• The Migrations of Roma in the European Union – an Ethnic Minority as the Sport of European Politics

  • Por Manuela Kropp , Anna Striethorst | 08 May 12 | Posted under: Antiracismo/Migración
  • France is sending Roma back to Romania, Roma are “voluntarily” leaving the country to go to Macedonia, Czech Roma are seeking asylum in Canada– these headlines of recent years have repeatedly drawn the eyes of the public to the migrations of Roma in Europe. The resulting debates emphasise the legal status of migrants. Thus the deportation of Rumanian and Bulgarian Roma from France in 2010 triggered a new European debate on the right to free movement in the EU. Roma from Macedonia and Serbia, who had since the liberalisation of visas in 2010 immigrated to the EU, became the subject of a debate on “asylum abuse”. As a reaction to their immigration, intense debates ensued in Brussels on the examination of persons on the grounds of ethnicity (ethnic profiling) at the exterior borders of the EU and about temporarily reintroducing the visa obligation for Macedonians and Serbians. (ESI 2011)

    In Germany, the human rights’ campaign “Alle bleiben” / “Everybody Stays” has highlighted up the situation of Roma from Kosovo who found refuge in Germany in the 1990s, yet were never given a permanent residential permit. Since Germany and Kosovo signed a repatriation agreement in 2009, they are acutely threatened by deportation (Kropp / Striethorst 2010). Less public attention is paid to the emigration of Czech and Hungarian Roma to Canada. After numerous applications for asylum by Roma, a diplomatic hassle broke out in summer 2009 between Canada and the EU, after Canada had unilaterally introduced visas for immigrants from the Czech Republic (Tóth 2010).

    All these facets of the migration of Roma have to be considered as parallels, because they have common roots. Roma transgress borders to escape experiences of poverty, discrimination and open hostility to them. At the same time, the rhetoric of governments and media constructs them as a homogeneous group; policies explicitly directed against Roma differ according to their respective nationality. The usual categorisation according to origin and legal status easily obscures these involuntary commonalities. Therefore the immigration of Roma from the EU neighbouring countries should consciously be considered in any debate of political attempts of solution, although this paper must confine itself to the migration of Roma within the European Union.

    As a consequence of their migration, the situation of Roma has meanwhile become a topic in most member states of the European Union. At the same time, the actions of the individual governments stand in stark contradiction to the self-proclaimed values of the Union such as freedom, equality and respect for human rights: in their countries of origin, Roma are excluded, increasingly become the objects of hostility and live in extreme poverty and permanent segregation. The countries of destination on the other hand lack the political will to protect the rights of immigrants and integrate them into their societies. The question as to how the EU is relating to the Roma policy of her memberstates thus becomes the litmus test of a European “space of security, of freedom and of rights”.

    This article examines the question of what has caused the increase in Roma migrations within the EU and of the political and legal areas of tension in which it must be seen today. Within the context of conflicts with the policy of the Western European countries of destination, the French Affaire des Roms is to be examined more closely. The focus of this paper, however, is on the Roma policy of the European Union: How do European institutions deal with the migration of Roma? What would the EU have to do to guarantee the civil rights of Roma vis-à-vis the member states?


    The background of Roma migrations

    In the face of the European right to freedom of movement, the question can be raised if a more positively connoted concept of mobility would not be appropriate for the migration of Roma within the EU. Are Roma not simply some of the many million Europeans who in their search for work temporarily move to another country of the EU? However, many Roma exercise their right to free movement “within the context of good cause for emigration and immigration” (FRA 2009, p. 21). In not a few cases entire families are on the move; as their motivation sometimes the vague hope of being able to send 40 or 50 Euros home every month is enough (ibid, p. 31). Therefore we want consciously to speak of migration in this context, because the concept of mobility implies a freedom of choice that most Roma definitely do not have.

    The majority of the present-day ca. ten million Roma in the EU live in Central and Eastern European countries, in Bulgaria, Rumania, Slovakia and Hungary. Also in Spain and in France, Roma traditionally make up a comparatively big share of the population. Together with Italy these countries are the major target of emigrés from Central and Eastern Europe, because they hope for cultural and linguistic proximity and for the support of resident Roma or Roma who have emigrated before. Migration to Great Britain has only recently brought into existence a significant Roma population. Some Central European countries are at the same time countries of origin and of destinations for Roma migrations.1

