The Roma: Europe's favorite Scapegoat
Dispatches From The Edge
submitted to Portside by the author
August 23, 2010
[Note: A version of this article appeared in The
Berkeley Daily Planet (The East Bay's Independent
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
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 wide spread
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
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
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 to 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
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
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
[Conn Hallinan is currently a columnist for Foreign
Policy In Focus (FPIF.com), a "think tank without
walls." FPIF is associated with the Institute for Policy
Study and draws together more than 600 foreign policy
analysts from around the world to examine U.S. foreign
policy. Hallinan is also a columnist for the Berkeley
Daily Planet, and an occasional free lance medical
policy writer. He is a recipient of a Project Censored
"Real News Award." He formally ran the journalism
program at the University of California at Santa Cruz,
where he was also a college provost. He holds a PhD in
Anthropology from the University of California at
Berkeley, and lives in Berkeley, California.]
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