On August 29, 2010, when a plane took off from France to Romania with 79 Roma on board, the international community was already well-informed of the nature of the flight and the reasons why these members of the French Romani community were on board. With the announcement of a crackdown on illegal immigration, followed by evictions obviously targeting Romani communities, the French government brought Europe’s poorest community into the focus of the world media.
The answer to why now is perhaps clouded by the fact that the return of Roma from France to Romania and Bulgaria is not a new phenomenon. European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) reported that France has been returning Roma to these countries under various schemes in significant numbers since at least 2007. What is new with expulsions of Roma that occurred in 2010 and why this issue never came into focus before? But before, passed the common picture and prejudice we have of them, what do we know about the European Romani population?
Who are the Roma?
The estimates on how many Roma live in Europe vary greatly. The minimum estimate starts at a bit over 6 million while maximum estimates go as far as 16 million. Unsurprisingly, ethnic mimicry is widely spread in Romani communities throughout Europe, making official numbers of Roma from national censuses inaccurate and misleading. This is only emphasized by the fact that many Roma do not posses identification documents, and in line with many governments’ hobbies to downplay the numbers of Roma residing within their borders. Still, the most frequently used estimate of the number of Roma in Europe is 11 million, which makes Roma the largest stateless ethnic group on the continent. One could say, looking at the impressive numbers, that it seems to be a force to respect and reckon with.
Being dispersed throughout Europe, without a common language or a common religion, European Roma share one thing only: they constitute the poorest strata of society wherever they are and share all of the consequences pertaining to it. The poorest are the easiest to pick on. Violence against members of the Romani community is widespread and takes many forms, from state perpetuated violence to organized individual attacks. Romani children are furthermore often segregated into special schools or classes resulting in their poor academic results, high drop out rates and low self-esteem. On top of this, the high levels of unemployment, poor education, spatial segregation, substandard housing and in general low socio-economic status in combination with persistent discrimination make Roma highly vulnerable to human trafficking. One would say they would attract more of the world’s concern over human rights and be visible not only when massively deported from France.
But how can we expect visibility and compassion for a community so pervasively poor, discriminated and so often systemically segregated? It is a hidden community, and even when they have the world’s attention, this time, for being massively expelled from France, even then, we witness misplaced concerns and demonstrations of outmost hypocrisy and deviated values.
(I)legal aspects of 2010 expulsions – What’s the problem?
Contrary to the statements of the French President, the expulsion of Roma that started in late August bear the characteristics of mass expulsions, which are contrary to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights. At the same time, the lack of French authorities to examine circumstances of those deported on individual basis is in breach of the EU’s Free Movement Directive. In its submission to the Commission, ERRC points to the President’s Communiqué of July 28, which singled out Roma as an ethnic group for law enforcement action. This was further more confirmed by the French Interior Ministry Circular of 5 August 2010, by which the French security forces were instructed to “give priority to Roma” in conducting eviction and expulsion operations.
In short, it was (and still is) sufficient to be recognized as a member of Romani community to be deported without actually establishing legality of one’s stay in France. Consequently, as ERRC reported, there were cases of people being deported even though they arrived to France less then three months ago, meaning that they had a Right of residence. According to Free Movement Directive, the Right to residence can be extended after three months if certain conditions are met (article 7, section 1). French authorities, however, never assessed if these conditions had actually been met for this would require examining circumstances of thousands of deported on individual basis. It is obvious that French so called crackdown on illegal immigration was nothing else but a crackdown on widely unwanted Roma, with or without a legal right to residence.
Political tensions around the expulsion of the Roma
Roughly ten thousand Roma were expelled from France in 2009, statistics show, and over eight thousand had been expelled in the period since September 2010 alone. The EU Agency for Fundamental Rights in its 2009 report found that the main push factors for Roma migration within in the EU include poverty and racism in the country of origin. Even though Roma migrated to France, mainly from Romania and Bulgaria, in search for a better life, escaping dreadful living conditions they were subjected to in their countries of origin, this seemed not to be of interest for the French President Sarkozy. His reaction to the situation was a legalist one. The law is the law for Mr. President, and expulsions of Roma are nor massive nor expulsions of Roma at all, but simply expulsions of illegal immigrants.
Sarkozy’s true concern, even outrage, was targeted at ruthless Viviane Reding, EU's Commissioner for Justice, Human Rights and Citizenship, who dared to compare Sarkozy’s expulsion policies, clearly targeting members of one ethnic group, with those found in Nazi Germany before and during World War II.
Sarkozy was quick to say Reding’s words were “shameful and disrespectful” and that he would not allow France be the victim of such “outrageous” insult. He emphasized that even Chancellor Merkel shared his shock over Reding’s shameful usage of language and confided he “was deeply shocked especially given our wartime history” and that “[t]hese words were deeply wounding and were insulting to [his] fellow countrymen."
On the day of his statement, Mr. Sarkozy made the job of political satire an easy one. He was shocked over the comparisons made of his policies, which are set apart from Nazi policies only by the extent of the latter’s cruelty. On the other hand, he seemed immune to the grim destinies of thousands of Romani children deported back to misery from which their parents tried to save them, seeing France as salvation. What a tragic mistake for Roma, and revealing of theFrenchpresident.