    The origins of Roma migrations date back to the 1990s. After the collapse of state socialism, many of the poorly qualified Roma lost their jobs and their incomes in traditional niches. They plunged into extreme poverty and became the “biggest losers of the transition” to capitalism (Soros / Wolfensohn, quoted from Sigona / Nidhi 2009, p. 3). If the unemployment among male Roma in Hungary in the year 1985 corresponded to the unemployment of the average population, it has now risen to 70 percent. Parallel to the impoverishment of the Roma, social struggles of redistribution and a new definition of state and nation led to the flare-up of resentment against Roma in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe (Sigona 2011, p. 3). What followed were arson attacks and other acts of violence against Roma in the past two decades.2

    These threats and the lack of economic perspectives led to the emigration of Roma to Western European EU countries and to Canada already in the 1990s. To this end, applications were filed for asylum most of which were motivated by the fear of racist violence. The media reported the issue for the first time when in 1997 thousands of Czech Roma travelled to Canada and sought asylum there. In the year 2001 several Roma families from the Hungarian village of Zámoly were granted asylum in France.

    The official opinion of the EU and its member states is that Roma migrations have fundamentally economic reasons, and this has served to justify a predominantly restrictive admission policy. Among the measures of EU member states to reduce the number of asylum applications, “pre-screenings” took place at Prague Airport on the request of Great Britain, which were a breach of the law and with the help of which potential asylum seekers were identified and rejected (Guglielmo / Waters, p. 773).

    The fear of EU member states of an increase of migrations became a decisive factor in the negotiations regarding the enlargement of the EU in 2004. In these talks it seemed opportune to strengthen the economic and legal position of Roma in the acceding countries. During the accession talks Roma organisations themselves saw a chance to put minority rights on the political agenda – not only in the acceding countries, but also in the EU itself. Their 2003 joint declaration denounced discrimination against Roma and demanded measures in favour of social integration and political participation in particular (Ibid., p. 775).

    It is controversial how far the increased attention given to the issue during the accession negotiation has in reality led to an improvement of the living conditions of Roma. In any case, their status changed abruptly with EU accession. “With accession, a Union whose members had gone to great lengths to restrict Roma migration now on a single day admitted over a million Roma, who have become both citizens of the Union and members of its largest minority” (Ibid., p. 777).

    Since then Roma, like all other EU citizens, and in accordance with Article 20 of the TFEU (Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union), have been in possession of Union citizenship. Among the rights resulting from their Union citizenship are the non-discrimination rule according to Article 18 of the TFEU and the right of free movement according to Article 21 of the TFEU and Article 45 of the Charta of Fundamental Rights. According to these laws, EU citizens and members of their families have the right to move about freely and to stay within the territory of the EU. In the year 2004 the European institutions gave this right concrete shape by adopting the so-called Directive 2004/38/EC on the right to move and reside freely.


    Rejection instead of integration – the policy of the countries of destination

    The various experiences of Roma in the course of inner-European migration differ widely. Some experience a remarkable improvement of their economic situation, and they are confronted with less racism than in their countries of origin. In particular, access to the labour market is decisive for a positive experience of immigration: If Roma can secure jobs in the formal sector, they find access more easily also to other services such as housing, for example (FRA 2009, p. 7). Others discover after their arrival that their expectations had been much too optimistic. They do not find a job, tend to get lost in the jungle of bureaucracy and in not a few cases their situation becomes more hopeless than the one they left behind in their country of origin (Ibid, p. 41ff).

    In many member states high bureaucratic barriers prevent access to social-security benefits, school attendance and public services. The result is a domino effect, and many find themselves barred from exercising their fundamental political, economic and social rights (Ibid, p. 8ff). In many places the Directive on the Right to Move and Reside Freely is enforced by the national authorities who lack knowledge, appropriate practices and experiences in dealing with foreign members of minorities.3 So far, information campaigns and trainings have almost exclusively taken place on the level of civil society (e.g., European Dialogue 2009).

    The actions of authorities also depend on political decisions, and these are often not in favour of Roma. The national and local decision-makers do not perceive the immigration of Roma as a natural occurrence in a united Europe but as a problem or even as a threat. A study conducted for the OSCE and the European Council describes the illegal surveillance of immigrants and the violation of their private sphere, the lack of protection for the Roma’s personal safety and ethnic profiling by the police4 (Cahn / Guild 2010, p. 6f).

    The measures against Roma are accompanied by a massively populist rhetoric by the political protagonists. In their rhetoric they react to the horror scenarios painted in the media on the, one hand, and, on the other, they themselves add momentum to the racist discourse. Roma migration is systematically criminalised by links being established to human trafficking and gang criminality. In recent years the fight against crime has repeatedly served as an excuse for European governments: for both destroying the Roma settlements as “cauldrons of criminality” (FRA 2009, Amnesty International 2010) and for selecting EU citizens on the grounds of ethnicity in order to deport them. Almost without any echo in the media, collective deportations of Roma took place in Denmark, Sweden, Belgium and Italy in recent years.

