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Europe’s Pariah People

One man in ten million, photo: Zsolt Bugarszki/flickr

With over 10 million members, the Roma (also called Romani) constitute today’s largest EU minority group. Scattered across a dozen countries, with their largest concentrated populations in Central and Eastern Europe, they have become Europe’s current pariah people.

In July of this year, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced his government’s plans to deport thousands of Romanian and Bulgarian Roma migrants back to their home countries. Already in 2009, roughly 10,000 Roma were expelled from France, and around the same number has been driven out thus far this year. In Italy, where authorities already started to deal with the ‘Roma question’ back in 2008, large-scale evictions of Roma from settlements across the country are already taking place. In Milan alone, officials have expelled over 7,000 Roma over the past two years.

France and Italy are, however, not alone in evicting the Roma. Across Western Europe, politicians and public officials are tripping over themselves with declarations proclaiming that Roma as an ethnic group are dangerous and predisposed to crime and other antisocial behavior, and must therefore be removed from society as quickly as possible. In light of this, numerous Western European countries (namely Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and the UK) have either already moved to expel the Roma, or intend to do so in the nearby future.

In Eastern Europe, meanwhile, where most Roma live, the situation has never been anything but hideous. Across the region, Roma communities are denied equal access to adequate housing, education, health, water and sanitation, and thus remain deprived of all prospects. In addition, anti-Roma violence remains a serious and, in many places even an increasing problem, exacerbated by the fact that most perpetrators of violence against Roma continue to act with impunity.

However, discrimination against the Roma is not a new phenomenon.

Anti-‘Gypsy’ legislation, marginalization, and expulsion on a regular basis have their roots in the Middle Ages. Linguistic evidence indicates that the Roma originated from the Indian subcontinent, arriving in Europe in the mid-fifteenth century. The initial curiosity of Europe’s residents soon changed to hostility against the newcomers. In Wallachia and Moldavia, for example, the Roma were quickly enslaved and remained so for the following five centuries (until 1856, when the last Roma slaves were finally emancipated.) The German Nazi regime then hunted the Roma alongside the Jews, as they were also considered ‘racially inferior’. No-one knows just how many Roma in total fell victim to Nazi persecution, with numbers ranging from 500,000 to 1.5 million. However, in the post-war period, their sufferings were quickly forgotten, if even recognized at all.

In communist Eastern Europe, the Roma became victims of forced assimilation schemes and faced intrinsic restrictions on their cultural freedom, while their counterparts in Western Europe remained socially excluded and widely discriminated against. Hardly surprising then that the Roma turned out to be the major losers of the developments that swept through Europe after the collapse of the former Soviet Union. While democracy and free markets brought new liberties and higher living standards to most people, they brought populist ‘Gypsy’-bashing, further scape-goating, ghettoization, forced sterilization, and third-class education to the Roma.

Although Central and Eastern European countries were quick to bring in legal regulations towards improving the living conditions of their Roma populations in the hope of enhancing EU accession chances, these policies had either failed, or had been forgotten by the time of the respective Union enlargements. Still today, therefore, Roma women are often sent to separate maternity wards. Their children, if allowed to go school at all, are frequently steered into classes for the mentally handicapped. Half of the Roma children in schools today will never finish primary school. Most will wind up in slums – trapped in multigenerational poverty.

Across the continent, the Roma are framed as exotic nomads who are heavily involved in illegal and criminal activities and who simply do not want to integrate into mainstream societies. As long as such a stereotypical representation of the Roma remains widespread, individual governments will get away with policies that target the entire group. The Roma people have never learned how to defend themselves against such collective injustice. They do not constitute a coherent group, are not organized, and have no lobby. Roma identity exists along a spectrum of cultural identification. Different groups of Roma practice different religions, speak different languages, and tribal sentiment far outweighs any wider sense of unity.

Poverty rates among Roma are higher than those of any other group in Europe, with substantial parts of the European Roma living below the poverty threshold. It is thus mainly for socio-economic reasons that the expelled Roma will return to Western Europe. And rightly so. Because is that not what the EU is all about? To offer its citizens possibilities for socio-economic mobility beyond the borders of the nation-state?

The Roma are excluded from schooling, and we criticize them for being uneducated; they are unable to get work, and we criticize them for being unemployed; they are disqualified from getting proper housing, and we criticize them for their ‘camps’. The collective pre-judgment and stereotyping of Roma must stop. Instead, we need to develop a new, decent, and Europe-wide policy, so that this plagued minority can finally find some peace.

Check out the ISN’s resources on Racial Discrimination, Human Rights Policy in Europe and in particular also the ISN podcast on the Roma.