maandag 14 maart 2011

The Plight of the Roma Minority of Eastern Europe: Everyone’s Problem

(article by guest author Anamaria Tamas)

The East European Gypsies have been socially and economically marginalized in their home countries during communism, however the recent deportations from France and Italy are reinforcing their alienation in Western Europe as well.

In a recent article published in the New York Times, a Romanian woman of Roma ethnicity is described as “delighted” upon learning that she has a new grandchild from her daughter, who is ten years old. That is, the daughter and new mother is ten, not her newborn baby. The happy grandmother then expresses her incomprehension at the society’s deprecating outcry regarding her Roma lifestyle and customs, which simply value young brides and scores of children [1].

To most Westerns who are confronted by such imponderable backwardness, it is hard to retain any compassion or sympathy for the Gypsies; one inevitably recoils in disgust when accosted by feral Gypsy women on the streets of European metropolises, who are dressed in long and patterned skirts, loaded with dirty sucklings and/or orbited by their impish children while pathetically nagging for money. What is it about this minority –once the bohemians and clairvoyants of Europe- that supposedly makes them eschew education, society and civilization to engage in criminal activities and begging to provide for their large families, who remain backward, dysfunctional and depraved?

It is generally accepted that the East European Gypsies have been subjected to systematic discrimination and persecution during communism in Eastern and Central Europe. This included restricted access to education, employment opportunities and social services, the forced sterilisation of Roma women and the denial of equal status in the society due to their darker skin or unconventional lifestyle [2]. The result was acute poverty, widespread illiteracy, criminal involvement and a high degree of social cohesion, which reinforced their social ostracism and further diminished their prospects as equal and dignified citizens. Nevertheless, many East Europeans blame this social and economic marginalization on the Roma themselves, who ostensibly do not want to embrace civilization, pointing out to the failed efforts by the national governments and the EU to improve their living conditions. Simply put, they assert, the Gypsies are innately backward, criminal and vicious.

With the fall of Communism and the 2004 and 2007 EU enlargements, scores of poor and uneducated Gypsies dashed to Western Europe, many engaging in criminal activities and begging while living in squalid illegal camps on the outskirts of major cities, which have been rightly described by French authorities as "sources of illegal trafficking, of profoundly shocking living standards, of exploitation of children for begging, of prostitution and crime [3]". This led to increased xenophobia and prejudice towards East Europeans and prompted the governments of France and Italy to close down the camps and deport its inhabitants, while verbally reassuring an alarmed EU Commission that it was not targeting the minority group as a whole. In the case of the latest French expulsions in 2010, the police raided 300 illegal camps and expelled about 1000 Romanian and Bulgarian Gypsies who “threatened public safety” and lacked the required residence permits, even offering monetary compensation to those who chose to return “voluntarily” [4]. However, a leaked government memo soon revealed that, contrary to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, “the French authorities had been instructed to target Roma camps, rather than deal with migrants on a case-by-case basis [5]”. Consequently, a fulminating Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding threatened infringement procedures against the French government but soon dropped the case when France “reacted positively”, offering “sufficient commitments to rectify shortcomings in its immigration laws [6]”. In the meanwhile however, many of these Gypsies are returning to France and to their old lifestyle.

The plight of the East European Gypsies is not a national problem that only pertains to the national agendas of their home countries. Rather, as former president of Romania Emil Constantinescu declared in a recent conference in Berlin, it is a European issue that necessitates a comprehensive European response. Since most Gypsies possess very little capital or vocational training, it should focus most importantly on promoting education to allow them to access legal employment. At the same time, Europeans must get rid of the negative stereotypes regarding Gypsies and adopt a humane and unbiased attitude towards them. For instance, in the Romanian slang, one way of insulting someone is to call him a Gypsy- or tigan. Furthermore, the East European attitude that Gypsies are somehow innately backward is just as ignorant and very hurtful to their integration. Lastly, police raids and deportations are not only ineffectual, humiliating and a waste of money –the Gypsies are coming back anyway- but they reinforce the view that the Roma minority is just as undesired and despised in Western Europe as it has been in the East. Instead, the French government could invest in more effective social programs and constructive dialogue to foster integration and alleviate their plight.

[1] The Associated Press. “Spain: Mother’s Love For a Mother at 10”. New York Times - Homepage. 12 Jan. 2011. Web. 03 Nov. 2010.
[2] Denysenko, Marina. "BBC NEWS Europe: Sterilised Roma Accuse Czechs." BBC News - Home. Web. 11 Jan. 2011.
[3] "BBC News - Q&A: France Roma Expulsions." BBC - Homepage. 19 Oct. 2010. Web. 12 Jan. 2011.
[4] "BBC News - France Starts Removing Roma Camps." BBC - Homepage. 6 Aug. 2010. Web. 12 Jan. 2011.
[5] "BBC News - EU Warns France of Action over Roma." BBC - Homepage. 29 Sept. 2010. Web. 12 Jan. 2011.
[6] Saltmarsh, Matthew. "New York Times- E.U. Suspends Case Against France for Expulsions of Roma". New York Times - Homepage. 12 Jan. 2011. Web. 09 Oct. 2010.

Canadian-Romanian Anamaria Tamas is an intern at the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy in Berlin. She holds a BA in political science from McGill University (Montreal) and is currently working on a case study about the Roma minority in Europe.

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