    In some countries of destination – especially in Italy – there exists the alarming trend to develop a general “response to the Roma question”. Native born citizens of Roma background and foreign Roma are combined and hustled into ghettos far outside the cities. In this way, the development of customised integration strategies are prevented for Roma from other member states (FRA 2009, p. 9). In 2008 a loud public outcry could be heard when the Italian government introduced a biometric data bank in which the fingerprints of all Roma living in Italy were registered (ERRC et al., 2008, Amnesty International 2008).

    The Italian policy towards Roma and numerous racist acts of violence against Roma in Italy and other Western EU countries directed attention to the European-wide dimension of the situation of Roma: In this way, the consequences of both EU enlargement and Roma exclusion combined to threaten not only the relationship between two member states but also the fundamental right to freedom of movement within the EU. These troubling events all emphasized the often overlooked fact that systemic discrimination and sporadic violence against Roma are prevalent in Western Europe and are not confined to former Communist-ruled countries.(Guy 2009, p. 25)


    The French Affaire des Roms as a test case for freedom of movement within Europe

    In summer 2010, employing massively incendiary rhetoric, the French government deported almost 1,000 Roma from France.5 Simultaneously, it cleared more than forty “non-approved“ Roma settlements in August 2010 alone. A number of human rights’ organisations protested against the measures and insisted that France should be obliged to provide more temporary spaces for Roma on the move and to guarantee the right to adequate accommodation (Kropp 2010).

    The measures of the French authorities represented a breach of several European legal norms, first of all that of freedom of movement within Europe: the restriction of movement for citizens of the Union is permitted only for reasons of maintenance of public order, security and health; a lack of financial means is not a sufficient reason for expulsion. In addition, the French government would have had to observe the principle of proportionality and conduct examinations based on single cases. According to both Article 27 of the Directive on the Right to Move and Reside Freely and Article 19 of the Charta of Fundamental Rights collective deportations are forbidden – the only decisive factor must be the personal behaviour of those concerned.

    One particularity was the fact that the French government explicitly targeted Roma and thus selected them for expulsion on the basis of their ethnic background. Thus, a circular letter of August 5, 2010 became public, according to which the French authorities were to concentrate deportation measures on the group of the Roma. In this, France broke European legal instruments banning discrimination on the grounds of race and ethnicity (Carrera / Faure Atger 2010, p. 5).

    The reaction of the European Parliament was resolute: In its decision of September 9, 2010, the European Parliament emphasised that collective deportations are forbidden on the grounds of the Charta of Fundamental Rights and the European Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. They denounced the measures as discrimination and a breach of the Directive on the Right to Move and Reside Freely and regarded the European treaties as having been violated (European Parliament 2010). The reaction of the French Minister for Integration, Eric Besson, was simply to release the statement that, “France will continue to send back EU citizens who remain on French territory illegally”(quoted in: Carrera / Faure Arger 2010, p. 1).

    Viviane Reding, European Commissioner of Justice at first remarked that the French government had guaranteed her that the practices were in compliance with EU-laws and were not explicitly targeting Roma. Until the middle of September the position of the commission remained ambivalent; after that, however, Reding announced that she would introduce treaty violation proceedings against France on the grounds of discriminatory application of the Directive on the Right to Move and Reside Freely.6 This change of mind had been prompted by the circular letter of August 5. As a consequence, the French authorities changed the circular by removing the explicit reference to the group of the Roma. In the end, the Commission did not institute treaty violation proceedings against France (Ibid. 2010, p. 12).

    One year later, Reding called the Affaire des Romsa “wake-up call for Europe” and emphasised that the European Commission would “not hesitate to raise its voice if member states did not correctly apply securities which were to protect EU citizens against arbitrary and disproportionate expulsion” (European Commission 2011b, p. 2). Meanwhile the practice of evacuating Roma settlements and of deporting foreign Roma continues in France and Italy.

    The proceedings of French authorities against Roma who merely made use of their right to free movement show how vulnerable the biggest ethnic minority of the EU is. It also shows how much remains to be done in terms of the member states to make the right to inner-European migration a reality for Roma. The incorrect application of the directive concerning free movement by national authorities regularly leads to the denial of rights and claims, those regarding social security, the access to the labour market and the registration of residence in particular. The European Union has to enforce a policy vis-à-vis the member states, such that all measures regarding Union citizens with Roma background correspond to the principles and the anti-discrimination directive laid down in the Charta of Fundamental Rights.

