“Oh, Roma, from wherever you have come
With your tents along lucky roads
I too once had a large family
But the black legion murdered them
Come with me, Roma of the world
To where the Romani roads have been opened”
There are no murdering black legions in this case, but the destruction of unauthorised Roma tent camps in France, the 300 euros to begin a new life in somewhere else’s back yard or else be subjected to compulsory deportation, must seem continuous. All over Europe Roma life chances are limited to the extreme and the odds are stacked against their success. The exclusion begins early in life. Tabloids ensure that Europe’s largest ethnic minority, numbering 12 million, remain widely known and disliked – in other words, stereotyped – for delinquency.
French President Sarkozy insists he is not seeking the removal of an entire population (ethnic cleansing) but only those who have not met the conditions to remain (work and accommodation). There’s an election coming and many voters consider the Roma a nuisance, so there are charges of populism. Wondering which other state leaders wouldn’t do similar under these circumstances, I can’t be confident of any. This is not a new thing – France deported 8,313 this year so far, 7,875 last year. And this is not just France but also other European states including Germany, Denmark and Italy. British-born communities here are not exempt from neglect and forced evictions. This is why France can release statements that no European government has condemned its actions. A glance at the European Roma Rights Centre site confirms that France does not deserve to be thought of as particularly hostile to Roma.
Worries about antiziganism in France are well-founded though. The UN Commission on the Elimination of Racism has warned France about prejudiced and discriminatory language and acts. One of its members:
“Our concern is that the removal or return of the Roma has been done on a collective basis rather than examining their individual circumstances so it gives the appearance that a group has been identified rather than individuals.”
‘Appearance’ is an odd word here. Few contextualised quotations are forthcoming in the media, I can’t find the report, the Commission’s site isn’t up to date, and nor is my French. My impression is that expelling its workless, foreign-born Roma, French officials have been citing EU and French law which “expressly allows for restrictions on the right to move freely for reasons of public order, public security and public health”. To account for this, the they have further been attesting that the camps are sources of “crime, prostitution, trafficking and child exploitation”. This way of talking about the camps, particularly in the context of justifying their destruction and the expulsion of their residents, discriminates against Roma because it collectively implicates them in these social problems – absolutely intolerable social problems. Yes, France reserves the right to expel workless and homeless Europeans from Romania and Bulgaria, whatever their ethnic origin. Yes, it reserves the right to destroy unauthorised encampments. But there are doubts that France has been repatriating on a case by case basis as it is legally obliged to. And France has inexcusably accompanied lawful action with racist rhetoric. Hence the world’s eyes on France and the UN Commission’s emphasis on appearance.
In England, travellers are a news staple. In Bedford the encampment close to where I lived (Poets, near the station) was at, alas for nominative determinism, Cut Throat Lane. These days the local paper uses the outrageous headline of ‘Village to be damned‘ to point out that where traveller encampments are house prices fall (surely this reflects on British house buyers; scroll down the following week’s letters page for Ben Foley’s and Cathryn Varney’s excellent responses). The Sun and The Daily Mail are openly racist about Gypsies, and this plays out: a council consulted a village near a proposed site and although 3,500 out of the 8,500 residents responded, the estimable council was obliged to reject all but 400 for discriminatory or racist argument for reasons. The Travellers’ Times reports:
“Among the milder concerns or comments about the traveller sites that Mid-Bedfordshire District Council said it would classify as racist were:
- The council should be more concerned with taxpayers’ rights than those of travellers;
- Having travelling families nearby may mean an increase in noise levels;
- A traveller site may lead to more litter on the village green;
- Petty crime is rumoured to have increased in some other areas where traveller camps have been placed.
Racism is prejudice because of someone’s racial background. The concerns above define Gypsies and Travellers as non-taxpaying, noisy, dirty and criminal. They are, discriminatory not matter how nicely put and not legitimate planning concerns. Despite an outcry from some local residents, politicians and the media, the logic seems to be spreading.”
