The Plight of the Roma: Europe’s Unwanted People

More than 10 million Roma live in Europe. Tens of thousands of them are fleeing westwards from poverty and discrimination in the countries of southeastern Europe. But EU member states are failing to help them.

A Roma family in Eforie Sud, Romania in September of last year. The Roma are Europe’s largest minority. | AFP

Marian, who comes from the northeast of Romania, has lived in the eight-story brick building for the past three years. It has become known across Germany as a “problem house,” “house of horror” or just as “Roma house.” As if that said it all.

Here’s a brief history of the building: A few years ago, Roma came from Romania and moved into it. More of them came, until the building almost exclusively housed Roma immigrants, more than the structure could accommodate. They held barbecue parties in the back yard, which led to complaints from neighbors. Rubbish piled up around the building and the garbage disposal service refused to remove it. That attracted rats.

Window panes broke and no one replaced them. The stairwells began to smell of urine. Some inhabitants stole, tricked people or robbed them, which led to frequent visits from the police. In the first nine months of last year, a total of 277 crimes were attributed to people living in the building.

Then far-right activists came. They demonstrated in front of the building and railed against it in Internet forums. On a Facebook page named after the address of the house, “In den Peschen 3-5,” Stefan K. wrote: “Chuck a bomb in, that’ll sort it.” Marian D. demanded: “Burn those wankers down.” The page had 1,690 likes until it was shut down last August.

That month, the building’s occupants armed themselves with clubs. Left-wing activists mounted a guard at night. When the police tried to enter the building one night in August, the people inside kept them out with iron bars and pepper spray.

‘We Had Nothing in Romania’

But Nico still claims “It’s good here.” He says: “Our children can go to school, there are no problems with the neighbors.” He finds work occasionally, and when he’s not working he collects discarded bottles and retrieves the deposit on them from supermarkets. “We had nothing in Romania,” he says.

Politicians in Germany’s new grand coalition of conservatives and Social Democrats are embroiled in a row over immigration from Romania and Bulgaria because EU migration restrictions were lifted on Jan. 1. The coalition agreement between the parties states that “incentives for migration into social welfare systems should be reduced.” Elmar Brok of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, who heads the Foreign Affairs Committee in European Parliament, has demanded that immigrants who only come to Germany to collect benefits should be fingerprinted.

Many immigrants from the two countries are well educated but immigrants also include poor and unskilled people who have little prospect of finding employment in Germany. In many case, they are Roma people.

Tens of thousands of Roma like Marian and Nico have fled the misery and discrimination they suffer in Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and elsewhere. But in France, Italy and Germany, they end up in camps or living in ramshackle accommodation. Some resort to crime. In the West too, virtually all of them remain bitterly poor and discriminated against.

Some 10 to 12 million Roma people live in Europe — more than the population of Austria. They have lived here for over 1,000 years — and have been ostracized, persecuted and suppressed as gypsies for centuries. The Nazis murdered hundreds of thousands of them. The Roma are Europe’s biggest minority — and remain the Continent’s unwanted people.

Almost 70 years after the end of the Nazi era, Merkel in 2012 unveiled a monument to the Roma and Sinti murdered in the Holocaust. But the debate now fanned by the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s CDU, about so-called “poverty migrants” from Bulgaria and Romania, which is also raging in other EU countries, shows that old prejudices persist across Europe. The dark-skinned Roma sings and steals, doesn’t put shoes on his children’s feet and likes living in the dirt — that’s their tradition, so the prejudice goes.

Governments ignored the Roma for a long time. Germany had its integrated Sinti, France had the Manouches and Spain their Kale, but no one showed any interest in them — and no one asked about the Roma in southeastern Europe. The focus has only turned to them since more of them have started coming from Bulgaria and Romania and since the number of asylum seekers from Serbia and Macedonia doubled from 2011 to 2012.

Hans-Peter Friedrich of the CSU, who was German Interior Minister until recently, wanted to get rid of these immigrants as quickly as possible and to prevent more from coming to Germany. He demanded that the countries of origin improve living conditions for Roma people there.

