France’s recent deportation of Roma families has brought strong condemnation from the European Union (EU) justice commissioner, Viviane Reding. Ms Reding called the expulsions a “disgrace” and said the situation was one she thought “Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War”. Certain French ministers have been quick to condemn her rebuke and the comparison with France’s wartime Vichy regime, when thousands of Roma were rounded up and sent to Nazi death camps. One minister indignantly remarked that there was no similarity to giving families “a nest egg [and] an air ticket for the country of [their] origin” and sending people on “death trains” to gas chambers.
The EU commissioner’s comments are perhaps needlessly hyperbolic, but they stem from the argument that France is not respecting individual rights guaranteed in European law. By deporting whole groups of the Roma, the French government appears to be targeting them as a distinct ethnic group, rather than assessing them on individual merits. One Roma man, Andras Bobo, who was returning to western Romania, said he worked with scrap metals, like iron, copper and aluminium and was previously told by the French police that he could stay “provided we didn’t break the law”. Last week, the Romanian minister of Regional Development issued a statement confirming that none of the Roma so far deported had a criminal record.
What kind of life do the Roma face back in Romania, where most of the expelled families have returned? Certainly, nothing like the fate awaiting those sent to camps during the Second World War. Nevertheless, life in some areas of Romania is extremely grim as the economic crisis across the country deepens. Europeans would be swift to condemn the conditions in which many Roma live if these people were in any other part of the world.
In the Transylvania region of Romania, it is a common sight to see barefoot Roma children carrying buckets from village wells all year round. Unemployment among families in rural areas is almost 100% and life expectancy is far below the national average. Low literacy rates are also a problem, as many Roma children fail to finish school. The Roma culture is partly responsible for this situation, as youngsters are held back by extremely patriarchal and conservative attitudes, where girls are expected to marry early and boys to work from a young age rather than study. Many Roma children face discrimination and exclusion in the education system. It is not uncommon to find Roma children in institutions for the mentally handicapped.
Attitudes are slowly changing and national and international organisations have been set up to improve education amongst the Roma. In one area around Oradea, the Ruhama foundation works in tandem with local churches to ensure Roma children attend pre-school and primary classes. And at Cumpana in Constanta County, a Romanian community-based organisation has overseen the building of new homes for the Roma using an EU grant. Any families who do not take proper care of their new premises will forfeit ownership. But judging by the pride and happiness shown by those who have moved into these new houses, this is unlikely to happen. The new residents say they are now treated with “respect” by the community. One mother, Ali Regep, said “in my boldest dreams I didn’t dare have such a beautiful house” and was delighted to be washing her children “in the bath, with hot water.”
Projects like the one at Cumpana show that with a proper home, the Roma can be made to feel part of their community. Roma families might not choose to return to the illegal, slum-like camps of France, if they no longer had to live in squalor at home.