    In the Affaire des Romsthe French government demonstrated that it doubted the capacity of the European institutions to monitor the implementation of EU legislation. It remains incomprehensible why the European Commission as the “guardian of the treaties” did not institute treaty violation proceedings against France. Even if such proceedings would not have reversed the expulsions already carried out, these practices would have been stopped and a clear signal sent to France and other member states.

    To strengthen the position of the European Commission vis-à-vis the member states the introduction of a preventive mechanism of enforcement should be considered for European law. Contrary to the current treaty violation proceedings, an instantaneous “freezing” of practices in violation of principles of European law would thus be facilitated7 (Carrera / Faure Atger 2010, p. 17).


    The Migration of Roma and European policy

    At least since the EU’s enlargement, Roma policy has become an important sphere of influence for European institutions. Numerous initiatives and reports also dealing with Roma migration bear witness to this (e.g., Aradau et al. 2010, FRA 2009). Today the practice of European institutions is largely based on the conviction that the situation of the Roma in Europe does not correspond to the values of the European Union and that the EU is obliged to defend the Roma’s rights as Union citizens vis-à-vis the member states. However, there are also voices warning against reducing the subject to a merely European one and thus letting the member states off the hook (ICG 2008, p. 3).

    A pioneering role in supporting the Roma is played by the European Parliament: in the past its resolutions have repeatedly demanded of the member states and the European Commission that the social situation of the Roma be improved, that they be considered within the EU structural funds programmes, that racism and segregation should be fought and consciousness raised of the history of the Holocaust, to which 500,000 Roma fell victim. The approach of the European Commission focuses on improving the social situation of Roma in its central and Eastern European member states. Among the Commission’s best-known measures is the PHARE Programme in support of the Countries of Central and Eastern Europe as well as projects carried out in the context of the so-called Roma Decade. Among these the Roma Education Funds aim at the integration of Roma into national educational systems, as do numerous campaigns against the discrimination of Roma.

    Implicitly, all these measures also aim at reducing migration. In the first place, migration is regarded as the undesirable consequence of extreme poverty, so that improvements in the home countries are to reduce the motivation for emigration. However, in the Commission’s programmes and official statements on the situation of Roma, migration as a whole only plays a secondary part. In particular, the situation of migrants in the Western member states has been raised by the European Parliament rather than the Commission.

    After numerous requests by the European Parliament, the Commission in April 2010 presented an “EU Framework for National Strategies Towards the Integration of Roma to 2020” (European Parliament 2008, European Commission 2011a). The idea behind this European Framework Strategy is to implement more coherence and to oblige the member states to protect Roma. However, it contains neither binding specifications nor sanctions in the event of non-observance. Controversial topics such as the protection of Roma as national minorities in all the countries of the Union and their structural participation were not given any attention (Romani Rose 2011, p. 4). The issue of hostility towards Roma in particular was most scrupulously avoided, although it is this hostility that is at the bottom of numerous cases of discrimination and repression of Roma both in the countries of origin and in the target countries of migration.

    Beyond the concrete effects of the Framework Strategy the omissions mentioned above again make visible a certain perspective of the European institutions on the migration of Roma. It is commonly accepted to regard this migration as an apolitical act, as “an influx of the poorest of the poor”. So far, the European institutions have not raised the question of the extent to which the migration of Roma could be a civic act against the denial of democratic participation: The Roma […] are not connected in any way with democratic practices. The mobility of the Roma […] remains largely apolitical in the sense that they are not seen to intentionally seek to renegotiate the structures of power and authority through their mobility. The Roma, who live in poverty and experience discrimination and racism in their countries of origin, […] are often represented as a disorderly mass of people made up of individuals frustrated with living conditions.” (Aradau / Huysmans 2009, p. 6)

    Neither the Commission’s financial instruments nor European legislation against discrimination – in the shape of the Anti-Discrimination Directive 2000/43/EC or the Framework on Fighting Racism and Xenophobia (2008/913/JI) – have been able to target the causes of migration. The importance of the Anti-Discrimination Directive in the struggle against exclusion and discrimination should not be underestimated, but it is not sufficient to break the structural exclusion of Roma and the vicious circle of miserable housing conditions, poor educational opportunities, unemployment and poverty (De Schutter 2005). To tackle these problems the EU would need competences in the fields of social and educational politics, which it so far has not had.

    That the causes of Roma migration cannot be overcome in the short term does not free the European Union of its obligation to improve the situation of migrants in the countries of destination. The European Union must enforce the observance of existing European standards and make use of its room for manoeuvre in favour of the Roma. The consistent enforcement of European freedom of movement and the extension of rights through Union citizenship in particular play a crucial role for an active European Roma policy.