Living in Slums

A visit to Antena, a settlement on the outskirts of the Serbian capital Belgrade, shows the extent of improvements needed in Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia. There’s no running water, the toilets are holes in the ground. The air smells of urine, mold and burned plastic.

Ramiz, 28, lives here along with 600 other Roma. He purchased eight square meters of a garbage dump for his hut for €40. Ramiz says the Roma are “the invisible people of Belgrade.” Half the inhabitants of Antena have no passport or birth certificate. For the Serbian government, they simply don’t exist, and they get no welfare benefits.

Most of them, like Ramiz, came during the Kosovo conflict at the end of the 1990s. They dream of getting to the rich West as quickly as possible.

During the day Ramiz and his children gather up cardboard or sift the garbage for packet soup past its sell by date, opened cornflakes boxes or cocoa powder. He has the business card of a man in his pocket who smuggles people without papers across the border to the north. Transport costs €100, bribes for the border guards cost €400. Ramiz hopes he can round up so many clients that the trafficker will let him go along free of charge.

Antena is just one such settlement in Belgrade. There are hundreds like it in Serbia and thousands in the other countries of Eastern Europe. In 2011 the European Commission together with the UN Development Program and the European Agency for Fundamental Rights examined living conditions of more than 80,000 Roma people living in 11 EU member-states and found that one-third of them were unemployed, 20 percent had no health insurance and 90 percent lived below the poverty line.

Racist Abuse and Assaults

But the Roma aren’t just trying to flee poverty. They are also trying to get away from discrimination and abuse. In Romania, a far-right group last January called for the sterilization of Roma women. Bulgaria last year saw anti-Roma demonstrations in the capital, Sofia. In 2012, a mob in the Czech Republic chanted “gas the gypsies” after a 15-year-old claimed he had been beaten up by Roma people.

Human rights campaigners say the situation for Roma is particularly precarious in Hungary — even though the government claims to have a strategy for integrating them. “The Roma in Hungary are systematically discriminated against,” says Gabor Daróczi, director of the Romaversitas foundation which funds education projects for Roma. “They can’t find work, children don’t get an education.” He said the sentiment against Roma in Hungary reminded him of the 1930s. In August, three men were convicted of murdering six Roma out of racial hatred.

The cupboard door sails out of an upper floor window and lands on a heap of rubbish on a lawn in the Duisburg suburb of Rheinhausen. Half a dozen men in thick jackets and woolen hats stand just two meters (six feet) away. The door could have injured someone but Marian, Nico and the others don’t move a muscle. “They’re renovating,” says Marian. The men laugh. “There are no problems.”

Members of the right-wing government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán openly agitate against Roma people. Zsolt Bayer, co-founder the ruling Fidesz party and supposedly a confidante of Orbán, said: “Most gypsies aren’t suited to communal living. They immediately want to fuck everyone they see. If they encounter resistance, they commit murder. These gypsies are animals and they behave like animals. They shouldn’t exist, the animals. One has to solve that — using all means available!”

In March 2011, far-right militants occupied Gyöngyöspata, 80 kilometers northeast of Budapest, for several weeks. Neo-Nazis marched through the streets threatening and beating up Roma people. The government didn’t intervene against the racists. When an aid organization took hundreds of children from the village, the government described the rescue as an “Easter vacation.”

In the end, the police did get involved and the militants left. But life hasn’t improved for the Roma in Gyöngyöspata. They live in a settlement in the valley. Their homes are made of corrugated iron and chipboard, and in winter the paths are churned into mud.

The village is governed by the far-right Jobbik party which demands “birth control for gypsies” and is linked to one of the neo-Nazi militia groups that terrorized the Roma in Gyöngyöspata. Police demand fines when pedestrians walk on the street rather than the sidewalk. In the school in Gyöngyöspata, Roma children were reportedly taught on a separate floor.

