In the months leading up to the European Union's (EU) enlargement in May 2004, British tabloid newspapers began publishing reports about the millions of Roma who would "flood" the UK from Poland, Slovakia, and other new EU Member States in Eastern Europe.
The fear that Eastern European Roma would come to Britain solely to benefit from the country's welfare system prompted the UK government to restrict access to social benefits to all EU citizens. However, Britain left the door open for labor migrants from the new member states, requiring only that they register with the government.
The UK, like most countries in Europe, has never been at ease with the Roma, many of whom can trace their roots to the northern part of India over 1,000 years ago. Roma in mainland Europe often speak a language that mixes Romany, a language somewhat similar to ancient Sanskrit, with the local language.
Traditionally semi-nomadic, Roma, also known as Romani and Gypsies, became more settled by the early 1900s. Over the centuries, they have divided into tribes and clans — each with its own traditions, beliefs, and practices — determined by where they settled and their occupation.
With a population in Europe estimated at eight to 12 million, they can be found everywhere from Finland to Greece and from Ireland to Russia, but they have no "homeland." The greatest number live in Central Eastern Europe: Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, and the former Yugoslavia.
In certain areas, they have become well integrated, living among and working with the local population, speaking the local language, and achieving higher levels of education. More often, however, they live apart from the native population, and are under-employed and poorly educated.
Indeed, although they sometimes received gracious welcomes, Roma have historically been marginalized in every European country where they have settled. Since the fall of communism, in 1989, many Roma in the former Soviet Union have become more impoverished and have faced levels of discrimination unknown to Roma in Western Europe.
The EU's eastward expansion means that many governments are being pushed to give Roma the same rights as other citizens. Enlargement also means that, once the original EU Member States' temporary migration restrictions expire, Eastern European Roma should be able to freely live and work in any EU country.
History of the Roma
Understanding the Roma's situation in Eastern Europe requires looking at their past. Around the year 1000, an event in northern India, about the time of Muslim invaders, likely triggered their mass exodus. The precise event is still unknown, but the possible reasons include a conflict that resulted in the Roma's persecution, a natural disaster, or even recruitment into a mercenary military.
The Roma journeyed towards the Caucasus and China, as well as through the Middle East and Greece towards the Balkans; they covered all corners of today's Central and Western Europe by the end of the 16th century. The Roma typically traveled in patriarchal extended families, consisting of up to hundreds of people.
By the late 16th century, there were already thousands or tens of thousands of Roma in Europe. Some historians have argued that in the 15th and 16th centuries, many Roma had recommendation letters from European kings — and even the Pope — and used these to enter European towns and cities of all sizes.
The skills they were known for — music, craftsmanship, military, and even fortune-telling — often earned them gracious welcomes and respect. At the same time, the Roma kept their distance from natives because they frequently believed non-Roma to be "unclean."
Yet throughout their history, the Roma have faced accusations of crime and delinquency. Their dark complexions, constant mobility, alien hierarchies, and sacred rituals made them easy targets. Such accusations have often led to expulsions from the outskirts of the towns that initially welcomed them.
In the mid-18th century, Hapsburg monarch Maria Theresa, Archduchess of Austria, attempted to assimilate the Roma by giving them less politically charged names—"new citizens" and "new peasants" among them—prohibiting nomadic movements and employment in their traditional professions, and not allowing Roma to speak their language or marry other Roma. The attempt failed, as Roma moved away in search of places where they would not be forced to give up their way of life.
During colonial times, some European countries dealt with the Roma by shipping them overseas, mainly to various Caribbean islands and the present-day United States. In the 1860s, Roma from Britain arrived in the U.S., but the largest wave of Roma arrived in the early 1900s.
In Walachia, a region that partly encompasses modern Romania, Roma were slaves for over 500 years, from the 14th century until 1863, when their enslavement was abolished. They were used as agricultural labor, and treated as property or cattle.
Despite their "Aryan" origins, the Nazi regime sent hundreds of thousands of Roma to ghettos and concentration camps, where between 200,000 and 800,000 were killed during World War II. The Roma call this attempt to exterminate them the Porajmos. Under Stalin's rule in Russia, Roma were also repressed and murdered.
