Unlucky roads – Roma in Europe

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.

See also:

(Saban Bajramovic, rest in peace.)

I’m still wondering, where is the International Solidarity Movement for Gypsies?

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16 thoughts on “Unlucky roads – Roma in Europe

  1. Superb article, much appreciated. Living in France I have found the statements issuing forth from Paris stomach churning. For all Sarko’s talk about moving France forward it is a sad irony that language being used to talk about the Roma hasn’t been heard from mainstream politicians since Vichy.

    • Thanks – sounds amazing. Going to get it now. There was something else from BBC too on, I think, P.M. last Friday where they interviewed a correspondent, a secondary school teacher who had a Roma background and would not tolerate the word ‘pikey’. The anchor asked him didn’t he think that travellers should do more to fit in, and he responded by appealing to diversity. It stopped though before anybody could explain the case for diversity, which is the part we’ve forgotten, if we ever knew it, and are vulnerable to leaving undefended.

  2. from one point of view it is disgasting that people are deported which means many of broken lifes. from another-it is pretty hard to save culture of country in conditions of globalization, i am not sure that those actions are rasist.

    • Maybe your point is that the roma threaten a culture, rather than simply transforming it. a) Is that because they are foreign? b) Or they’re the wrong type of foreign? Or c) is justifying deportation by referring to culture while conducting it on the basis of ethnic group always racist. (Answer: c)

  3. Pingback: Roll Around the Blogs. « ModernityBlog

  4. Sorry – that should have read ‘so much patting on the back’. Why should the French tax payer be expected to pay for each and every Roma person being dealt with on a case by case basis?

    If people illegally in a country en mass account for an extrordinary level of crime around their illegal settlements – deport them!

    Shouting ‘rascism’ against everyone who disagrees with you is a very boring yawn Labour tactic who like you are not in power.

  5. Gideon;
    1) They are not there illegally. They are citizens of the EU. See this comment from Pete Shields at Tendance Coatesy:
    The Roma as Shane says are indeed Romanian citizens, which allows them to enter France|(and Italy which has been expelling them as well) legally, for tourism purposes and if they want to work they need to apply for a work visa.

    The problem with getting a work visa is you need an increasingly very rare thing called a CDI- and unlimited work contract- getting a CDI (Contract duration indetemine) nowadays is very difficult for unskilled or semi-skilled workers as most employers are issuing a series of CDD (contract duration determine)- then when the allocated time runs out hiring someone new. This is really messing up people’s lives as without a CDI it is very difficult to get someone to rent you a flat, open a bank account etc. Young French people are being hit by this hard, and the Roma a lot harder.

    In the case of the Roma they tend to do seasonal work- grape picking, fruit picking, building work on the black etc working for employers who, shall we say, have a rather chevalier attitude towards issuing contracts, paying social security, indeed even paying the minimum wage. Which means that a large minority of the estimated 14,000 Roma in the country are unable to get a work permit.

    Instead of actually sorting out the dodgy employers the Government is taking the popularist route of blatant racism- the figures show that around 58% of the general French population support such gutter politics, but a sizable minority 42% oppose it.

  6. @Gideon

    2. And there is NOT “an extrordinary level of crime around their illegal settlements”. Can you give any evidence for this ridiculous claim?

    3. Shouting ‘rascism’ against everyone who disagrees with you is a very boring yawn Labour tactic who like you are not in power.

    This comment is particularly bizarre on so many counts. First, what has Flesh is Grass have to do with the Labour Party? Second, when has the Labour Party ever shouted “racism” at anyone? (Admittedly, Gordon Brown muttered “bigot” once, but he did it when he thought he was off air – he wouldn’t dare say that in public. In public he said things like “British jobs for British workers”.) Third, this is not about “agreeing with” Sarkozy or not, it is about human beings made homeless first by extraordinary levels of violence against them in Rumania, then by the heartless government in France.

    • Thanks for these Bob. And regarding Gideon’s point about “If people illegally in a country en mass account for an extrordinary level of crime around their illegal settlements – deport them!”

      Bob’s commenter is right that Roma have the right to move freely in Europe. There is nothing to prevent these people returning to France, even if they are removed from France today. The French authorities acknowledge this. That is, the Roma are not, as you claim, “illegally in a country”.

      Secondly, people are never collectively responsible for a crime of grounds of identity, as you are content to say they are. It is totally against EU law – not to mention principles – to condemn by association and mete out collective punishment. The reason France should conduct case by case investigations is because these people are individuals with rights. Moreover (and separately from their rights) they are disadvantaged to the extreme – try to imagine.

  7. [deleted by moderator]

    Nobody has a problem seeing the Maori people of NZ as indigenous people of New Zealand ever though they have only been there for 800 hundred years, and, they became the dominant tribe there simply by genociding the pre-existing people there before them.

    [deleted by moderator]

    • It’s a silly argument. You, a prosperous internet-using English (or is it American) gent who is part of a majority group in his country, seeking to make out that your social group is in the same predicament as the Maori, who were unequal to resist the dominating impositions of European settlers.

      Quite grotesque of you, Dave, yet again. You’re also becoming repetitive. Don’t come back here.

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