Given such treatment, it’s a miracle that not more Roma try to leave their home country. But they also face discrimination in richer countries like Germany. They frequently suffer verbal abuse and are assaulted, and they don’t have equal prospects in the labor market, says Markus End, a Berlin-based political scientist. Racism against Sinti and Roma is “an everyday occurrence in Germany,” he says.

The Mannheim-based information center RomnoKher presented one of End’s reports to representatives of the German parliament’s Human Rights Committee in December 2012. It contained accounts of media prejudice against Roma people, damage to monuments commemorating the deportation and murder of Sinti and Roma under the Nazis, and right-wing campaigns against immigrants from Eastern Europe.

There has been violence against Roma in Germany too. Rudolf H., a Sinto from Klingenhain, a village in Saxony, was called a “wog chieftain” and his wife Claudia a “gypsy slut.” The Sinti family endured verbal abuse for six years. Their children were threatened at school and police once had to protect them from neo-Nazis on their way home from school.

Their house was broken into several times by people who smashed the furniture and sliced the sofa. In autumn 2009, a brick was hurled through their window with a note attached to it saying: “Beat it, you wogs.” At Christmas their house was set on fire. That’s when the family gave up and moved away.

But sentiment towards Roma is even more hostile in other wealthy EU countries. In Italy, the government is trying to rehouse Roma in segregated estates made of containers.

Elviz Isola lives in such a camp with his mother and many siblings. Before that they lived in “Casolino 900,”one of Europe’s biggest slums which was razed by bulldozers overnight. Then the government rehoused them in Salone. Elviz waits at the gate which is secured with barbed wire. There’s a surveillance camera next to it. Salone is on the outside of the ring highway surrounding Rome. It’s a godforsaken place, reachable only by a narrow path. Behind the gate stands a dreary encampment of corrugated iron containers each measuring three by seven meters, standing in neat rows, with windows that resemble arrow slits.

Rats, Stray Dogs and Rotting Mattresses

Some 500 families live here, in many cases more than six or seven people in just 30 square meters. Rats scuttle along the paths between the containers, stray dogs roam and the place is filled with rotting old sofas and mattresses the Romans secretly dump here at weekends. But Salone is supposed to be a model of a city-financed, “fully equipped” housing estate for the minority — at least, that’s how the Italian government sees it.

In fact, Salone is more a ghetto than a village, and it deprives young men like Elviz of the chance to belong to the normal Italy. It takes three or four hours to get to the center of Rome where they might get a job or job training. “Who’s going to take me on as a stableman, mechanic or kitchen helper with that length of commute, with this stamp as ‘zingaro’ that I carry on my forehead?” says Elviz. “They win elections,” says Salome, “by sticking Roma people in a prison like Salone.”

Last summer the vice president of the Genoa city council said: “Jellyfish are like gypsies: useless and always an annoyance.” According to an Amnesty International report, politicians regard the presence of Roma people as “comparable to a natural disaster.”

There was a time, more than four years ago, when Elviz Isola thought things might change, Activists lodged a complaint with the EU against the police for taking fingerprints off underage Roma. Elviz was among the plaintiffs, the ruling was in his favor and he thought everything would be OK. But today, he’s resigned. “We Roma didn’t take part in any war, we’re a peaceful people. To defend ourselves now, to rise up, what use would that be?”

Elviz and his friends prefer rhyming rap songs at the table in their container and writing a blog about their lives as gypsies. Recently, they even have a bit more money. The new pope is drawing more pilgrims to the city and the women are returning home from begging with more money in their pockets. The fact that Pope Francis speaks often of poverty and of visiting society’s fringes fills Elviz with hope. “He should come,” Elviz says. “You can’t get anymore fringe than here in our camp, nowhere in Europe.”

France too is hardly squeamish when dealing with Roma. Camps made of mobile homes and provisional shacks, established in many places by Roma from Romania and Bulgaria, are simply bulldozed away. The method began under conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, and has continued under his Socialist successor, François Hollande.