During the communist era, the Romanian and Hungarian governments tried to force the Roma to settle in major cities and adopt a "decent" communist way of life. Yet, life under communism was relatively tolerable for the Roma because they had access to housing, health care, and jobs.
Roma Population in Eastern Europe
Eastern Europe is home to between six and eight million Roma. Accurate population estimations are difficult because of infrequent data collection, the Roma's mobility, and the Roma's reluctance to register as "Roma" in censuses for fear of being stigmatized.
Governments have typically underestimated the actual number of Roma in a given country. For instance, various scholars have all estimated Slovakia's Roma population at around 500,000 or more, but the government officially counted only 83,000 in 2000 (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Scholarly and Official Estimates of the Size of the Roma Population
Romania, with an estimated 1.8 million Roma, has the largest Roma population in terms of number, though they constitute about eight percent of the country's 22.9 million people. In Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia, and Serbia, each country's Roma population is estimated to be between 400,000 and 800,000.
In terms of percentage of total population, Slovakia and Bulgaria have among the highest concentration of Roma, with 9.75 percent and eight percent, respectively (see Figure 2).
Figure 2. Average Roma Populations in Selected Countries and Their Percentage Ratio to Total Population (2000)
Problems Facing Roma Since 1989
Despite some positive changes — recognition of minority status, establishment of political parties and cultural organizations, publication of books and newspapers in their language — the Roma's problems in Eastern Europe have been particularly acute since the fall of communism.
They lack access to government services and health care, good-quality housing and schools, and suffer from high rates of unemployment and discrimination on the labor market. For the Eastern European Roma, like Roma in other parts of Europe, these problems are partly rooted in the "otherness" of their lifestyle and values. Disagreements and fighting between Roma clans and organizations have not helped.
The Roma have suffered also because they have learned that cooperating or registering with authorities can do more harm than good to their communities. For example, Catherine the Great obliged all Roma to register in the mid-18th century, which allowed the monarchy to control the population more easily. This distrust of government and outside help continues to the present day, and must be overcome if the Roma's situation is to improve.
However, governmental lack of interest and inability to tackle Roma problems are mainly to blame. The communist era of relative welfare, access to health care, and assured (though low-paying) jobs in heavy industry has given way to a capitalistic society where nothing is guaranteed.
With few resources and little education, the Roma have seldom been able to compete for jobs or start their own businesses. Indeed, 70 percent of Roma in Slovakia and 85 percent in the Czech Republic are unemployed. On the open job market, they face discrimination — even if hired, they could be fired as soon as the employer identifies them as Roma. Those with jobs are often victims of harassment.
Of the 320,000 Roma officially living in Slovakia today, half (160,000) reside in exclusively Roma neighborhoods, according to the Roma Press Agency. Of these, some 50,000 Roma are still living in 281 segregated settlements, many of which lack water or electricity.
Outside the new European Member States, the situation is frequently even worse. In Romania, which is on track to join the EU in 2007, one million, or 50 percent of Romania's Roma population, were illiterate in 2001. In Bulgaria, 90 percent (or 450,000) of the country's Roma population of 500,000 do not have an elementary school education.
Roma Asylum Seekers
In the late 1990s, many Eastern European Roma filed asylum claims, both to escape discrimination and to improve their socioeconomic position. Between 1997 and 2005, approximately 12,000 to 15,000 Roma left Eastern Europe. The first to file asylum claims were Slovakian and Czech Roma, followed by Polish, Bulgarian, and Romanian Roma. They applied in the European Union (particularly the UK), Switzerland, Norway, and Canada.
Generally, few Roma received asylum based on the criteria of the 1951 Geneva Convention, which says refugees must have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution due to race, nationality, religion, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. The Roma had come from "safe" countries, and did not present sufficient evidence to support a Geneva Convention claim.
As Roma were often considered economic migrants, Canada and other countries began requiring visas for all visitors coming from the Czech Republic — a measure that affected non-Roma as well.
In the UK, the government decided almost all Roma asylum claims were unfounded even if individuals could prove ethnic-based violence and discrimination.
