Anti-Roma Measures Backfire

, by René Wadlow

Anti-Roma Measures Backfire

In a transparently political measure to please the anti-immigration Right - basically the voters of the National Front - President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and his Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux from August on have carried out a high profile crackdown on Gypsy camps calling them “sources of illegal trafficking, profoundly shocking living standards, exploitation of children for begging, prostitution and crime.” Chartered flights have been organized to return Roma to Bulgaria and Romania.

The result has been the opposite of what the French government intended. The deportation of the Roma has become a “hot” issue in France with the mobilization of human rights groups and strong public statements from leaders of Catholic and Protestant communities. The European Parliament has passed a strong resolution on the issue: the European Commission has expressed concern, and there is talk of looking at the root causes of the persistent poverty and marginalization of the Roma. There have been meetings between French and Romanian ministers of government, and there has even been talk of Europe-wide cooperation on the situation of the Roma.

It would have been impossible for humanitarian and human rights NGOs to develop a campaign to get so much publicity on an issue in so short a time. In 2009, the French government deported 7,875 Roma to Romania and Bulgaria without publicity, public outcry, or suggestions that real social development measures should be carried out. This year, there have been some 8,300. Thus for 500 more people a fire has now been lit that should be kept going so that a high priority is accorded to both developmental and preventive measures to raise the level of living of the Roma.

These measures come in the middle of a European Decade of Roma Inclusion (2005-2015) called by European Union officials as “an unprecedented commitment by European governments to improve the socio-economic status and social inclusion of Roma” although public awareness of the Decade is probably not high.

There are estimates that there are 10 to 12 million Roma living in the European Union with the largest concentration in Romania - some two million according to unofficial estimates. There are also fairly large Roma groups in the former Soviet Union, in particular the Russian Federation, Ukraine, Belarus, as well as in Turkey. Originally from India, the Roma have spread through Europe probably between the ninth and fourteenth centuries. Why they left northern India is not clear. They seemed to have been from the start a nomadic population living from handicrafts and providing music and dance to settled populations. It is only recently that some Roma intellectuals have become interested in their Indian heritage and have been making contacts with groups which still live in India and which may have had common ancestors.

The Roma have been known by a host of different names and only in the last few years have started using “Roma” as a common name in order to achieve some political attention to their conditions. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) which created a small programme in 1994 uses the term “Roma and Sinti”. In former Yugoslavia, they are often called “Egyptians” due to a myth that Roma came from Egypt rather than India. Useful ethnographic studies on the Roma are published by the Project on Ethnic Relations, Princeton.

The Roma face a wide range of often interrelated problems: citizenship, political participation, racially-motivated violence, poverty, unemployment, and an image which arouses ancestral fears of Gypsies. Governments and Roma NGOs need to work together to provide decent living conditions based on non-discrimination and fundamental rights. There needs to be social integration through a reduction of disparities and some access to economic, political, social and cultural institutions. Social integration, however, need not mean an end to a nomadic way of life. The right to a nomadic way of life was recognized by the European Court of Human Rights in 2004.

Wandering now from land to land Who is there here to feel my pain?

Younous Emre, Thirteenth Century Turkish dervish

A major difficulty is that the States with large concentrations of Roma such as Romania and Bulgaria have limited financial resources, and the Roma have little political influence in order to get their share. In Western Europe, the Roma are the easily identified “tip of the iceberg” of the larger issue of migration and integration as globalisation has made the barriers separating different countries ever more permeable.

As Hannah Arendt has written “The individual who has lost his place in the political community risks to drop out of the boundaries of humanity.” The confrontation between nomad and sedentary peoples is an old one, always present in different forms and in different places. Compassion and political imagination are needed. Managing migration in a changing global environment is a crucial issue. The Gypsy camps are a text of a society’s ability to mediate between the universal nature of human rights and the protection of the cultural traits of a people.


Roma boarding a plane at Roissy Charles de Gaulle Airport, near Paris on August 20.

Michel Euler, Associated Press

Further reading:

 > European Roma Rights Center

 > Open Society Institute

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