When Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU and the last travel restrictions fell in 2014, they brought along with them a centuries-old and unresolved problem. The exclusion of and blatant discrimination against Roma people finally reached the streets of Berlin, Paris and Rome.
This provides us with an historic opportunity to combat the stigma against the Roma and pave the way for their inclusion and equal treatment. But until such steps are taken, it seems that the West is doomed to commit the same mistakes Eastern Europe has.
The largest populations of Roma live in Romania and Bulgaria. Roma almost always reside in ghettos at the outskirts of cities where the living conditions are poor. In periods of shortages, these districts are the first to be cut off from water and power.
For centuries, the Roma have suffered from the stereotypes of being untrustworthy and unable to integrate into larger society. At all levels of society, it is perfectly acceptable to regard the Roma as a subclass of humans and to treat them accordingly. Roma are stripped of their individuality as human beings and are characterized primarily by negative traits that are imposed upon them. The basis for this discrimination is pure racism.
Racism is present throughout state institutions like the police and the courts. For decades, Roma children were put into schools for mentally disabled children. Both Bulgaria and Romania had to fulfill various criteria regarding minority rights to join the European Union – but when it comes to the Roma, most of these rights and protections only exist on paper. As a result, it is hardly surprising that the Roma populations have a deep and historic mistrust of state representatives and institutions.
As the travel restrictions fell away, many Bulgarian and Romanian Roma moved to other European countries in the hope of a better economic future and social acceptance. What they encountered there was resentment at best and blatant racism and mistreatment at worst. In France and Italy, Roma camps were broken up and the governments simply proposed sending them back home. It was easy for Western member states to preach the importance of minority rights and inclusion as long as said minorities were still someone else’s problem. But now, governments are falling into the trap of their own hypocrisy.
Upholding minority rights
And yet there is hope. France and Italy were both publicly condemned by the European Parliament, and two French ministers were summoned before the European Commission to justify and explain the actions of their government. The statement was clear: the respective countries had violated EU laws and regulations. By reprimanding and calling out European governments that mistreat minorities, the European institutions uphold their promise to protect the equality of all European citizens – regardless of ethnicity.
As a result, some member states have started taking their obligations towards the Roma seriously. Although resentment is not absent from German streets, “poverty migrants” are at least treated as European citizens and their right of free movement is acknowledged. The German Association of Cities has asked for support from the federal government as well as the EU to provide Roma with decent housing and help them integrate, a policy that is supported by the German Federal Secretary for Building.
These are the first steps towards changing the bleak everyday reality of the Roma.
For the first time in centuries there is a respected and powerful authority to not only grant European Roma full civil and human rights but also to protect these rights. The European Union is guaranteeing institutional and Europe-wide protection to a minority whose history is heavily characterized by discrimination and mistreatment. The steps and the actual impact may be small but this institutional protection is remarkable for two reasons. When governments try to find a solution for the newly arriving Roma they are de facto treating them as full European citizens with rights. This process in turn may lead to a change in opinions and the relationship between Roma and state authorities. The historically rooted mistrust against state institutions may finally start to decrease when Roma actually experience help and proper treatment from government authorities. With this help they can find housing as well as jobs and be able to send their children to school. Such a successful integration will hopefully also lead to decreased prejudice and resentment against them.
These steps may seem small and the granting of such right may seem obvious to many of us, but the fact that something is happening that was unimaginable a generation ago is a clear sign of progress.