Thursday 30 October 2014

Far from home and far from safe - a migrant's nightmare

If Marioara Rostas had been Irish, writes Eilis O'Hanlon, her name would be burned into our consciousness

Published 10/08/2014 | 02:30

Marioara Rostas

Jews are not generally seen these days as untermenschen, even if the recent fighting in Gaza has given the deep hidden store of anti-Semitism in Europe another opportunity to go mainstream. Communists and gay people, likewise, are now accepted as perfectly respectable, non-threatening members of the community. Alone amongst those whom Hitler sought to demonise, members of the Roma community remain targets for distaste and distrust.

Germany didn't even admit that the Roma had been a special group targeted for their ethnicity during the Holocaust until 1982, and the community has never received reparations in the way that European Jews did, though hundreds of thousands of them, possibly more than a million, died in concentration camps and pogroms in the 1930s and '40s, with the entire Roma population of some countries, including Croatia, Estonia and Lithuania, being wiped out at a stroke. Still the Roma live on the margins of European society, never quite fitting in, never quite being accepted, never quite shaking off the reputation of being shifty, dirty, anti-social.

This continuing prejudice, of course, offends the liberal sensibilities of many Irish people, who were keen to leap on a recent report into the removal of two blond-haired, blue-eyed Roma children from their families under suspicion that they'd been stolen from their real parents.

It's easy, though, to accuse the Garda Siochana of "institutionalised racism", less so to accept that the same negative attitude towards the Roma might be more widely shared, or that it may have been exposed again by the recent trial for the murder of 18-year-old Romanian girl Marioara Rostas in 2008.

Last week, Alan Wilson, a Dublin criminal currently serving a seven-year sentence for an attack on another man with a meat cleaver, was found not guilty of her murder after a five-week trial at Dublin's Central Criminal Court.

The jury took less than three hours to deliver a unanimous not guilty verdict after Mr Justice Patrick McCarthy warned them of the danger of convicting the defendant on the uncorroborated evidence of another convicted criminal, a man by the name of Fergus O'Hanlon, who was in a relationship with the defendant's sister at the time and who subsequently claimed to have helped dispose of Marioara's body.

O'Hanlon was given immunity from prosecution in another District Court case in return for his evidence and was also provided with money and accommodation as he entered a witness protection programme. Ultimately, this seems to have guaranteed that he was regarded by the court as an unreliable witness, even though the prosecution and the man himself never claimed he was an "angel".

Now it looks as if the murder of Marioara Rostas will go unsolved and unpunished, and the horrific details of what happened to this young woman, a mere 18 days after she first arrived in this country, will be filed away in a cabinet somewhere, gathering dust, her name forgotten.

It's hard to believe that we would be so accepting of this if Marioara had been, to borrow a phrase, One Of Us. If it had been an Irish girl who stepped into a Ford Mondeo that day and suddenly "didn't exist any more", as her brother Dimitriu, who saw his sister take that fatal trip, put it powerfully on Prime Time last week, there would surely be outrage, protests, demands for action.

If it had been an Irish girl shot four times and whose remains were found buried, wrapped in plastic, four years later in the Wicklow Mountains, Marioara would be burned into our consciousness, as French filmmaker Sophie Toscan du Plantier was after she was beaten to death in west Cork in 1996; or as Raonaid Murray's name and face became part of our collective memory when the 17-year-old was stabbed to death near her home in Silchester Park in 1999 as she walked home from a night out in Dun Laoghaire.

Siobhan Kearney, sister of writer and artist Brigid McLaughlin, strangled to death by her husband Brian in Dublin in 2006, is likewise remembered, naturally and without any need for reminders. These women are part of the story of what we are. They're part of us.

Tragically, they're not alone. There can't be a person in Ireland who doesn't know the name of 21-year-old Jojo Dollard, or 18-year-old Deirdre Jacob, or, perhaps most famously of all, 21-year-old American student Annie McCarrick, who all disappeared in Leinster's so-called "Vanishing Triangle" during the 1990s. Their disappearances all remain unsolved, but their stories are known to all. So they should be. Perhaps if they'd been members of the Roma community, they'd be forgotten too.

Marioara Rostas, sadly, was as invisible in life as she has become in death, and it doesn't help that she was part of a community which is widely regarded as having separated itself from the protection of mainstream society by engaging in activities which many regard as inviting danger, just as prostitutes are commonly blamed for their own mistreatment when they too become victims of violent men. Violence should never be shrugged off as an occupational hazard.

Having said that, there is some truth to the statement that certain lifestyles carry with them inherent dangers. Every summer, awful tales come back from the four corners of the world of young Irish people who will never come home again after being killed abroad. They were far from home, often vulnerable because they couldn't easily decode the cultural particularities of the environments in which they temporarily found themselves; they made bad decisions, and paid the ultimate price.

These are often educated and articulate people, in English-speaking countries that they imagine they know and understand because they've seen them on television.

How much more vulnerable and at risk young people are when, as in the case of Marioara Rostas, they come to a foreign country with no money, nowhere to live, and no facility with the native language that might help them get out of trouble.

Marioara was living in a derelict house in Donabate with more than a dozen other adults and children, with no electricity and no running water. Her inability to speak English meant that, when she did manage to phone her brother in Romania the day after her abduction, she was unable to tell him the name of the place she was being held.

It may still have been too late to save her life. We'll never know that. But being in the wrong place at the wrong time is all the more dangerous when you're also in a different country, where there's not much sympathy for your community and you don't understand a word that's said.

To say that such a life carries risks is not to blame the victim, but to show how vulnerable people like Marioara are. Not just members of the Roma community, although they have particular problems; Amnesty International published a report in April warning of a rise in the number of hate crimes against Romas. But the real vulnerability is of migrants of all races who find themselves in countries far from home and without the usual networks of help.

That is never going to be an easy life, but we can at least try to make it slightly easier by changing our attitudes towards them; not least by ceasing to think of members of the Roma community and others who travel across man- made borders in search of a better life as parasites, or as if they have no right to be here.

The Brazilian economist Roberto Unger poses the question: If goods and capital are allowed to move freely throughout the world without restriction, why are people not allowed to do the same? That question has never received a satisfactory answer from those who wish to restrict the movement of migrants or to portray those who do turn up on their neighbours' doorsteps as scroungers seeking to live off the fat of someone else's land.

Marioara Rostas wasn't asking for much from Ireland or the Irish. On the day she was snatched off the street, she was begging for amounts of money that, even in the midst of the worst recession in history, most of us would still consider to be small change. For this, she didn't deserve to be vilified. To our shame, we failed Marioara by not finding and punishing her killer. The least we can do in recompense is to remember her. More importantly, to be more welcoming to the next Marioara, because there will always be Marioaras.

Sunday Independent

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