The forced closure of Roma camps in France has recently attracted criticism from UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay. Aidan McGarry assesses some of the main issues facing Roma in Europe, arguing that Roma are often seen and treated not just as a problem community, but as a problem in their own right. Any solution must be focused on challenging negative stereotypes and facilitating respect between Roma and the wider communities within European states.

Roma are the most marginalised minority group in Europe, with poverty, discrimination and exclusion a reality for most. Roma are at the bottom of the heap in virtually every socio-economic indicator including educational attainment and employment and remain on the fringes of society in both Eastern and Western Europe. The population of Roma is estimated by the European Union (EU) to be somewhere between 10-12 million in Europe, a significant demographic presence, but for years the Roma issue had been ignored by national governments and international organisations.

Researchers who work on Roma usually start by asking a simple, though fundamental, question: why are Roma so discriminated and excluded? Indeed, outsiders might wonder why Roma are so hated and vilified: in modern Europe anti-Gypsyism has become the last acceptable prejudice. Paradoxically, the Roma issue has never been so far up the political agenda with international organisations dedicating resources and formulating strategies to address Roma integration, with national governments reluctantly dragging their heels behind. Partly this can be explained by a series of recent high profile attacks which have shone a spotlight onto the acute problems facing Roma: notably in Italy in 2007-2008 when Roma were evicted from their homes and their fingerprints taken; the on-going right-wing discourse constructing Roma as criminals in Hungary; and the expulsion of Roma from France, which began in earnest in 2010, yet continues today under a supposedly more sympathetic left-wing government.

Roma Protest (Credit: Philippe Leroyer)

Addressing this situation is very complex and I do not intend to outline the various issues facing Roma, nor do I propose a remedy. Instead I will highlight a number of tensions, misconceptions and paradoxes which one needs to grasp in order to really understand the Roma issue. First, Roma are often seen and treated not just as a problem community but as a problem, and it falls to policymakers to find the solution to solve the problem. Such a starting point is unhelpful because it ignores the cultural value and vitality of Roma communities, that they are important in their own right.  Additionally, it means that policy is formulated for Roma, not by them. International organisations and national governments frequently try and work out what Roma want or need and determine their interests as outsiders with cursory consultation. While there has been a drive to include Roma more in policy and decision-making, the fact is Roma do not participate in public life and do not have an effective voice at the local, national or transnational level. This means that any consultation in the policy making process appears tokenistic and naively assumes that Roma have some sort of say over decisions which affect them, ignoring asymmetric power differentials which mean that any modest input from Roma is routinely ignored.

Second, any ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ pursues a one-size-fits-all approach which does not work for Roma. There is an assumption that all Roma have the same interests and that they think and act the same way. The truth is that Roma are extremely heterogeneous: they do not all speak the same language; are geographically dispersed; do not share a common religion; have divergent levels of wealth and education; and possess different cultural traditions and practices. Indeed, the building of ‘Roma’ by ethnic entrepreneurs is in many ways misleading as it reinforces the idea of a community and really should be understood as a political project rather than an affirmation of a collective group identity.

Third, the question of responsibility is one which has become much more prevalent in recent years, particularly since the accession of Central and Eastern European states, where most Roma are located, to the EU in 2004 and 2007. National governments are keen to label Roma as a ‘European problem’, which means they can be absolved of their responsibility to integrate Roma in socio-economic and political life in the national context. The EU responded in 2011 by creating a Framework for National Strategies for Roma Inclusion which effectively means that each member state will create a national policy on Roma to address employment, education, housing, and healthcare, which will be overseen by the EU. The message here is clear: the responsibility for Roma inclusion and the improvement in the lives of millions of Roma lies with national governments. This is correct. The only way to alleviate the issues facing Roma is at the local and national level, but the EU can help with financial resources, coordination, and symbolic support. Though in its present form the EU Framework has significant, though not insurmountable problems, relating to monitoring, the participation of Roma communities, and an underestimation of the power and resonance of prejudice.

Fourth, anti-Gypsyism has a far-reaching impact and underpins the multiple issues facing Roma across Europe. The reason why Roma are at the bottom of the heap is anti-Gypsyism, which is an embedded prejudice which informs the majority of the population’s perception of Roma as an unwelcome presence, a deviant community who do not ‘fit’, who beg and steal, who essentially do not want to be integrated. It is such prejudice which requires a head-on challenge. Without changing the majority’s perceptions of Roma it will be impossible to improve their socio-economic and political disadvantage. Of course, doing so requires a long-term approach which will encourage more interaction between Roma and the majority (complicated by Roma’s physical and symbolic segregation), challenge persistent negative stereotypes on both sides, and facilitate trust and mutual respect. Communication and dialogue will be crucial.

It would seem that Roma in Europe are at a critical junction. Never before have they had the attention of media, the public and policy makers. While the tensions, misconceptions and paradoxes outlined above are complex, they are by no means impossible to address. It is not just up to policy makers to find solutions to the problems facing Roma, the truth is that we all have a role to play.

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Aidan McGarry – University of Brighton
Dr Aidan McGarry is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Brighton. His research focuses on the political participation and representation of minorities, particularly Roma, as well as social movements. His most recent book is ‘Who Speaks for Roma? Political Representation of a Transnational Minority Community’ (Continuum, 2012) and he has co-edited a book entitled ‘The Politics and Discourses of Migration in Europe’ (Palgrave, 2013)

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