    The question of how the European Union tackles the migration of Roma will gain more relevance in the future. In the policy vis-à-vis the acceding countries in former Yugoslavia the debates which took place prior to the Eastern European Enlargement are repeating themselves. Often the living conditions of the Roma are the subject of discussion concerning current or possible accession negotiations (e.g. European Commission 2010b); and their migration puts into question the already effected liberalisation of visas vis-à-vis Macedonia and Serbia.

    In the Union itself the European institutions remain largely powerless in the face of the violations of the Roma’s fundamental rights. Nationalisms and the hostility to Roma are steadily on the rise, and the consequences of the crisis will continue to intensify the poverty among Roma in years to come. If the European Union does not only want to defend its values of freedom and equality on paper, a revision of the Roma Framework Strategy is required. This revision would have to include the questions hitherto omitted and hold responsible all member states, including the Western European ones, in binding regulations.




    Downloadgraphics on the right: Roma in Europe 2007, Source: Wikimedia

     Populations of the Romani people by country, showing the “average estimate” published by the Council of Europe. These estimates are the bases for the number of seats by country in the European Roma and Travellers Forum (ERTF) based in Strasbourg.

    The size of the wheel symbol represents total population by country (Rumania 1.85 million); the shade of each country’s background colour represents the percentage of Romani with respect to the total population (Rumania 8.5%).



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    1)  However, exact data as to how many Roma currently make use of their right of free movement within the EU are not available. On the sensitive question of data collection and processing according to ethnic criteria see ERIO 1999.

    2)  In Hungary in particular, the level of acts of violence prompted by hostility to Roma is high, with violence even having increased in recent years. In 2008 and 2009 eight people died in a series of murders. Also in the Czech Republic attacks on the Roma settlements are occurring repeatedly. In September 2011 “marches” took place in front of Roma settlements which could hardly be kept under control by the police. For details on the rising anti-Roma see Amnesty International: Report Hungary 2010; Amnesty International: Report Czech Republic 2010; ENAR 2010.

    3)  In particular, the discrepancy between the legal status of the Union citizenship and the extreme poverty of the Roma presents a challenge for many authorities; this is illustrated by the example of the City of Berlin: When in summer 2009 several Rumanian families put up their tents in a Berlin park, they were shoved to and fro between different departments for several weeks and finally were given bribe money for their “voluntary” departure to Rumania. As non-Germans, they were not entitled to social security and as EU-citizens they could not seek asylum and get benefits in Germany.

    4)  The report mentions a number of recommendations for the improvement of the situation of the Roma. For the member states training measures are demanded for the implementation of the European Law and the effective implementation of anti-discrimination rules. The European Union is to establish a Roma Department in the European Commission, to extend its monitoring of the situation of the Roma and to check whether European policies support migrants in their getting health insurance (Cahn / Guild 2010, pp. 83f.).

    5)  Like other European countries, France has been effecting deportations on “humanitarian” grounds since 2007, often combined with payment of a financial compensation of 300 Euros per adult and 100 Euros per minor. Afterwards, the biometric data of those deported are collected in the OSCAR data bank, in order to prevent “abuse” of the financial compensation (Carrera / Faure Atger 2010, p. 5). The number of those involved amounts to several thousands; in the first half of 2010 alone more than 8,000 Rumanian and Bulgarian Roma were expelled from France. However, public protest only flared up when Nicolas Sarkozy staged the mass deportations as part of his populist “war against criminals”.

    6)  In the respective press conferences, Reding expressed her irritation about the misleading information by the French government and drew parallels to the Second World War, “I personally have been appalled by a situation which gave me the impression that people are being removed from a member state of the European Union just because they belong to a certain ethnic minority. This is a situation I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War” (quoted from Carrera / Faure Atger 2010, p. 11). Also the meeting of the heads of states and governments on September 16, 2010 was overshadowed by significant controversies concerning the question of the Roma’s freedom to move. In the end, however, the French course of action was not formally condemned.

    7)        The relevance of such a mechanism is revealed in the ongoing non-implementation of the directive on the right to free movement in many other European countries. After treaty violation procedures were conducted in spring 2011, several member states adapted their regulations to European Law, yet the European Commission continues to state that deficiencies prevail in three areas: “immigration and residence of family members including partners, issuance of visa and residence cards for family members from non-EU-countries and guarantees against deportation” (European Commission 2011b, p. 3; for details cf. Carrera / Faure Atger 2009).

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