In the aftermath of the recent “cold snap” in Europe, the number of the fatalities is devastating, especially in the Eastern European countries. Unsurprisingly, most victims are found to be among the homeless, with attempts made to shelter people in makeshift tents to prevent further deaths. Some countries, most notably Albania, have decided to do just the opposite: instead of providing housing they are depriving people of it. The victims of this cruel practice are no strangers to eviction, namely: the Roma communities, among them many women and children, who are now facing temperatures below zero without shelter.
For a long time, the situation of the Roma in Europe has been marked by stigmatization and repression, as well as housing and employment discrimination, which has contributed to their miserable living conditions. But it is women who often suffer the most, who are less educated and have higher unemployment rates, despite the fact that some of them have to manage the double burden as primary care-giver as well as breadwinner in the family. In 2011, a Croatian journalist conducted an experiment in which she “competed” against a Muslim woman and a Roma woman on the housing and job market. Not only was the Roma woman frequently rejected, she was faced with severe prejudices and even sexual harassment. In fact, women belonging to this ethnic group are at a higher risk to become victims of sexual or domestic violence, but their uncertain legal status and distrust of the authorities prevents them from seeking help.
Roma women are also known to have higher birth rates, but they frequently lack the necessary health care, especially when it comes to their reproductive health, which often leads to a higher infant mortality rate among their children as well. In 2006, this actually prompted the Bulgarian Health Minister to suggest a law to curb their birth rate. Perhaps he was thinking of a common practice used in former Czechoslovakia: the forcible sterilization of Roma women, which remained unacknowledged by the Slovakian government for a long time, until a number of court cases brought the proportions of this shocking practice to light.
The previous examples should not be misleading. Western European governments have done little to improve the conditions of the Roma communities in their states. In fact, their treatment of these groups has been so palpably hostile over the last few years, it is shocking that it has sparked so little outrage. Instead, notable incidents of discrimination and outright violation of rights have barely registered in the international media. When French president Nicolas Sarkozy authorized the bulldozing of Roma encampments in 2010, the European community listened up for a short period of time, triggered also by Sarkozy’s nonchalant justification that Germany had been planning to do the same. Last year, French officials had learnt their lesson and went for a more subtle if not less despicable move: the Roma were quietly removed in specially reserved trains… While none of these incidents were publicly condoned but rather generated a lot of criticism, they did not ultimately improve the overall situation of the Roma in Europe.
The question remains why people of this particular ethnic background are so often rejected by large percentages of the local population. The answer can surely be found in general xenophobia and stereotypes regarding their “deviant” lifestyle. Many people’s discomfort seems to stem from their equation of the Roma with criminal behaviour and irreformable statelessness. While some of them may in fact engage in criminal activities and are migrating from settlement to settlement, what is often left out from the discussion is the acknowledgement that under current EU law the Roma are criminal by default.
The European Union promised the right to free movement and residency to all its citizens within the borders of the member states (Article 21 in European Union law). Naturally, this would include the Roma as well, and they have been taking advantage of this law ever since. However, what this doesn’t ensure is their right to stay if they fail to provide the necessary documents, or their right to work (Romanian and Bulgarian citizens still need special permits to be allowed to work elsewhere in the EU).
All of this creates insurmountable obstacles for the Roma to find legal employment, to send their children to school and to stay in one place for longer periods of time. Thus, the image of “gypsies” as beggars, petty criminals and prostitutes may become a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading to an increased stigmatization of their kind. They have become the perfect scapegoat for right-wing governments, playing to and perpetuating xenophobic sentiments and “the boat is full” rhetoric.
However, over the last decade, Roma representation has become stronger and more visible. Roma activists have been organizing in associations and networks, such as the ERRC and www.romawoman.org, the latter working specifically to ensure the rights of the women in their community. They help each other to find work, register the children in schools and organize the appropriate documentation. Most of all, they are still fighting to be recognized as actual citizens, but only by defining their own concept of what this citizenship entails, and by asserting who they really are. They are working closely with NGOs and other EU organizations, but now it is up to the European governments to fulfill their promises to the Roma people.