A Roma reality check by Yaron Matras

Gypsies in Cumbria

Last week a friend told me about a conversation he overheard at a hairdressers in Birmingham. The barber complained about the competition, which kept rates low by employing immigrant staff. “They’re probably Romanian, you can tell from the caravans outside,” he joked, then added hastily: “But I shouldn’t say that.” In the weeks leading up to 1 January, Romanians and Bulgarians were said to be queuing up to take advantage of the lifting of employment restrictions in the UK. Several weeks on we know that the panic was unjustified and the warnings were pure scaremongering. But the hairdresser revealed something about the public’s perception of the debate. Romanians are equated with Roma – hence the association with caravans and the shyness to appear politically incorrect.

“Roma” does sound a bit like “Romanian”, so you can’t blame people for getting confused. But the similarity is coincidental. Many Roma live in Romania, but there are also Roma communities in Bulgaria, Slovakia, Hungary and many other countries. Most Roma don’t live in caravans, either; in south-eastern and central Europe they have been settled since the 15 century, often segregated on the outskirts of towns and villages.

It is the image of Roma on our streets that triggers an emotional reaction, more so than the thought of just any citizen from new EU member states arriving at a job centre in Basingstoke or Leeds. It was the Roma who were singled out last November by the deputy prime minister as “intimidating” and “offensive” in their behaviour. Unfounded allegations that Roma were kidnapping children in Greece and Ireland didn’t help either.

Why is the presence of Roma in Britain perceived as a challenge? There is, to some extent, the reality on the ground: Roma organise their lives in extended families and rely on their family structures for support. When they migrate they do so in large groups and not as individuals. This makes them more conspicuous, as they require clusters of rented homes in close proximity; they are often seen socialising outdoors because their houses cannot accommodate large groups.

But this does not explain entirely these reactions. Our perception of Roma is shaped by fictional images of Gypsies that are deeply entrenched in our culture. This fictional image represents the opposite of our own values: our society restrains the way it expresses emotion, so we envy the passion that Gypsies express through their music and colourful appearance. We feel trapped by the routines of our daily lives, so we romanticise Gypsy life as free and spontaneous, but we also resent it as lawless and uncontrolled. Roma organise their work in families and are usually self-employed, but we think of them as work-shy. They have no country of their own, so we regard them as rootless.

Perception and prejudice stand in the way of a rational assessment of the real problems on the ground faced by Roma migrants. But if we put them aside, we find that there are more opportunities than challenges. Compared with their neighbours in the deprived urban districts in which they tend to settle, Roma are more likely than others to find work and their children are more likely to attend school regularly. Allegations of a propensity to crime among Roma migrants have repeatedly been dismissed by local police as baseless.

Rather than change their behaviour or their culture, the challenge facing Roma migrants is how to make use of opportunities to settle, gain skills and participate in community life while protecting their own identity and values just like any other ethnic minority. The bigger challenge is how to change majority society’s attitudes to Roma.

By definition, social inclusion can only take place if exclusionary practices are eradicated. Instead of blaming the Roma for our fears and fantasies, we should reach out to them and allow ourselves to be inspired by their generosity, flexibility and their commitment to mutual support.

Article originally appeared in the Guardian on Wednesday, 12 February – http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/12/roma-reality-check

Don’t blame the Roma for their mass exodus from their Bulgarian and Romania homes.

Due to media hype and political rhetoric there is a fear brewing that with the uncapping of the immigrant restriction for Bulgaria and Romania at the beginning of next year we will see a full scale 29 million strong migration. We have been lead to believe the entire populations of Bulgaria and Romania will be banging down the doors of Dover, and with them will include the most abhorred of all, the Roma.

For the most part this is utter nonsense; Whitehall reports reassure us that this predicted mass tsunami will be more of a trickle with most Bulgarians and Romanians who want to move abroad have already done so. Regardless, this publicised hostility has lead to many Romanians and Bulgarians blaming the Roma for the mass hysteria, resulting in increased violence against their communities and worsening conditions.

The Roma (referred incorrectly to as Gypsies) are well known for being Europe’s poorest and most segregated minority. Living in Romania and Bulgaria under apartheid conditions, they have every reason to want to build a better life for themselves.

Understandable, the EU’s more affluent countries are concerned … for all the wrong reasons. The situation surrounding the Roma is, and always has been, a European problem. If Britain is concerned about mass Roma immigration we should first look at the situation in Eastern Europe and address the problem at the source. Wouldn’t time be better spent investigating and improving the conditions for Roma in their native countries?

Roma prosecution in Romania and Bulgaria

“…systematic discrimination is taking place against up to 10 million Roma across Europe. [Amnesty International] has documented the failures of governments across the continent to live up to their obligations”.

The Roma first arrived in Romania (Wallachia) in 1241 and until liberation in 1856 most lived in Slavery for boyers and orthodox monasteries. In 1886 the Roma population of modern day Romania stood at an estimated 200,000.

During the Second World War The Romania Government of Ion Antonescu departed 25,000 Roma to the Transnistria concentration camp; a total of 36,000 Romanian Roma were killed.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Research Institute estimates the total number of Romani people murdered during the holocaust (by 1945) at between 500,000 and 1/5 million

The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg in August 2008, noted that “today’s rhetoric against the Roma is very similar to the one used by Nazis and fascists before the mass killings started in the thirties and forties. Once more, it is argued that the Roma are a threat to safety and public health. No distinction is made between a few criminals and the overwhelming majority of the Roma population. This is shameful and dangerous.”

Academic studies against the Roma people are often published, and without criticism. Professor Ognian Saparev published an  article on ‘Gypsies’ stating that they should be confined to ghettos due to a cultural inclination towards crime.

A popular style of modern Roma music known as ‘manele’ is prohibited on public transport and in taxis in some Romanian cities as an experimental study (published by Professor’s Dr. Ioan Bradu Iamandescu) linked ‘manele’ with increased aggression and low cognitive ability.

Today an estimated 400,000 live in ghettoes in Bulgaria without access to basic facilities. In 2006 the European Committee of Social Rights found violations of the European Social Charter concerning right to housing, and in 2008 concerning right to health.

Roma children are often segregated in the education system and sent to special schools with half the number of students in schools of children with disabilities being of the Roma ethnicity, and two-thirds of the students in delinquent schools being of the Roma ethnicity. The Bulgarian Helsink Committee found a variety of human rights abuses, including physical violence to be common place in these schools.

In Romania since 1985 more than 1500 Roma have been forcibly moved to a ghetto built on a rubbish dump outside Romania’s second largest city Cluj-Napoca. In 400 Roma were given 2 days notice to move out of their homes where they had been living without conflict for 20 years.  The European Roma Rights Centre are fighting against such convictions.

In June 1012 the Mayor of Baia Mare ordered 2,000 Roma to be moved overnight from their homes to a former chemical laboratory (known to locals as the “death factory”). Police were involved in the eviction and forced the Roma into open trucks to be transported to the factory.  The factory had not been renovated for human habitation and poisonous toxins in the dust and air caused 22 children and 2 adults to have to be rushed to hospital. They were the only people permitted to leave the camp with local police patrolling the area. In another part of town a 2-metre-high wall “The great Gypsy wall” was constructed to separate the Roma community from the town. Mayor Cherecheş has subsequently been fined by the National Council Against Discrimination after complaints from Amnesty International but has no intention of demolishing the wall.

The United Nations Development Programme is concerned that the percentage of Roma with access to running water and sewage treatment in Romania is well below the average leading to high proliferation of pediculosis, mycosis, askaridosis, respiratory health problems, hepatitis and tuberculosis.