Reading that article and watching the documentary embedded at the end, you realise that a council’s insight to reject discriminatory arguments is still insufficient for travellers’ needs, or to alter the perceptions of the settled community. Local and national governments all over Europe have still to find a way out of this zero sum game where a settled community is perceived to lose if a traveller community is given what it needs. Otherwise all that remains is to move Roma on and so compound the exclusion.
Worklessness and enforced segregation affect Roma. Roma migrate in pursuit of a better life; the terms of Romania’s and Bulgaria’s acceptance into the EU allowed for free movement while restricting the right to work. Open roads are not enough to change Roma fortunes.
French Foreign Minister Eric Besson does not acknowledge the minority status of Roma, arguing “Romas are not considered as such but only as citizens of the countries of which they are nationals”. A disregard for ethnicity in favour of nationality can sometimes be inclusive and sometimes discriminatory, depending on what the argument is about. In this case it is wrong to factor out Roma minority status from an assessment of their future. Moreover it is missing from the news that many Roma are technically stateless and unable to access services because (according to a 2004 research paper by the European Roma Information Office for the European Commission) they lack personal documents; it’s not clear whether these Roma born outside France do in fact have Romanian or Bulgarian citizenship, or whether there is some kind of bilateral agreement in place. In the end, the expulsion of Roma by European governments to live as excluded minorities other European countries is a situation which more than any illuminates serious humanitarian problems with the state nationalism I pragmatically support and the borders which define it. Not that the Roma fared better under socialism with its forcible settlement.
How can the fortunes of Roma in Europe be reversed? Where national or local governments enact discriminatory policies, Roma rights will depend on strategic litigation drawing on the anti-discrimination law and sustained by the EU’s Race Equality Directive and Framework Decision on Racism and Xenophobia. In the longer term the UN Commission is emphasising that improving the situation of the Roma is a pan-European responsibility. A pan-European strategy which supports Roma inclusion needs to remove any financial reason for a country to repatriate its non-native Roma. This needs to reside in policies which support the poor in general.
- Click on the EU Roma Network’s Resource Centre link to Best Practices and you get “Showing 1-0 out of 0”. That figures. There’s more to look at there though.
- In 2009 the Council of the European Union consolidated a series of conclusions (which look like what I’d call resolutions) including the following ‘Common Basic Principles’: constructive, pragmatic, non-discriminatory policies; explicit but not exclusive targeting; intercultural approach which involves people in different backgrounds; aiming to integrate Roma in the mainstream of society; awareness of multiple discrimination, particularly gender; sharing of successful policies between member states; use of EU legal, financial and coordination instruments; involvement of regional and local government; involvement of civil society; active participation of Roma.
- In April 2010 the second European Summit on Roma Inclusion took place.
- On 15th September there will be an EU seminar on the contribution of EU funds to the integration of the Roma. It is in Hungary, where the far right are waxing. It will be followed by a high level event in October. It references previous events, but does not link to them. I want to strangle the EU’s web site, which is a portent of uncoordination.
After rummaging around in the EU I haven’t found an example of successful pro-Roma pro-settled community policy-making. I know they’re out there somewhere on that EU server.
Structural changes are necessary but not sufficient. There is also prejudice which is far, far more difficult to address. This post includes two examples of government vision which is far more enlightened than the views of ordinary people. Educating about racism is a minefield – for example raising stereotypes for discussion risks disseminating them.
- Romani Studies at the University of Hertfordshire.
- Thomas Acton, Professor of Romani Studies, who has a new book
- I’d like to read this special issue in the Community Development Journal on ‘Participatory Approaches in Community Development: Transitions and Transformations‘ but the participation academics decided to publish in a commercial closed-access journal. Money not where mouth is.
- Adrian of Green Reading
- Bob From Brockley (see the ‘Also reads’ paragraph)
- Update: At Harry’s Place Sarah draws attention to reports of the fingerprinting of all Roma in Smolensk. In linking to this post she’s elicited some apt criticism of it in the comments, in particular my implying a homogenous ‘France’ instead of specific French government, and moving too easily (probably inadvertently taking my cue from The Sun again) between references to Roma and travellers.
(Saban Bajramovic, rest in peace.)
I’m still wondering, where is the International Solidarity Movement for Gypsies?