It isn’t just the right-wing Front National that believes the majority of Roma are incapable of integrating. Socialist Interior Minister Manuel Valls agrees. Their way of life is “extremely different,” he says. He immediately received a threat of sanctions from the office of European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding making in clear that EU rights guaranteeing personal freedom of movement apply to Roma as well. Her office noted that the EU would do everything in its power to defend these rights.

During a visit in Brussels, Reding sits in her office and sighs. “You can’t win with this issue,” she says. Just how little EU member states care about the Roma became clear to her when she travelled in 2010 to the Roma summit in the Spanish city of Córdoba. “Just three ministers came,” she said. Germany’s then-Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière likewise showed little interest and sent a representative.

‘No Need for a Special Roma Strategy’

After the summit, Reding demanded that all EU member states present a strategy for the integration of Roma. The response from Germany was telling: In 2011, a several-page-long document arrived from Berlin which admitted that there were difficulties when it came to integrating immigrants. But, it went on, “there is no need for a special Roma strategy.”

In the spring of 2013, Reding launched a round table for the discussion of Roma issues. It was designed to provide an opportunity to aid organizations and Roma representatives to give voice to their concerns and problems. The resulting list went from poverty to open discrimination to difficulties in accessing education and healthcare systems.

The EU, often so powerful, has little influence when it comes to Roma policy and Reding has few possibilities to impose sanctions. She would write former German Interior Minister Friedrich complaint letters when his rhetoric grew too biting. She has also criticized Italy and even began official proceedings against France when Paris expelled large numbers of Roma.

Reding’s voice is filled with frustration when she says “there are two main things that you generally get from member states: either a few well-meant Sunday speeches or populism directed against Roma.” But you can’t win votes by supporting the Roma. Indeed, member states haven’t even made use of all of the €26.5 billion euros made available over the last five years to help integrate Roma.

Damian Draghici could perhaps explain to the justice commissioner why that is the case. The 43-year-old is Roma and is a successful musician. He was a co-composer of the film music for the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series.

Today, Draghici is the chief advisor on Roma issues to the Romanian prime minister. On one afternoon in June, he found himself sitting at a conference table in Bucharest, his Ray-Ban sunglasses pushed up on his forehead. His hair is cut short, he wears a suit and speaks English without an accent. On the table in front of him are water bottles, business cards and two smart phones.

Yes, he says, they have a Roma strategy in Romania, but only because Brussels demanded it. It is just a paper. He sums up the Roma strategy of his government and the efforts from Brussels succinctly: “Based on bullshit,” he says.

He says he would be happy to help should there be problems with Roma in Germany. He could help out with projects in the Romanian villages involved as needed, you just have to ask, he insists. When he hears that German parents get 20 times as much from the state for each child than Romanian parents do, he says incredulously: “Bullshit.”

He says that in the last 20 years, Roma issues were very last on Romania’s list of political agenda. “The Roma are today are in the same condition they were as 150 years ago,” he says. Municipalities can only help Roma on a local level, he believes, and not by resolution in Brussels and certainly not by the Romanian parliament. The lawmaking body has but a single Roma representative for the close to two million Roma in the country.

At the beginning of December, EU member states passed yet another paper in Brussels. All 28 countries committed to adopting targeted measures to accelerate the integration of their Roma populations. European Commissioner Reding says that it shows that member states are prepared to do something to help the minority. “We will not hesitate to remind EU member states of their obligations and to ensure that they fulfill them,” she says.

That may be. But almost concurrently, European interior ministers placed new limitations on visa-free entries from Balkan countries such as Serbia and Macedonia. Ex-Interior Minister Friedrich even proposed, shortly before he shifted to the Agricultural Ministry, that travel freedoms be limited for people from Romania and Bulgaria, both of which are full EU members.

Such moves make Roma suspicious that the newest resolution for the improvement of their situation is little more than paper. Draghici might say: Bullshit.

– Spiegel