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|Written by Kendall R. Giberson|
|Friday, 14 January 2011 00:00|
In light of the recent declaration of a visa-free zone in the EU, some countries are stepping back and imposing visas on others due to a large influx of Roma people, commonly known as Gypsies. Known for their nomadic lifestyle and unique culture, the Romani make up a significant portion of the population in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, the former Yugoslavia and the Czech Republic and Slovakia, with large numbers in other European countries such as Russia, France, Spain and Ukraine. (More information on the history of the Romani people in Europe can be read here.) The Romani have been present in Europe for hundreds of years, and DNA tests have proven that they originated from what is modern-day India.
Throughout their history, they have been seen as undesirables due to their unorthodox culture, experiencing problems not unlike those regarding the integration of other peoples of non-European origin such as Jews, Turks, and Muslims. Slavery of Romani people was practiced in Europe well into the 19th century. Nazi Germany rounded up a large chunk of Europe's Romani population and sent them to be exterminated in concentration camps in the 1930s and 1940s (the Romani word for this attempt to exterminate the Romani people as part of the holocaust is Porajamos). Romani children who attend school are often placed in segregated classes in Western European countries. A travel website from Russia warns travelers of "Gypsy beggars" in the city of St. Petersburg sums up the worst stereotypes of Romani that some Europeans share, calling them "annoying," "thieving," and "devious."
On the other hand, Romani entertainers and athletes have been praised for their prowess and skills. In Eastern Europe, "Gypsy Music" is very popular among all strata of society, and some Romani musicians enjoy immense fame.
Many western countries have had long-time bans against the Romani immigrating or even visiting, for fear that they would overstay and cause damage to the social and economic order. Even Canada imposed visa restrictions on several EU countries in 2009 due to a sharp rise in refugee claimants from Romani originating in Eastern European countries.
Governments in countries such as Romania and Bulgaria have been criticized for largely ignored their Romani populations and see the problems created in the EU as out of their jurisdiction.
In fact, many people in those countries might actually welcome the exodus of their Romani populations. As part of the conditions upon their entry into the EU, however, they must bring their border controls up to the agreed upon standards. New EU member states must implement the rules of the Schengen Agreement which allow for open borders for travelers in EU countries and no internal controls (from which the UK and Ireland are exempt).
One solution proposed is a single EU-wide policy towards integration of the Romani into member countries. (More information on this policy can be found here.) As it stands today, many Romani still travel from country to country, constantly moving according to where the economic opportunities lie.
One Romanian journalist, however, echoes the feeling of many Europeans in saying that Romani are not compatible with modern Europe, that, "they remain a nomadic people, traveling where they want with their traditions that often clash with the rules that govern civilised societies." She goes on to say that wherever groups of Romani go, they put unecessasry strains on the local economy and are a nuisance to people on the street: "For example begging is regarded by many gypsies in Romania as a primordial right, stealing is in fact 'sharing,' therefore not an illegal activity but a way to make the rich "share" their wealth with the less fortunate, having kids entitles parents to get social aid perpetually while working is out of question for moms."(1)
In 2009, the EU dropped visa requirements for Montenegro, Serbia, and Macedonia, and many member states saw a rise in refugee claims made by Romani. There are future plans to drop the visa requirement for Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania but not before encouraging the governments of the countries to remind people not to overstay or try to fraudulently claim social assistance.
There have been recent reports from all over Europe detailing the reaction of local authorities to problems associated with the Romani diaspora, almost all of them portraying the Romani in a negative light:
France - The French government ordered hundreds of Romani people deported in 2010 for the official purpose of cracking down on illegal immigration and crime. Romani camps have also been demolished by the government.
Italy - Similarly, the Italian government has bulldozed Romani shantytowns in the name of curbing illegal immigration. The country has also denied recent Romani arrivals from other countries social assistance, while encouraging those already legally in Italy to live in specific areas or ghettoes.
Spain - A 10-year old Romani girl made headlines worldwide in November after giving birth. Not only was her age shocking, but the fact that the father was her 13 year-old cousin and the family explained to the media that this was not unusual in Romani culture caused a stir. It was found out that the girl had been in Spain for only 3 weeks, which caused people to speculate that she had come only to collect a €2500 stipend that Spain doles out to new mothers.
Finland - Realizing that the integration of Romani people into Finnish society has failed, Finnish authorities have sent many back to their countries of origin. The City of Helsinki gave 40 Romani €325 apiece to pay for a ferry ride and fuel back home in November 2010. In response to the shock of seeing Romani children begging in the streets (a practice unfamiliar in the country), Finland has acted by removing the children from their parents and placing them under foster care, while deporting the parents.
In dealing with the situation of Romani immigrants, European officials have not pursued a special legal status for them, similar to 'Native' or 'Indian' status in Canada and the United States. Instead, they have been treated the same as other nationals based on their country of origin, causing governments to paint all Czechs, Romanians, Bulgarians, etc. with the same brush in regards to border control and immigration. There is no easy answer to this problem, and there exists no special EU department that deals specifically with Romani. What can be hoped for is that Romani people learn to adapt to their new homes and become productive citizens so that the line between Romani and EU is blurred, all the while retaining their culture.
Note from the editors: Allow us to apologize for the inclusion of the article with the Jest issue. Neither we at (Cult)ure Magazine nor Mr. Giberson meant to suggest that there is anything humorous about the plight of the Romani.
Romani and Native American peoples
Kendall refers to the Romani people being treated as the North American Natives "Indians" in North America. However, the title "Can the North American Indian people and their culture fit into (dominant society) North America?" would never be an acceptable title in North America. For two reasons: 1) obviously yes, but the problem has been the discrimination that has pushed the Native populations to socio-economic margins and 2) because this would imply that something is inherent in the culture that opposes any adaptation or integration which is not the case. The same for the Romani people. And by the way, just as there are MILLIONS of Native Americans who have successfully adapted and integrated while not losing their roots and cultural heritage, so there are MILLIONS of Romani people in Europe who have done the same. Where there is poverty and lack of integration with the Native populations there is also very high discrimination - the same for the Romani people.