Roma gypsies are routinely described as Europe’s largest ethnic minority. Numbering between 10 and 16 million, their combined population exceeds that of many European Union countries. Yet their numerical strength offers no compensation for the poverty, persecution and scapegoating that the Roma have to endure – or for how their welfare is accorded a low priority by the EU’s institutions.
That few Brussels officials pay much attention to the situation facing Roma has been exemplified in recent weeks as Nicolas Sarkozy’s government in France effectively declared a war against gypsies. When the Paris authorities announced in late July that it had authorised the systematic destruction of Roma camps and the large-scale expulsion of Roma to Bulgaria and Romania, the European Commission initially insisted that the surrounding matters concerned national EU governments only.
Following the deportation of about 1,000 Roma by France during the month of August, the Commission has finally questioned the legality of these measures. In an unpublished paper, the EU’s executive arm cast doubts on assurances by Paris that all of the deportations were voluntary and therefore did not breach a 2004 law – known as the “free movement directive” – that forbids group deportations from one of the Union’s states to another.
According to the paper, the granting of lump sums ranging from 100 euros (129 dollars) for child deportees to 300 euros for adults “was not sufficient” to exempt France from the EU’s “free movement principles”.
“The response (from Brussels) has been very slow,” Sophie Kammerer from the European Network Against Racism said. “Although the measures were announced by the French at the end of July, the first press statement from Viviane Reding (the EU’s justice commissioner) wasn’t until the end of August. So almost a month passed with no reaction. Now, at least, the Commission is looking seriously into the matter.”
Kammerer noted that under EU law, deportation orders must be given in writing one month before they take effect and must allow for the possibility that they can be appealed. “Clearly, this was not respected,” she added. “The camps were dismantled one day and people were asked to leave the next day.”
So far, however, Reding has not given any indication of whether she would be willing to start legal proceedings against France. Her spokesman Matthew Newman took issue with suggestions that the Commission had dithered in reacting to the French announcement.
“The Commission has been deeply involved in Roma issues for years,” he said. “We give large sums of money to Roma integration. It is really quite surprising to hear people say we are not on top of this issue. If anything, we have been trying to raise attention to the discrimination faced by the Roma.”
France has struck a defiant tone in the contacts it has had with the EU authorities. Eric Besson, an immigration minister, insisted during a visit to Brussels last week that there have been no “collective deportations” but that some Roma have been required to leave France over their involvement in theft and “aggressive begging”. Besson claimed that France has been subject to “needless and scandalous accusations” over the measures it has taken.
The French offensive against Roma bears some similarities to an initiative unveiled by Italy in May 2008. The Italian “security package” provided for the dismantling of Roma camps and the automatic deportation of migrants who cannot prove that they have regular employment. Since then, thousands of Roma have been pushed out of Italy.
Europe’s more recent wave of attacks against Roma kicked off in July when the mayor of Copenhagen Frank Jensen urged the Danish national authorities to ensure that “criminal Roma” were arrested and expelled. More than 20 Roma were deported from Denmark soon afterwards.
Germany, Belgium, Britain and Sweden are among the other EU countries that have either taken action against the Roma or stated their intention to do so. Meanwhile, anti-Roma sentiment and the tendency to blame Roma for crime has been vigorously exploited by far-right politicians in many parts of Europe. The Hungarian extremist party Jobbik has called for Roma to be forced to live in segregated camps from the general population. In response to its call, the Hungarian Socialist Party said it hoped that Jobbik did not wish to have “concentration camps” erected.
And racism against Roma manifested itself in a particularly violent way in Slovakia in late August when a gunmen killed six members of a Roma family and another woman in Bratislava. Some human rights campaigners have linked the murders to the negative stereotyping of Roma by powerful European politicians.
Ivan Ivanov, director of the European Roma Information Office, the main group representing Roma in Brussels, said he had warned five years ago that his community was likely to come under attack from several EU governments. He urged the European Commission both to take robust action against France for contravening EU law and to draw up a comprehensive strategy for combating discrimination against Roma. Despite the Roma’s status as Europe’s largest ethnic minority, the Commission does not have a specific unit of officials dedicated to serving their interests. The Commission’s employment department, for example, has only one official tasked with handling issues affecting the Roma.
“The European institutions should not look at this on a case-by-case basis but should come up with a proper European approach, ” Ivanov said. “Roma are European citizens, so they should benefit from the same rights as any other European citizens.”
•First published by Inter Press Service (www.ipsnews.net), 6 September 2010