European Union Confronts Its Roma Problem

Naftali Bendavid, Wall Street Journal, April 22, 2014

Three bulldozers, backed by teams of police, arrived at dawn to demolish 20 houses belonging to this town’s Roma, or Gypsies, leaving them to pick through debris for their belongings and brave several days of storms.

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Eforie city officials say the 105 Roma in the now-razed enclave–some of whom had lived for decades in concrete houses–were terrorizing the area by piling up garbage and stealing.

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The Eforie demolition and dozens of such events around Europe show the emotional resistance facing the European Union as it struggles to help the Roma, the continent’s biggest minority with 11 million people.

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One-third of Roma are unemployed, 20% have no health insurance and 80% live below the poverty line, according to the EU Fundamental Rights Agency.

Now, a decade after countries with large Roma populations started joining the EU, the bloc is aiming to raise that standard of living. The new focus comes with the end in January of travel restrictions on Romania and Bulgaria, both with big Roma populations, which joined the EU in 2007. The opening of borders had prompted fears in older EU countries of a Roma “invasion”–so far largely unfounded–of poor immigrants that could tax welfare systems and public order.

An EU summit on Roma issues in Brussels this month reported countries had made modest progress on early childhood education but listed problems with health, jobs and housing, and said discrimination was widespread.

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The Roma left India some 1,400 years ago, according to some estimates, and have adopted the various religions and languages of their new homes, although there is also a Romani language with several dialects. From the earliest days the semi-nomadic Roma were described pejoratively and regarded with fear, chased away or oppressed. Today, their most visible presence in Europe’s capitals is as aggressive panhandlers or in shantytowns on the outskirts of town.

The EU in 2011 urged its members to adopt plans for helping the Roma with jobs, health, education and housing. But the plans varied greatly and were often ignored. In December the EU made the plans a legal requirement, and EU leaders say they are also earmarking funds more specifically for Roma–the previous EU budget, covering 2007 to 2013, didn’t track outlays addressing Roma issues in its spending on disadvantaged groups.

Ms. [Viviane] Reding, of the European Commission, said the problem may not be solved as long as local officials are terrified of a public backlash for helping Roma. That means the EU ultimately may have to issue its own Europe-wide rules, she said.

“I’ve been told directly by several mayors, ‘I am not a racist, but if I call a program ‘Housing for Roma’ or ‘Education for Roma,’ I will no longer be mayor,’ ” said Ivan Ivanov, director of the European Roma Information Office, a clearinghouse and advocacy group.

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Critics say Roma help perpetuate their poverty and isolation by turning to crime and not trying to improve their lot. Amid allegations of organized crime, a French court in October convicted 26 members of three Roma families of forcing children to carry out about 100 robberies in Western Europe. Far-right political parties, meanwhile, send out dark warnings about the Roma as a threat to society at large and have found success vilifying the Roma as lazy parasites.

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Other Roma activists concede the group could do more to help its own cause–for example, some Roma parents are reluctant to send their children to school, saying they would be unwelcome there.

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Romania, where 8% of the population is Roma, has come under fire for failing to address their welfare, using just 26% of the $5.1 billion the EU provides for social integration, which includes job training and education. Romanian officials say they are working hard to increase that number.

In the current budget, which runs from 2014 to 2020, the EU has set aside about $22 billion to help “marginalized or discriminated-against groups,” chiefly the Roma, across the bloc, up from about $19 billion in the previous budget. Officials promise to carefully monitor the programs using these funds.

Numerous evictions like the one in Eforie unfold in Europe each year, EU officials say. Many may be legal, since the Roma often have no property records, and expulsions can be the easiest way for local officials to deal with Roma. While many Roma live in standard housing, others build makeshift encampments due to poverty or as an outgrowth of their traveling culture. City officials sometimes complain that the enclaves are unsightly slums strewed with trash.

In Slovakia, about 400 mayors have joined a movement called Zobudme Sa!–“Let’s Wake Up!”–to coordinate shutting down Roma communities using health and safety regulations. About 12 Slovakian cities have sealed off Roma communities by building walls.

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The EU’s expansion to new countries made it easier for Roma to travel within Europe. A group of Roma from Romania has established a camp outside Stockholm, for example, and many now panhandle on the city’s stylish thoroughfares.

“We’re not used to beggars in our streets,” said Lotta Edholm, Stockholm’s vice mayor for education. “You have some homeless people, we’ve always had that–but not people really begging. Normally we try to take care of people like that in Swedish society. So this is something new.”

Ms. Edholm voiced sympathy for the Roma, who she said were simply seeking to escape poverty. But the slum itself is dangerous, she said–it’s cold, flammable and presents hygiene problems. “Sooner or later we will ask them to leave,” she said.

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