tilman Zülch, General Secretary of the Society for Threatened Peoples, on the situation of minorities in Germany and the debate on immigration from south-eastern Europe.

Mr Zülch, you founded the Society for Threatened Peoples in 1970. Why your interest in minorities?

When I was five years old, my family was expelled from East Prussia. We were nine women and children and a 74-year-old Russian-German, who was our guide. Six-hundred-and-fifty kilometres, twenty degrees below zero, a metre of snow. We pulled up in a village in Holstein where more than two thirds of the people had just arrived – Silesians, East Prussians, Sudeten Germans. This was a formative experience for me. Later there was also a very early confrontation with Nazi crimes and an interest in the fate of the Jews.

What peoples are threatened in Europe today and how can the Society for Threatened Peoples help them?

We have to distinguish three types of threats and discriminations. The first form consists, for example, in imposing the state language on ethnic minorities. In Europe the Federal Union of European Nationalities (FUEN), the umbrella association of organizations of national minorities, campaigns against this. Together we have, for instance, treated with the state government of Schleswig-Holstein and succeeded in having the rights of the Danes, Sinti and North Frisians living there incorporated into the state constitution. Secondly, we are committed to helping religiously persecuted groups. Among these in Germany are, for example, the Yazidi, a religious minority among the Kurds, who live in Lower Saxony and Westphalia, and encounter a great deal of misunderstanding. This is a kind of milder discrimination that can be compared to discrimination against national minorities.

And the third type?

That is the most brutal form: mass murder and rape, even genocide. For a long time we thought this wouldn’t happen again in Europe, but we were wrong: think of Bosnia.

Problem of forced prostitution

What are the specific problems that minorities in Europe have to struggle with today?

We commissioned a study that investigated the situation of women in German brothels. According to the study, and also according to the statements of police detectives, the women frequently belong to minorities – for instance, black Africans, Bosnians and Roma. Half of them have been forced into prostitution.

Are these women particularly threatened because they belong to minorities?

Yes, because as members of minorities they live in particularly difficult social, economic and political conditions. No one can check whether a girl who is sent to a brothel is of legal age or only 14. When these women try to escape, they are often deported to south-eastern Europe. They arrive there traumatized, physically broken and poorer than before.

European Civil Rights Prize of the Sinti and Roma

You received the European Civil Rights Prize of the Sinti and Roma in 2014. In the 1970s and 80s the Society for Threatened Peoples worked for the recognition of the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis on the Sinti and Roma. These peoples were given a memorial in Berlin only in 2012. Why did all this take so long?

Many considered the so-called “gypsies” as scum. But they were put in concentration camps, they were abused and they died en masse. When we became aware of their fate in the 1970s, we organized a big event; media from the United States to Japan reported on it, and Federal Chancellor Helmut Schmidt at last acknowledged that the Nazi crimes against the Sinti und Roma constituted genocide.

What has changed since then?

The name “Sinti and Roma” has established itself instead of discriminatory designations and the Sinti have been able to claim their compensation for persecution.

Roma in particular continue to be discriminated against in many European countries; even in Germany there is debate, sometimes led by populists, about increased immigration from south-eastern Europe.

The situation of the Roma may be compared to that of Afro-Americans before Martin Luther King. Roma are pushed back and forth; it’s terrible and sad. Europe must initiate massive programmes to do something against discrimination – and closely monitor these programmes if they are to be carried out by the government of the respective countries. Best would be a programme consisting of young Europeans together with young Roma.
Steffi Unsleber
is an editor at the “tageszeitung” (taz) and has frequently reported on the situation of the Roma in south-eastern Europe and Germany

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
August 2014

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