Roma in Europe – Caught Between Social Crises and Viable Options

It is difficult for local communities to absorb large numbers of itinerant Roma as higher crime-rates seem to follow them wherever they go. Two weeks ago, The Guardian informed readers about a trial in France where the defendants were charged with forcing their children to carry out a series of burglaries. Though making up less than 0.05% of the population, officials in France claim they are responsible for up to 10% of the reported crime in France. Children are often kept from enrolling into schools resulting in high illiteracy levels, with 60% not finishing primary school. Some also portray the notion that the Roma are unwilling to integrate or contribute towards the societies they settle in. However, the picture is seemingly more nuanced.

Petty criminal activity is often a symptom of severe and deeply rooted social problems and usually not just an act motivated by envy. Most people will only commit a felony if they are pushed into a tight corner, as Vince Gilligan demonstrates with the Walter White character in the popular TV show Breaking Bad. E. H. Carr provides a more scholarly framework to this notion. He claims that the harmony of interest glosses over the real conflict between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. The world can only give a limited amount of actors ‘goods’. They who already ‘have’ promote laws in order to outlaw the use of force in ways where others can take their ‘goods’. Furthermore, Carr says that there is no reason for the ‘have-nots’ to follow the law because it is law that keeps them where they are.

There is no doubt that the Roma today are a marginalised group pushed into the same corner. Life expectancy among the Roma in Eastern Europe is on average 10 years lower than the remainder of the population. In some regions up to 60% live under the absolute poverty level and infant mortality rates are double those of non-Roma residents (UN Development Program).

It is also a popular belief, supported by some of the sources provided above, that many Roma are involved in criminal networks and that extend beyond petty criminal activity. This argument can be countered by looking at Roma persecution in a historical perspective. Historically, the Roma have been marginalised in the same fashion as Europe’s Jews. In the 1490s, the Roma were denied entrance to the Holy Roman Empire, and in 1530 Gypsies were banned from England. In 1554 the Gypsies Act was amended to impose the death penalty on those who refused to move. In 1835, the High Way Act was tailored to make it difficult for Roma to camp on the roadside. The Jewish Holocaust is well known in Europe, but the Nazis also viewed Roma as a racial problem and as many as 500,000 were killed in extermination camps or by the hand of Nazi collaborators. Because of this long term marginalisation, Roma culture may have responded by developing what some might call a ‘criminal culture’. Philip Gounev and Tihomir Bezlov, two Bulgarian Scholars, wrote an academic article in 2006 where they argued that with a crime-fighting strategy largely based on ethnic prejudice, a disproportionate number of Roma end up in long-term detention. This causes a so-called ‘revolving-cycle’ of crime as former inmates in turn influence their communities when they return.

More severe single-event instances have also been reported in the near past. European citizens who are part of the Roma minority experience eviction, persecution and racially motivated violence. The latest scandal was staged in Sweden, where the police compiled an ethnic based registry in order to monitor ‘itinerants’. The fact that many on the list were Swedish citizens without a criminal record and with permanent residency only shows how stigmatised the Roma-people are. All over Europe, itinerant Roma are forcefully evicted from their settlements. Three weeks ago, the BBC reported on one instance in Roubaix, France where 200 people were woken by the Police and told to find themselves a new place to live. Gilles Bourdouleix, a member of the French National Assembly, was recorded earlier this year saying ‘maybe Hitler didn’t kill enough of them’. One of the worst occurrences of ethnic motivated violence towards the Roma was, however, reported by Amnesty International in Hungary back in 2010. In the village of Tatárszentgyörgy, a petrol bomb was thrown into a house and the occupants liquidated as they made their way out the front door. Hungarian authorities are criticised because they seemingly choose not to persecute those responsible. With such instances reported frequently, it is hard for the Roma to trust the various juridical systems in Europe and/or build a future for themselves. Before the symptoms can disappear, criminal activity, we need to get rid of the cause, racial violence and forced evictions.

On Wednesday 9th of October the Plenary of the European Parliament once more addressed the situation of the Roma in Europe. In the Plenary, words such as ‘human crisis’ and ‘the poorest of the poor’ were used to describe their conditions here in Europe. It was also mentioned that ‘immigration and integration will only happen when these minorities fell free and safe.’ There is broad political will within the European Union to improve the situation, but politicians fail to translate intention into action. We should strive to provide the minimum standard of living for the Roma, according to what most states in the world have recognised as universal human rights.

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