In Finland, the 5,000 to 7,000 Roma asylum applications received typically did not include evidence of persecution, but were based on poverty or discrimination. Few Roma received asylum or a Finnish residence permit.
Although the exact "trigger" for the increase in asylum claims from Eastern European Roma is not known, the British press blamed its Roma "invasion" on a documentary broadcast in 1997 in the Czech Republic. The documentary supposedly praised the UK's generous asylum and benefits policy. Similar TV broadcasts and rumors portrayed Belgium and Finland as welfare havens.
Roma migration has somewhat decreased in recent years, partly due to improvements in their home countries. The strict asylum regulations and the "safe countries" principle have also decreased the Roma's incentive to seek asylum.
Pushing for Change
Since the peak in Roma asylum applications in 1998-2000, the Roma have seen their access to health care and education slightly improve, thanks to initiatives at the state and European Union levels, as well as to support from private foundations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
The Copenhagen Criteria for EU membership bound the applying governments to amend legislation and launch Roma programs. By 2004, the Ministry of Education in Slovakia — now an EU member — had put 400 Roma assistants in grammar schools to help Roma children adjust to classrooms and to speaking Slovak, a foreign language to many of them. The ministry will add more than 500 new assistants in 2005.
In Romania, the European Union has generously supported the improvement of educational methods and school buildings.
Equal-access projects in Bulgaria have encouraged Roma children to attend regular schools. Until recently in Kosharnik, an all-Roma neighborhood in the poor city of Montana, 80 percent of Kosharnik's population of 6,000 had finished only primary school. In the last 30 years, just one percent of the population had earned a university degree.
Since an Open Society Institute (OSI)-backed educated program started in 2001, however, 108 Roma children from the Kosharnik neighborhood have graduated from high school, and eight are now attending university.
Despite the 2004 EU enlargement and the EU Parliament's approval of the Romanian and Bulgarian EU membership applications, much is still to be done for the Roma to reach a satisfactory, European standard of living.
Of the individual projects to improve their standard of living, by far the most ambitious is the "Decade of Roma Inclusion," launched in 2005 by the European Union, the World Bank, OSI, and the governments of eight countries: Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, and Serbia and Montenegro.
As part of the project, all these governments are pledging further antidiscrimination laws, integration in schools, improvements to settlement infrastructure, and measures to raise dismal health standards.
Roma participation has been the "core" of the project since its conception. According to the program, Roma are involved in setting the agenda and goals, and they will be involved in the oversight and monitoring process over the next 10 years.
According to philanthropist George Soros, founder of OSI, the "Decade" project represents "the political commitment of eight countries to scale up and speed up the process of Roma integration in a limited number of areas."
Although the outside financial and structural input is now there, questions remain about whether Roma have been sufficiently incorporated in the planning process, and in all the participating countries, as well as whether enough work has been done to maximize the involvement of as many Roma organizations as possible.
Another positive development is the establishment of a pan-European Roma organization, European Roma Forum, the brainchild of, among others, the Finnish President Tarja Halonen.
Supported by the European Council, this new organization will incorporate a large number of existing Roma groups to better represent Roma interests at the EU level and to produce guidelines for further improving the Roma's situation. This cooperation is a positive step after years of conflict and animosity between various Roma groups.
Despite these developments, a decline in tensions between Roma and native populations will likely take more time than the span of most domestic and international programs.
The Future of the Roma
In the UK, the public's fear of Roma migrants came roaring back last year when it was realized the Eastern European Roma would have the same freedom of movement as other new EU Member State citizens.
The fear of a "flood" was unfounded, but some concern was to be expected, considering the Roma's situation in Eastern Europe. The Czech Republic and Slovakia have a combined Roma population of one million, and when Romania and Bulgaria join the EU in 2007, another 2.5 million Roma will become EU citizens.
The European community, individual countries, and numerous organizations are committed to addressing the roots of the Roma's economic and social problems within and outside the EU.
Nevertheless, it will take decades for attitudes to change and for living standards to improve. In the meantime, there will be Roma from Eastern Europe who see migration as a way to escape discrimination and seek better opportunities.
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