Riccardo De Corato, Milan’s vice-mayor was less devious. He, unlike anti-Nazi defender of “western” values Nicolas Sarkozy, was quite frank and said on record: “These are dark-skinned people, not Europeans like you and me”, and added that “our final goal is to have zero Gypsy camps in Milan”. Milan executed policies to a great extent resembling those of the Fifth Republic, with a difference of being at least straight on the nature of it.
Passing the buck of unsolved problems
To discriminate, then deport, and then ignore the real problems, however, is not the only way to deal with unwanted members of our society. Last December, authorities in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, once again deported a group of Roma from the very center of the city to the little settlement nearby, called Pata Rat. Far enough not be seen or heard of. Since Pata Rat happens to be, conveniently, not only a home of more than a thousand Romanian Roma, but also a municipal landfill, it attracted attention of some international journalists. Appalled by scenes of children sleeping in improvised dwellings amongst piles of garbage, the journalists reported back on this horrible nightmare. Concentrating on the misery and suffering of human beings living on the garbage field, journalists seemed to forget to stress that Pata Rat is not Cluj-Napoca.
According to Cluj internet portals, it is a sign of outmost disrespect and journalist amateurism that foreign journalists allowed their respective audiences to think that streets of Cluj are covered with garbage. Local media were apparently seriously concerned what international audience would think of Romania and Cluj, a splendid and tidy Transylvanian city. Not a word on a thousand of human beings, former neighbors, living on the garbage, without access to most basic utilities or health provisions.
It is such hypocrisies that millions of dispersed and deprived European citizens face in their every-day life. Poor and unprivileged, they have little chance of having their problems taken into consideration in this self-absorbing world. They are irrelevant and therefore they would be replaced by all different kinds of trivializations, easier to comprehend and far easier to digest. For as long we turn our heads in the other direction, questioning mere legality of actions instead of comprehending the source of the issue, Romani children will be begging on the streets of European cities like Paris, will be segregated into special schools like those in Czech Republic, and will be living their nightmares on landfills of Pata Rat.
If indeed we are to be judged by how we treat the most distressed of those in our society… it will be a horrifying judgment, and rightfully so.
Ivan Matic was born in Dubrovnik, Croatia. Acquired BA in Political Science at the University of Zagreb, Croatia. Received a Master’s degree from the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest in the Nationalism Studies Department with MA thesis focusing on the national identity formation/construction. Since September 2010 intern in the Programmes Department of the European Roma Rights Centre.
To go further
On Nouvelle europe website
- Les Roms : vers une stratégie européenne menée par la Hongrie ?
- Roumanie. Qui sont les Tziganes ?
- Que fait l'Europe pour les Roms et les gens du voyage?
- Les Rroms : un peuple européen aux racines indiennes
On the Internet
- Amnesty International, “Romania: Forced evictions of Roma in Romania.” Accessed January 26, 2011.
- FAIOLA A., “Milan moves to evict Gypsies from camps.” The Boston Globe, October 17, 2010. Accessed January 28, 2011.
- CASTLE S., “E.U. Casts Legal Doubt on French Roma Expulsion.”, New York Times, September 1, 2010. Accessed on February 10, 2011.
- Council of Europe, Roma and Travellers Division. “Romani Population in Council of Europe Member States.” Last Modified July 2008
- EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, “The situation of Roma EU citizens moving to and settling in other EU Member States.” Accessed February 2, 2011.
- European Court of Human Rights. “The European Convention on Human Rights as amended by Protocol No. 14.” Accessed February 10, 2011.
- European Roma Rights Centre. “Always somewhere Else: Anti-Gypsyism in France.” Accessed February 2, 2011.
- European Roma Rights Centre. “Roma in Europe.“ Accessed on January 20, 2011.
- European Roma Rights Centre. “Standards do not apply. A report by the ERRC.” Accessed on February 5, 2011.
- European Roma Rights Centre. “Submission in relation to the analysis and consideration of legality under EU law of the situation of Roma in France: factual update.” Accessed January 18, 2011.
- HEWITT G. “The row over the Roma.” BBC, September 16, 2010. Accessed January 28, 2011.
- GUTMAN, J., “The Romani people and the Free Movement Directive. ” Legal FrontiersI, October 16, 2010. Accessed February 10, 2011.
- Minorities at Risk Project. “Assessment for Roma in France.” Last modified on December 31 2003.
- Napoca News. “Şi Pata Rât este Cluj – Napoca? ” Accessed January 26, 2011.
- Official Journal of the European Communities. “Charter of fundamental rights of the European Union.” Accessed on February 10, 2011.
- OSCE. “Recent Migration of Roma in Europe.” Accessed on February 2, 2011.
- TRAYNOR, I., “France Defends Roma Expulsions.” The Guardian, August 31, 2010. Accessed on February 12, 2011.
- V.P. “Have your Roma back.“ The Economist, Accessed on January 18, 2011. a
- ZUVELA, M., “European Commission Announces legal action against France’s Roma policy.” Deutsche Welle, September 29, 2010. Accessed on February 12, 2011.
- European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC)
Source photo : London Protest Against French Deportation of Roma Citizens, par g'schmally, sur flickr