French authorities have once again started to dismantle “illegal” Roma camps, offering Romanian Roma €300 each and a free plane ticket to Romania.
A rather small range of media have picked up on the news; most have been critical of the French authorities. The European Commission has released a statement, issued, though, only by a lowly spokesperson. Politicians in France and Europe have been remarkably silent on the issue.
In the summer of 2010, France’s then president, Nicolas Sarkozy, made a promise that he would dismantle half of the illegal Roma camps set up in France and would send back Romanian and Bulgarian Roma. François Hollande – then a major figure of the opposition – and other Socialists strongly criticised the right-wing government’s approach. The European Commission implied that France was using Nazi-style practices, when Viviane Reding, the justice commissioner, said that “this is a situation I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War”; and the European Parliament issued a strongly worded resolution condemning France’s actions. Most of the important media channels ran news condemning the French actions.
But France’s new Socialist government seems to do exactly the same as the previous right-wing government did in 2010.
Why the difference?
The clash in 2012 between Reding and Sarkozy cost both dearly. It seems that both the European Commission and the French authorities learned their lesson. Reding’s decision to leave a spokesperson to respond to inquiries continues her policy since 2010, of being very careful not to be too vocal against France. For his part, Hollande is leaving issues to the local authorities and the Ministry of Administration. Most probably, both sides hope that they have found an acceptable solution to avoid media’s attention and solve without much fuss the issues raised by the presence of illegal Roma camps in France.
The problem with this approach is that it cannot work. Neither the Commission nor the French government (or any EU government, for that matter) seems to have much clue about what is going on. The main incentives for the governments of the countries Roma are coming from as well as for the Roma themselves encourage migration to the west and not inclusion within their own societies.
Here some of the things that politicians in France, eastern Europe and officials in Brussels either do not know or do not dare to say:
1. Ghettoes in Romania, Bulgaria are much worse than any illegal camp in western Europe. The number of people living in these ghettoes is increasing. So is the number of drug addicts, people infected with HIV/AIDS, criminals and functional illiterates.
2. Work, begging, prostitution or petty criminality pays much better – sometimes 20 to 30 times better – in western Europe than in the places from which the Roma are travelling.
3. Social services for migrating Roma are much better in illegal camps in France than services available for Romanian, Hungarian, Slovaks or Bulgarian citizens who live in ghettoes.
4. Sentences for petty crimes and prisons conditions in eastern Europe make prisons in France, Italy and the UK look almost like a holiday destination.
5. Paying €300 for repatriation and giving free plane tickets for repatriation is a huge waste of public money and a significant incentive for more migration. The average Roma family that migrates to France has five members; that family will receive €1,500 for going back to Romania. The cost for a bus ticket back to France is around €40 per person – €200 at most for the entire family. That means a net gain of €1,300– more than the average income for a year of a similar family in the ghetto.
6. Most of the EU’s central and eastern member states have significant incentives to get rid of the Roma. Governments in Bucharest, Sofia, Budapest, Bratislava and Prague have no incentive whatsoever to stop the migration of Roma. Roma are by far the most hated ethnic minority in the region – the majority populations are very happy to vote for any anti-Roma politician. In Romania, thousands chant for the death of Roma at football games. For most politicians in the region, ‘ethnic dumping’ – Roma leaving their countries – seems a much better solution than social inclusion.
7. When it comes to Roma, institutional racism – translated as a lack of significant access and participation to an institution – is at its worst in the European institutions. The lack of hands-on or even academic experience in dealing with Roma inclusion at the level of the European institutions is appalling. Some of the worst examples are the European Commission and Fundamental Rights Agency, the main organisations in charge with social inclusion of Roma at the European level. This strips the institutions of legitimacy when they make recommendations to member states about measures for the social inclusion of Roma, particularly when they refer to affirmative action.
8. The presence of Roma politicians in mainstream parties or governments is abysmal. So is the presence of Roma experts or officials in decision-making positions.
9. Since 1984, it has been recognised that Roma are discriminated against and excluded. But EU member states have failed dramatically to do anything substantial even to stop the trend toward increasing exclusion. The current situation is the direct result of decades of inaction or inept policies designed by well-meaning people with no experience in Roma issues.
There are solutions. But none of those solutions are immediate or cheap. Roma need to become respected, but also responsible citizens of their own countries. That cannot happen just with great speeches in Brussels or expensive conferences at five-star hotels in the capitals of eastern Europe.
Efforts should primarily be channelled towards work at the grassroots level, with a focus on getting Roma to become responsible, active citizens, on eliminating anti-Gypsyism, on creating incentives for mainstream parties, governments and EU institutions to empower Roma, and on measures to ensure that there are at least some Roma in decision-making positions on the national and European level.
Valeriu Nicolae is a Romanian Roma with many years of experience of working in the ghettoes. In 2009, he started a project in one of the worst ghettoes in Romania that received the 2012 UNICEF award for best sports and education project. His organisation, the Policy Centre for Roma and Minorities, also received the Development of Romanian Civil Society award for 2012.