They are Europe’s poorest people and it seems no one wants them. The issue of where the Roma live is currently making headline news across Europe and particularly in France, where the government has embarked on a high-profile campaign to deport Roma living in illegal camps.
The Roma are a nomadic people, who are thought to have their origins in the East, leaving India in the 11th Century to settle across Europe. The largest settlement of Roma is to be found in Romania, which has around 1.8 million, though Bulgaria has the highest concentration, with its 750,000 Roma accounting for over 10 per cent of its population. Countries like Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia and the Baltic nations also have large Roma communities.
Facing discrimination and endemic poverty within their home countries, many Roma have begun taking their families West in search of work. In France, there are at least 400,000 native Roma – or travelling people – who live as part of long-established communities. But their numbers have been swelled by migrant Roma travelling from Bulgaria and Romania. As part of the EU since 2007, citizens of these countries have the right to enter France without a visa, but must obtain work or residency permits to stay longer than three months. With work permits hard to come by, most of the estimated 12,000 Roma from eastern Europe are therefore living illegally in unauthorised camps in France. Most earn a living by begging or collecting scrap metals and other goods.
Opinion polls have shown that most French voters consider them a nuisance, so despite public protests from some sections of French society, the government feels it has the backing of the majority to deport the Roma from illegal camps. Mass deportations began after a group of French Roma attacked a police station in July, following an incident where a 22-year-old Roma man was shot driving through a checkpoint. As a response to the violence, 300 Roma camps have been shut down and nearly 1,000 Roma sent back to Romania and Bulgaria.
The European Commission has questioned the legitimacy of such expulsions, suggesting that not enough attention is being paid to individuals’ circumstances. The UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has also criticised the deportations at a time when racism and xenophobia are experiencing a “significant resurgence” in Europe. Indeed, some French politicians have spoken out against the policy of expulsions. One politician likened the round-ups to the large-scale arrests of Roma during World War II. But government officials are keen to point out that all the repatriations are voluntary and each Roma is paid 300 Euros, plus 100 Euros per child, when they leave France.
Whether the Roma want to leave or not, it is likely that many will return. With no prospects of work in their home countries and little effort made to ensure their children are properly educated, begging or collecting unwanted goods in rich Western countries offer a steady income. So French politicians may only be washing their hands of the problem for a short period of time.
Governments across Europe are being urged by the EU to make efforts to find long-term solutions to the poverty and isolation of Roma communities. As the slogan of the European Roma Summit in April warns, “exclusion is much more expensive than integration”.