|Roma family in France after being sent to a new temporary camp.|
Sunday, September 5, 2010
Migration within the EU and the Roma in France/Italy: These aren’t the migrants we signed up for.
Immigration: US vs. Europe
The United States is a country which, despite its rhetoric, is not very open to immigrants or even visitors. Americans themselves are generally good to immigrants (despite recent flair-ups with Latin American immigrants, especially in the southwest) and immigration is a huge part of American identity, especially in terms of its own mythology. Despite this, it’s basically impossible for most people who’d want a green-card (permission to reside here permanently) to get one and for residents of most countries even visiting here involves a downright insulting process of advance security clearance and visa-applications, even for vacations. Many countries have taken to punishing the US by making Americans jump through exactly the same hurdles their own citizens must go through entering the US when entering into their own territory.
Requirements for immigrating to the US vary tremendously from country to country and are largely based on a quota system. The quota system works this way: if too many people have already come from one place (sometimes a country, sometimes a region), then no more are accepted the following year from that place. This process of course ignores the fact that a lot more people will want to come to the US from poorer countries than from say, Scandinavia. The only ways around this system are winning a “green card lottery” in which the green card is given out randomly to a few lucky people or by marrying an American or another green card holder. A few exceptions have been made in the past for people facing particular difficulties, for instance Jews from the former USSR and Vietnamese whose families aided the US during the war. Depending on the country involved, green card processes take 5 to 10 years for the first applicant, with additional years needed to bring across the applicant’s family. And this “time served” does not get factored into the seven years needed to acquire American citizenship. So in short, if you want to come here, you’re going to have to wait a very long time.
Compared to the US, EU immigration law can seem like a joke. While non-EU citizens who want to live in Europe face many of the same obstacles that they would have if they had wanted to immigrate to the US, citizens of EU countries are allowed to live and work in any EU nation they please. This rule came into effect in 1994 as one of the perks of the then recently established European citizenship and needless to say, many of the people from poorer European countries who would have tried to immigrate to North America are now choosing Western European nations like France and Italy. Among the 11 million migrants with EU citizenship living in EU countries where they don’t hold citizenship is an unknown number of Eastern European Roma.
Estimating Roma populations is extremely difficult. The number of Roma in Europe is variously estimated at anywhere between 6 and 14 million and estimates of the number of Roma in a particular nation are equally varied. When I lived in Spain I heard estimates as high as 1,000,000 and as low as 100,000. Since most Roma live pretty much “off the grid”, don’t send their children to schools, don’t participate in censuses, and often live in unregistered self-constructed settlements, estimating their number can seem like a fool’s errand to all but the most dedicated. The fact that no government can claim to know exactly how many Roma live within their territory or even exactly where they live plays into the fear-mongering of right wing politicians throughout Europe.
In the last couple of years, Italy, followed even more virulently by France have sought to dismantle Roma camps, and deport immigrant Roma populations back to their home countries. In France, many social ills from crime to unemployment are being blamed on Roma populations. Around 300 Roma camps (often in effect small towns on the edges of cities) are set to be destroyed with their occupants given the choice between unequal housing (say a bed in a gym for a month), life on the street or life in another illegal camp. The political will for such evictions, which the majority of the French public supports, is drummed up through scare-tactics highlighting the presence of foreign, mostly Romanian and Bulgarian Roma. Like right wing American politicians who make a big tumult over illegal immigration, in a sense making the issue seem like a sudden emergency every ten years or so when it has been an ongoing phenomenon for decades, French politicians have long used the “Gypsy problem” to win votes before elections. What is forgotten by the French and Italian public is that most of the Roma who are being evicted from their camps have lived in France or Italy for generations and in some cases have even lived in the same camps for generations. As for the “foreign” Roma, as citizens of EU nations they should be entitled to live and work anywhere within the European Union. The French government claims, essentially, that the Roma are not pulling their own weight and don’t find jobs quickly enough and therefore ought to be deported. The issue becomes even more complicated because several EU countries, including France, only approved Romania’s entrance into the EU on the condition that Romanian nationals would only gain the right to live in France in stages. In 2014 Romanians are slated to gain full residency rights and Sarkozy’s government is looking for ways to get rid of their “foreign Roma” before then and make sure they never come back. Roma families are being offered 300 Euros a person (100 a child) and free airfare to return to Romania. At the same time France and Italy are trying to initiate an EU wide Roma policy which would exempt Roma from enjoying the same right to live/work in any European country that they are entitled to as EU citizens. This plan has caused a great deal of controversy among EU politicians and several countries invited to a conference dedicated to the “Gypsy problem”, most notably Germany, have refused to attend. Romania which wanted to attend wasn’t even invited.
