Over the last year or so France has launched an extensive crackdown on one of its most visible and vulnerable minority groups, the Roma. Under the guise of an “offensive securitaire” and an “action humanitaire”, the French Government has begun a campaign to demolish more than 600 illegal Roma encampments and expel many of the 15,000 Roma who currently live in France, in most cases sending them back to Romania and Bulgaria.
In some cases these people have been living in France for more than five or ten years.
The French Government has defended such a policy in terms of public security and order, and as a “war on crime and lawlessness”, widely quoting the depressed and unsanitary living conditions, the high crime rate, the poor health and education, and the illegal land occupation of the Roma communities in France.
While there is some truth in all of this, generalising about the Roma is difficult because of their diversity. In essence they are a mosaic of different religious and geographical groups and subgroups with little contact with each other. In parts of Europe many have settled permanently, hold jobs, have children at school and are virtually indistinguishable from other citizens.
To many, however, the deportation of the Roma is seen as an unacceptable populist campaign, fuelled by underlying prejudice about ethnic immigrant groups which targets them for having a different life style and for their itinerant behaviour.
For the Roma, who suffered heavily under the Nazis in the 1930s, the current outpouring of prejudice, scapegoating and enforced removals must be hard to bear. France argues that it is acting legally, and while the Roma are technically EU citizens with the right to reside and work in France, the special transitional agreement with recent EU member countries like Romania only gave such immigrants the right to live in France for three months and then required them to demonstrate that they had the means to support themselves. If not, they could be deported.
Ironically, under EU law, they would seem to have the right to return immediately to France and begin another three-month trial.
It is impossible to divorce the Roma’s fate from the wider debate on immigration that has transfixed Europe. While accepting the need for foreign immigrant labour to bolster sagging labour forces and to do the jobs no one else wants to do, many Europeans do not want such migrants to stay, and remain highly critical of their presence, readily associating them with anti-social behaviour and crime.
The economic downturn has further inflamed such reactions, and in many parts of France and elsewhere in Europe, there has been a growing backlash against foreign immigrants like the Roma. In 2008 the Italian Government, for example, commenced a major campaign to raze all Roma encampments and deport their inhabitants. More recently, countries like Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Germany have also instituted removal campaigns against Roma communities.
But do such policies of discrimination and expulsion address the real problem of Roma exclusiveness and difference? Throughout their history the Roma have been distinguished by their visible difference, their constant mobility and their distinctive “rituals” and way of life, all of which have made them easy and frequent targets for prejudice, discrimination and violence.
But what made them leave Eastern Europe in the first place? Ironically, during the Soviet era in Central and Eastern Europe, there was a concentrated effort to assimilate them and provide housing, education and jobs. While culturally oppressive, such measures did provide some degree of integration. Following the transition to Western-style market economies the Roma lost many of these advantages. Access to healthcare, education and the job market tended to fade away even if political liberalisation brought ethnic recognition.
Today, the Roma in Romania and many parts of Europe do not enjoy the same access to healthcare, education, housing and jobs as do other citizens. In addition, many are subjected to considerable hostility and violence. Their move to France was simply to find a better life for themselves and their families.