Peggy Hollinger and Chris Bryant of the Financial Times put their fingers on what’s behind the current uproar over Europe’s Roma population: the group is “an easy target for politicians seeking to distract attention from problems at home by playing on fears over security.” That strategy was stage center in early August when France’s conservative government shipped several hundred Roma back to Romania and French President Nicolas Sarkozy pledged he would bulldoze 300 Roma camps over the next several weeks.
Europe is certainly in need of distraction these days. Sarkozy’s poll numbers are dismal and his administration is plagued by scandals. The economic crisis has seen France’s debt soar, and European governments have instituted savage austerity programs that are filling the jobless rolls from Dublin to Athens. Since most politicians would rather not examine the cause of the economic crisis roiling the continent—many were complicit in dismantling the checks and balances that eventually led to the current recession—“criminal gypsies” come in very handy.
France’s crackdown was sparked by an angry demonstration in Saint-Aignan following the death of a young “traveler” at the hands of police. Sarkozy never saw a riot he couldn’t turn to his advantage. On July 29 his office declared it would dismantle Roma camps because they are “sources of illegal trafficking, profoundly shocking living standards, exploitation of children for begging, prostitution and crime.”
Living conditions in Roma camps are, indeed, sub-standard, but in large part because local French authorities refuse to follow a law requiring that towns with a population of over 5,000 establish electrical and water hookups for such camps. And because countries like Germany, France, Italy and Britain refuse to use any of the $22 billion that the European Commission has made available for alleviating the conditions that the Roma and other minorities exist under.
As for the “crime” and “drug trafficking” charge, research by the European Union (EU) suggests there is no difference between crime rates among the Roma than in “the population at large.”
“Indeed there are Roma who are in charge of trafficking networks, but they represent less than one percent of this population, the rest are victims,” David Mark, head of the Civic Alliance of Roma in Romania, a coalition of over 20 Roma non-governmental organizations, told IPS News.
Mark went on to point out that “Because that one percent commits crimes and the authorities are not able to stop them, all Roma are being criminalized.” The expulsions and demolitions, he charged, are “based on criminalization of an entire ethnic group, when criminality should be judged on a case by case basis in courts of law.”
In some cases the level of hysteria would be almost laughable were it not resulting in the most widespread roundup of an ethnic minority since World War II. Italy declared a “Gypsy emergency,” in spite of the fact that Italy, which has a population of 57.6 million people, has only 60,000 non-Italian Roma.
Estimates are that there are between 10 and 12 million Roma in Europe, making the group the continent’s largest minority.
For several weeks, the EU’s executive body, the European Commission, played hot potato with the issue. The EC insisted that it was doing everything it could to help the Roma and pointed to the $22 billion pot that remains pretty much untapped. But it also kept silent on charges by human rights organizations that countries like Germany, Italy and France were violating EU law guaranteeing freedom of movement.
These nations—primarily France—argue that since the Roma are from Romania and Bulgaria, and both countries are newly minted EU members, the freedom of movement clause doesn’t kick in until 2014. And, in any case, French officials charge that the Roma can’t show they are gainfully employed and self-supporting.
On this latter point, rights organizations point out that Roma are discriminated against in employment. “It’s somewhat hypocritical to complain about people not having money to subsist in France when you don’t offer access to the labor market at the same time,” says Bob Kushen, managing director of the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest.
With the exception of Spain and Finland, most EU members have the same restrictions on staying in a country more than three months without a regular job.
France is certainly not alone in singling out the Roma. Germany is preparing to deport 12,000 to Kosovo, a destination that may well put the deportees in danger, because Kosovo Albanians accuse the Roma of siding with the Serbs during the 1999 Yugoslav War. From the Roma’s point of view Serbia had long guaranteed their communities a certain level of employment and educational opportunities, while the Albanians had always repressed them.
Other countries singling out the Roma include Britain, Sweden, Denmark and Belgium. The Swedes deported some 50 Roma for “begging,” even though begging is not a crime in Sweden.
But France has instituted the most aggressive anti-Roma campaign, which also includes its own “gens du voyage,” all of whom are French citizens and theoretically guaranteed encampment facilities. France is estimated to have between 300,000 and 500,000 of these “travelers.”
The French campaign, however, has sparked a backlash.
Romania’s Foreign Minister, Teodor Basconschi, blasted France for “criminalizing ethnic groups” and warned of “the risks of populist provocation and creating xenophobic reactions at a time of economic crisis.” Basconschi called for a joint Romanian-French approach “devoid of artificial election fever.”
The Vatican’s secretary of the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People Commission said, “The mass expulsion of Roma are against European norms.”
The growing chorus of protest by human rights groups, the United Nations, the Vatican, and Romania finally moved the EU to inject itself into the controversy.
“Recent developments in several European countries, most recently eviction of Roma camps in France and expulsions of Roma from France and Germany, are certainly not the right measures to improve the situation of this vulnerable minority. On the contrary, they are likely to lead to an increase in racist and xenophobic feelings in Europe,” said Meviut Cavusogiu, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
Cavusogiu cited Protocol No. 4 of the European Convention of Human Rights that prohibits “the collective expulsions of aliens,” as well as the right to freedom of movement for all EU citizens.
However, France was sticking by its guns, claiming that it was not “deporting” anyone: the Roma were leaving voluntarily for a nominal payment of $386 for adults, and $129 for children. But some members of Sarkozy’s party, the Union for a Popular Movement, were using the word “deport,” and even the more explosive term “rafles.” That was the term used to describe the rounding up of French Jews during WW II, most of whom died in the death camps.
Roma suffered a similar fate at the hands of the Nazis. It is estimated that between 200,000 and 1.5 million Roma perished in the concentration camps.
Scapegoating the Roma is an old European tradition, almost as old as the initial migration of the Romany people out of Rajasthan, India in the 11th century. Most of those Roma settled in Moldavia and Wallachia—today’s Romania—where they were quickly enslaved. Those Romany who did not escape enslavement by taking up the nomadic life remained slaves until 1856.
According to Maria Ochoa-Lido of the Council of Europe, those centuries of slavery essentially sentenced the Roma to poverty-stricken lives on the margins, with life expectancy considerably lower than other populations in the EU.
A lack of access to education, social services, education and the legal system for Romania’s 2.5 million Roma still drives many of them to take to the road. As bad as conditions for the Roma are in countries like France and Germany, they are better than those in poverty-stricken Romania.
The attacks on the Roma could well be a prelude to similar campaigns against other European minorities: Turks in Germany, Pakistanis in England, Moroccans and Algerians in Spain and Italy, and Africans scattered throughout the continent. Xenophobia in a time of economic crisis rarely restricts itself to a single target.
Visit Dispatches from the Edge for more of Conn Hallinan’s essays.