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Europe's oldest integration challenge

Pallavi Aiyar  |  Brussels 

In a post-9/11 world, the discourse on minority integration in Europe is dominated by the continent’s relatively new Muslim immigrants, with headscarf and burqa bans having emerged as the issue’s most emotive symbols.

But Europe also faces a much older integrationist challenge, one that persists unresolved over hundreds of years: the Roma.

The Roma or gypsies as they are pejoratively also known, are linguistically and ethnically related to north Indians. It’s believed they left their homeland during the 11th century for reasons that remain debated, possibly a result of Muslim invasions. They never returned.

Instead, their long journey west eventually saw them entering Eastern Europe around the 14th century, where locals believed them to be Egyptians (hence the misnomer, Gypsies). Despite hundreds of years having passed, this group of “travelling people” has remained nomadic, poor and reviled by native populations. Targeted by the Nazis for extermination along with Jews and homosexuals, the Roma also suffered 500 years of slavery in the Romanian territories until abolition in 1856.

Later under the communist regimes that took over after the second world war in the many countries they lived in, attempts were made to forcibly integrate them by compulsory settlement and confiscation of property.

Today the Roma are estimated to number between two million and five million, the majority of whom live in the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Romania. As new member states of the European Union, the citizens of these Eastern European countries now enjoy freedom of movement across the 27-nation bloc. As a result, the Roma are increasingly moving to the richer countries of Western Europe where despite the ingrained rhetoric of human rights, they find themselves as unwelcome as ever.

French expulsions
The ‘Roma problem’ is currently in the spotlight after French President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed to rid the country of all “illegally” resident Roma, following an attack on a police station in July in which Roma were allegedly involved. Despite sharp criticism from the United Nations, human rights groups and even the Pope, France expelled 283 Roma last week, bringing the total number of Romanian and Bulgarian Roma expelled this year to 8,313.

Although they are EU citizens, the Roma are required by French law, like other non-French nationals, to have a work permit and prove they have the means to support themselves if they intend to stay in the country for more than three months. Many of the Roma in France are, however, without permits and according to the French government are engaged in “aggressive begging” and crime.

French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux has said one in five thefts in the Paris area was carried out by Romanians and that crimes committed by Romanian citizens in the French capital had risen by 259 per cent over the past 18 months. The French government has already dismantled some 50-odd Roma camps and has said it will close up to 300 settlements over the next three months.

The UN's Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has criticised the tone of political discourse in France on race issues, stating that racism and xenophobia were undergoing a "significant resurgence" there. Other critics of the policy claim it to be a ploy by Sarkozy to win support from the far right at a time when his popularity is flagging.

Some of the Roma living in France are part of long-established communities of travelling people who are French nationals. In addition, there are an estimated 12,000 Roma who are recent immigrants.

The European Union has expressed concern over the situation and promised to launch an investigation into whether any of the bloc’s rules are being broken by the French action.

The debate in Europe has thus come to turn on technicalities of the law, with the French insisting on their legal right to deport Roma without permits. They also assert the majority of those deported left voluntarily in return for a small cash handout. Critics however say that collective deportation of people by quota is illegal and to justify the expulsion of a EU citizen, there must be an individual evaluation of every case.

Conformity demands
But beyond the legal technicalities, the current predicament of the Roma points to the deeper problems of integration that Europe faces. Despite its claims to linguistic and geographic diversity, Europe in its current avatar in fact demands a conformity and obedience from its citizens that is rooted in secular liberalism and underpinned by shared, albeit unarticulated, Christian values.

As a result, there is no place within European society for peoples who resist homogenisation, as the Roma have for hundreds of years. Despite efforts to settle them, the Roma remain nomadic, rarely send their children to school and often eschew conventional employment.

The cold fact is that most Roma today constitute pockets of third-world living standards within the European first world. Their camps lack basic sanitation and electricity. They tend to marry soon after reaching puberty and many are uneducated. With little need in the modern era of their traditional skills as entertainers and tradesmen, begging is one of their chief sources of money making and crime is rife within the communities. The idea that the Roma cannot be helped because they don’t want to help themselves passes as conventional wisdom in many of the countries they live in.

This week, the European Network Against Racism, a lobby organisation, pointed out that France is not the only guilty party, saying it was “extremely worried that recent discriminatory measures and statements targeting the Roma population and stigmatising this ethnic group in a number of countries, including France, Italy, Denmark and Sweden, have led to a climate of impunity for those who want to target this population.” Yet, anti-Roma moves enjoy considerable popular support in these and other nations.

It is unclear when and how Europe will be able to face up to its oldest integration challenge. What is clearer is that in order to measure up to its self-proclaimed standards of human rights, it must keep trying to find a way. In Europe’s ultimate success or failure will lie hope or yet more despair for other marginalised groups in the world.

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First Published: Fri, September 03 2010. 01:47 IST