One thing that becomes immediately clear from the whole controversy is that some of the more established countries in the EU feel that they are getting more than they bargained for in terms of foreign immigration. Since many of their politicians are blaming the Roma for many social ills, their citizens are clamoring for the Roma to be dealt with and they feel that something must be done. At the same time, Western European nations without young populations need immigrants from the newer EU states and barring only one ethnic group is just not going to fly like it would in America. So in effect the French and Italian politicians are stuck with having to “deal” with their immigrant Roma populations, at the same time they can’t survive without the influx of workers that these same people are a part of. So they expel a small percentage of the foreign Roma (remember these people are allowed to return anyway) and tear down a whole bunch of Roma settlements for what basically amounts to a political spectacle. None of this will “solve” the Roma “crisis” and it will make life much more difficult for the Roma themselves. Instead of attempting to integrate the Roma into their countries in a manner in which they won’t lose their cultural traditions, the French government has basically opted to “pass the buck” and make them all move, often further away from towns and cities. In effect, the Roma are being shuffled around and temporarily hidden for short term political gain. A local townsperson may look around and not see “their Gypsies” but the unfortunate families have just been moved elsewhere nearby or if they were foreign shipped on a plane to Romania or Bulgaria.
What all of this is also doing is increasing the already extreme anti-Roma prejudices, which will just make it tougher for them to find legal work and will push more people into petty crime and keep more children out of schools. Many Roma advocates fear that this will lead to increased violence against Roma as well. On a continent where the Romani were enslaved well into the 1860s and where as many as 1.5 million (some 90%) were killed during the Holocaust (including literally the entire populations in Lithuania, Latvia, Holland and Croatia), anything heading down this path is particularly abhorrent.
The Roma Question: The USA vs. Europe
One thing that interests me with this issue is that the Roma do not face any of these kinds of prejudices against them in the US. The million or so American Roma, who mostly live in rural areas, are completely outside of the mainstream consciousness. Very few Americans are aware of how many there are living in their midst and they wouldn’t recognize them even if they interacted with them on a regular basis (say a frequent customer at a store). Other than fortune telling and in some circles musicians, no professions are associated with the American Roma and when Americans think of “Gypsy thieves” they think of Eastern Europeans, if they know that “Gypsies” are a real ethnic group at all. The racist phrase “to get gypped” (to be robbed/cheated) is widespread but the vast majority of Americans have no clue as to its origins and are surprised to learn the terms offensive origins. Nobody has worried about the Roma here since perhaps the 1870s, when they first began immigrating in mass, often brought over by circus promoters along with their trained bears.
The Roma, it should be noted, are neither a “nomadic” population nor a homogeneous one. Most Roma, whether in Romania, Afghanistan, Brazil or New York City live in the same place their entire lives. They sometimes switch between summer and winter residences but the vast majority of Roma are not nomadic by any means. They live where they find steady work, usually relying upon extended family networks for resources. The Roma are also a kaleidoscope of interrelated ethnic groups separated by languages and sub-dialects, kinship networks based on extended families, and professions that are common (and in some cases near universal) among specific subgroups (metalworking, music, circus performance, fortunetelling, carpentry, clothing production, landscaping etc). Much like Hasidic sects, Roma subgroups identify based on the geographic origin of their subgroup and on local traditions acquired there. The major group in the Philadelphia area is known as the “black Dutch” and not surprisingly originates from Holland. They are, however, nearly entirely English speaking. In fact, a majority of the world’s Roma no longer speak a variety of Romani. In Spain and England they speak mixed languages which incorporate Romani words and grammar into the local language. In New York and Northern New Jersey one hears Romani spoken, especially in Manhattan during the winter. I’ve been told that the sub-group that lives and works in the garment district has been in America for four or five generations but maintains their language and close contact with family overseas. Hundreds of thousands of Romani have also immigrated to America in the two decades since the fall of the USSR.
The real mystery, of course, is why the Roma encounter such prejudices in Europe and become headline news while in America they remain unnoticed. They don’t live within mainstream society on either continent. Their children generally don’t go to school, they often forgo normal housing. They often speak another language and make a living in uncommon trades. But yet on one continent they are the object of massive fear and derision and on the other most people aren’t even aware of their existence. Perhaps Americans have enough to fear and worry about already?
As far as the Roma in France, I don’t know too much about them. Whether the Romanian immigrants and the “indigenous” French Romani are from the same ethnic groups or interact with one another is unclear. I know that French Roma know French but whether they speak Romani among themselves is unclear. The Romanian immigrants have been interviewed in Romanian on the news reports I’ve seen but probably speak their own language(s) among themselves. If anyone could shed light on these particulars that would be great.