By Sarah Gerber, ’18
Earlier this month, Roma people won a court battle in Italy over a legal text that defined suspect goods as things sold by “gypsies”. This was a small victory for one of Europe’s most stigmatised ethnic minorities. There are 10-12 million Roma people dispersed across the continent, often living in marginalized communities. According to European Union Agency for Human Rights 90% live below the poverty line. For many, their only way to a better standard of living is begging or prostitution abroad.
The tough situation for the Roma in today’s Europe has become increasingly more visible in Western European countries. With the entrance of Bulgaria and Romania into the EU in 2007, poorer segments of the population make their way to the West in search of a higher standard of living. EU tourists can stay in another European country without visa or work permit for up to 3 months, many have no other place to live but the streets for this period. The number of Romanians sleeping on the street in London has tripled during the last year, many of which are Roma. Similarly, in Stockholm the number of beggars has doubled during the same time period, 70% are reported to be Roma from Romania or Bulgaria.
The reality that faces the Roma living on the street is grim even if it is a step up from their situation at home. In a case documented by Amnesty International, 300 Roma were reportedly moved to live next to a landfill site where dangerous chemicals were dumped. Sadly, it is one of many cases of mistreatment of the Roma minority, since 44% of the Roma in Romania live in poverty compared to 11% in the rest of the population.
As a result an increasing number of Romanian girls, many Roma, end up working as prostitutes in large western European cities. An issue particularly highlighted in London. More and more often, older Romanian men are also demanding “taxes” from Romanian sex-workers. A few migrants have taken other desperate measures and resorted to organized stealing. In one publicized case from 2011, 27 Roma were convicted for having groomed children to steal in France, Belgium and Germany. Although, such cases are the exception rather than the rule, it fuels negative stereotypes about the Roma and is a clear symptom of desperation.
By returning the communist state-owned property to its previous owners, Romanian authorities are exacerbating the poverty and migration. Last year they evicted 50,000 people, who inhabited confiscated land from the communist rule. The eviction of Roma, who have lived on a plot of land for a generation but never received ownership papers, is not rare in Romania. Official documents and statelessness further confuse the question of who is responsible to provide housing. In Italy alone, 15,000 Roma lack a documented citizenship.
Nevertheless, the marginalization of Roma people cannot only be dealt with on a national level. For centuries they have lived on the fringes of society in most European countries. Sometime between the 3rd and 7th century the people who today are called Roma migrated from northwestern India. Some settled in the Middle East and others ended up in Europe, where they moved from country to country escaping oppression. In Moldova and Romania they were enslaved and escaped to England in the 15th century where they were hanged and expelled.
It is often forgotten that Roma people were among the first to be persecuted and sent to concentration camps under the Nazi regime. Up until the 1970’s forced sterilization of Roma women was a widespread practice in Western, as well as Eastern European countries. More chilling is the fact that the practice continued in the Czech Republic until recently.
The stigmatization of Roma has also made influences of the Roma culture unknown to the average European. The travelling component of Roma tradition has created a culture with many variations that for centuries has given to and taken from other European cultures. For instance, the Roma language originated from the Punjabi region and is unwritten with numerous dialects. Words such as “chav”, “pal”, and “drag” in English, actually originated from the Roma language. There is also a rich Roma tradition in dance and music. Yet, few people associate Roma with Flamenco, which is the traditional dance of Spanish gypsies.
The deeply engrained prejudices towards Roma communities are also reflected in the half-hearted attempts to act on the issue. Denmark and cities, such as The Hague, have introduced a ban on begging. This has proved to be nothing more that a way to push vulnerable people from one place to another. Other countries, such as France, have dedicated resources to evicting Roma people. Just in 2013, 19,000 Roma were evicted in France. They were promised housing, but never received it. 11,000 Roma were put on planes back to Romania with 300 EUR each in their pockets, which became a short-term vacation rather than a solution, since most of the expelled soon returned to France.
To find a better solution France initiated negotiations with the Romanian government in 2012 and Sweden went to the negotiating table in 2014. So far, these negotiations have achieved little progress. According to the Swedish EU ministers, the Romanian government is more concerned with their own sovereignty and prestige than finding a cooperative solution. Romanian politicians still oppose any help from a proposed European committee that would include experts from Poland and Estonia, countries that have effectively dealt with a similar situation. Instead, changing the name of the Roma minority to Tigan, so not to mix up Romanians and Roma, has been a higher priority for the Romanian government.
What is perhaps most striking about the situation is that a lack of money does not seem to be the primary obstacle. Romania does not make use of the billions of Euros that the EU Commission has given them. Beginning in 2014 and continuing until 2020, the EU will provide another 202 billion Euros for Romania to improve the conditions of marginalized communities. The main issue seems to be that little can be done when there is a lack of political will.
Image source: Spiegel Online