Gypsies, Travellers, Roma: the Black Sheep of Europe

Towards an awareness of the discrimination afflicting the continent’s largest majority?

, by Charlotte Lerat, Horia-Victor Lefter, Translated by Sarah Todd

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Gypsies, Travellers, Roma: the Black Sheep of Europe

Many different names to actually talk about the same people. The difference between them? They live in various countries, from one end of the Old Continent to the other. The Roma, who arrived in Europe in the 16th century, speak the Romani language, which is close to Sanskrit and still used today.

Well-liked, feared, reduced to slavery or slaughtered by the Nazis, the Roma population currently represents the world’s largest minority. 90% of Roma are sedentary; their population has grown from 5 million in 1994 to almost 10 or 12 million today. According to the results of a research published on the website of the DG for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities’ “Stop Discrimination” program, “half the interviewed Roma have been the object of at least one discrimination in the last year”. The EU’s 2009 investigation on minorities and discrimination specifies, moreover, that these 50% of discriminated Roma have been so on average 11 times in the course of the past year. This discrimination is so present that 69% of Roma believe that discrimination on the grounds of ethnic origin or for immigration reasons is commonplace in their country.

The Roma People, a Historically Present, Belatedly Recognised and Still Misunderstood Minority

Roma are not only present on the European continent, but it is in Europe that they are at the heart of controversies. Their exclusion actually has a double cause. They are ostracized by an often badly informed European society who easily confuses them with the Romanians, but also because of a belated recognition by the European and national institutions. Although the issue of their protection is not really questioned within NGOs or national and European authorities any more, this was not always the case.

It is enough to recall the European Court of Human Rights’ very controversial 2001 Chapman v. United Kingdom decision, which refused to guarantee the Roma’s fundamental right to nomadism, even though a reference to articles 8 (on the right to respect for private and family life) and 14 (on the prohibition of discrimination) of the Convention could have put an end to this situation. Only in 2004, after seven cases on this theme, did the European Court of Human Rights recognise for the first time the Roma’s right to their nomadic way of life. It was also only then that they were officially recognised as a minority.

Genuine EU Worry or Publicity Stunt?

On the eve of the International Roma Day (April 8th), the European Commission published a first communication on the social and economic integration of Roma people, which the second European Summit on Roma inclusion last April in Córdoba responded to. According to the OSCE, these high-ranking events can only be positive, as they give the opportunity to call attention to the Roma issue and to have an influence on the political agenda.

But these actions are only declarations of intent, as Pierre Lellouche’s reaction proves. During the Córdoba Summit, the French Secretary of State for the European Union indeed emphasised the importance of coordination, in particular between France and Romania, and of a control from the Commission on the actions of the States who have the responsibility of the “very serious problem of the integration of 9 to 12 million second-class citizens”.

In practice, such remarks seem at odds with the French practice of disguised evictions of Roma people in the form of “humanitarian return assistance” (aide au retour humanitaire). This procedure is destined to EU nationals but is however part of the cooperation which aims at repressing the traffic of human beings and controlling “the risk of fuelling Europe’s racism and rejection”, says Pierre Lellouche in his statements to Le Monde.

As pointed out by a report published last February by the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights, “the efforts made to improve the Roma’s situation have until now had very limited results. Their situation in terms of access to education, to employment, to health services, to accommodation, or in terms of social integration is still very often appalling, not to say outrageous”.

A Very Real Discrimination

In everyday life, Roma are the objects of discriminations as much from the States as from individuals. This exclusion can take the form of forced expulsions of Roma from their lodgings in shanty towns, notably in Bulgaria, Italy, Serbia, Macedonia, or Romania. Another aspect of it is school segregation. In a press release addressed to the EU and the member states on April 7th, Amnesty International demands concrete measures to “put an end to segregation against Roma children in the school system and to guarantee the right of the Rom communities to decent accommodation”.

In Serbia, many voices have spoken out against forced expulsions and the authorities believe that the situation has become somewhat better, although efforts still have to be made in the perspective of EU membership. In Kosovo, the context is different. The Roma who had to flee the war cannot return to the territory, nor build new houses abroad. In the Czech Republic, near 90 000 Roma women have been sterilised by force. On top of that there are the insults, the violence that sometimes goes as far as Molotov cocktails being thrown into Roma houses. In Hungary, racist violences, which can sometimes go as far as killing, are increasing; these are symbolic of a rise of the extreme-right in Central and Oriental Europe.

The authorities often admit that the situation is bad, although without taking any measures which would be necessary to clear away the hate and discriminatory excesses, like the ones conveyed by the creation of a Facebook group which 85 000 people have joined. According to the United Nations reports and to the Helsinki Committee, discriminations against Roma are getting worse in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Italy.

A Few Examples Feed the Hope of a Future Integration of Roma in Europe

Brussels has become aware of the urgency of the Rom problem. In September 2008, a first European Summit was organised on this question and led to the creation of a European platform for the inclusion of Roma people. This platform has already made it possible to identify ten basic principles to reinforce the Roma’s integration. The Commission has also just launched a pilot project allocated with 5 million Euros for 2010-2012, concerning various areas such as education, microcredit, or public sensitization.

More concretely, Prague has organised an exhibition about the Rom holocaust, building projects of houses for Roma have existed for twelve years in Hungary, a Spanish mayor has created a nursery for Roma children in order to keep them off the streets. These actions represents the first steps of an integration of the Romani people. It is a priority for the Spanish government, who has unfrozen 107 million Euros for 2010-2012 in order to “favour the integration, access to education, health, employment, accommodation and culture of the 700 000 Roma who live in Spain”. But cooperation between the NGOs and member states is still not developed enough.

Brussels seems to have become aware of the seriousness of the Roma’s situation on the European territory. Yet statistics about discrimination against Roma people keep going up, to the extent that some wonder whether the European Union really wants to put an end to this situation of whether, on the contrary, the Roma will continue to be the eternal criminality scapegoats and the black sheep of Europe.

Image: Little Tzigane, by kygp on Flickr.

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