Outsiders: The trouble with the Roma

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Europe's most persecuted minority has become the subject of increasingly draconian laws. But recent treatment of the Roma shames our continent, argues Peter Popham

This Thursday, in a hall in the Council of Europe's headquarters in Strasbourg, a group of academics, government advisers and gypsy representatives will get together to discuss the next steps in a pan-European project entitled "The Decade of Roma Inclusion, 2005 to 2015".

The idea of the "decade", according to its authors, is to "improve the socio-economic status and social inclusion of Roma". The next phase will see Romanies stepping forward in museums and other institutions in Britain, Greece, Germany and Slovenia and talking about their culture, "getting people to talk to them and get to know them, to get rid of some of the fear," as one of the organisers puts it.

It's a low-key initiative, very modestly funded – but it has attained a new importance. Thanks to France's President Sarkozy and his policy of targeting their communities for repatriation, gypsies suddenly find themselves at the centre of European debate. How did this come about?

Gypsies have been at the margin of European affairs ever since they arrived from India nearly a millennium ago. They have no claims on territory, have never started a war, are far from homogeneous and have produced few figures who bulk large in our history books. In the past they were usually in motion, trundling around the edges of European history, earning a living in the nooks and crannies of society, fortune telling, basket weaving, horse trading, dealing in scrap metal. They might be seen as people of doubtful honesty, capable of sly tricks, or seductively wild, depending on circumstance, but whatever they were it was of fleeting importance. They had their world, we, the gaje (non-Romanies), had ours.

Just as only a few Romanies have been feted as culture heroes in the gaje world, few have become notorious. Their crimes were of a scale with the rest of their low-key, inconspicuous lives, picking pockets being the most obvious. But now Sarkozy in France and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Italy would have us believe that the Roma community as a group represents a security threat so grave that it demands the removal of its members en masse. One is reminded of the Criminal Tribes Act passed by the British in India in 1871, which stigmatised 161 communities there as "born criminals". A recent study concluded that the Act was a result of "profound ignorance of India's social structure and cultural institutions".

Are the French and Italian governments, by targeting gypsy communities en masse and demanding their removal, doing something similar today? And if so, what lies behind it?

While it was President Sarkozy's policy which brought the assault on the Roma to the world's attention, it was in Italy that the policy of treating gypsies en masse as criminals was first put into place – paradoxically, by a leading politician of the left, a former Communist.

Gypsies have been emigrating to Italy from the Balkans since the 15th century. Today, the Romany population of Italy is thought to be around 180,000, perhaps twice that of Britain. Most of them have been sedentary for centuries. As elsewhere, what has kept them distinct from the majority population is their language, culture and folkways.

What has changed over the past 20 years is the arrival in the West of relatively large numbers of Romany immigrants from eastern Europe: from Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, fleeing the wars that accompanied the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early Nineties; and from Romania following the death of Ceausescu, the fall of the Communist regime, and the opening of the borders around the same time.

The single most critical moment was the entry of Romania into the EU on 1 January 2007, which enabled Romanian citizens to move around the EU at will. Hundreds of thousands of migrants poured into Italy as a result, more than into any other country. The panicky realisation that they could not easily be removed led to a mood of crisis. A small but very visible fraction of them – no one knows how many – were Romanies.

As in Italy, the Romany populations of Romania and Yugoslavia had been settled for hundreds of years. "We lived in our own villages," says Dijana Pavlovic, a Romany born and raised in Serbia who now lives in Milan. "One of my grandfathers was a blacksmith, the other was a carpenter. They were illiterate, but they were settled people: the only time they went travelling was when they had to look for work."

But while Italy's Romanies remained socially marginal and relatively deprived, Tito and Communism had given those in Yugoslavia the opportunity to improve their lives. "It was Communism that gave my parents the chance to go to school," says Pavlovic. "Education in Tito's Yugoslavia was free and compulsory, and after school they got jobs: my father in a warehouse, my mother in a factory." Dijana was the family's first university graduate. Today, Romanies in Serbia have TV and radio news programmes and newspapers in their own language, and are represented by Romany politicians.

In Romania, too, most of the community led settled lives for centuries, though their conditions of life were much worse than in Yugoslavia: Romania's gypsies were slaves until the mid-19th century; most are still very poor, and they still suffer from the prejudices of the majority community. This, as well as the arrival of mass unemployment, explains why many chose to go west.

Reaching Italy, they found the affluent land they had heard about – but became victims of their new country's prejudices. Eighty-four per cent of Italians still believe gypsies to be nomads, and it was as such that they were treated. "Very few of the Romanies who arrived from Bosnia and Kosovo, fleeing the war, were recognised as refugees," says Pavlovic. "You weren't entitled to the status of refugee, precisely because you were a gypsy. And that's the crux of the problem."

Because the Italian authorities decided that nomadism was their natural condition, they made no steps to settle the new migrants in houses like other refugees, but instead created camps for them. The press still calls these campi nomadi, nomad camps. It was a way to sidestep the challenge of integrating the Roma into local communities.

The result was ghettoes. And they did what ghettoes always do: they prevented their inmates from developing in step with the rest of society, gave the majority a distinctive, defenceless scapegoat for their problems, and became the focus of tensions that flared up fiercely in times of economic trouble – like now.

At first glance, the gypsy camp in Milan's Via Idro looks nothing like a ghetto. There is abundant greenery, the caravans and campers and small wooden houses are interspersed with grass and shrubs, and small dogs and chickens and children run about unimpeded. But this is land nobody else would deign to live on. Penned in by the River Lambro on one side, a canal on the other, and the city's ring road on the third, it is fetid and plagued by flies and mosquitoes. Many of the 110 residents have been here for more than 20 years.

They have by now achieved a sort of normality. The numerous children go to school. The parents work at casual labouring jobs. In a corner of the camp, the oldest residents keep the flame of gypsy tradition going with a stable of horses that they rear to sell. Unwholesome and isolated as it is, Via Idro has an atmosphere of relative calm and stability, and many of its residents, most of them Italian citizens of long standing, seemed fairly cheerful about their lot. But that is about to change – due to what happened in Rome in November 2007.

The Italian capital was dramatically unprepared for the influx of new migrants from Romania after1 January 2007. Informal camps sprang up around the city, including many along the banks of the Tiber, to the consternation of locals. The subway trains swarmed with beggars and accordionists, windscreen cleaners popped up at every intersection. Small, dark-skinned strangers gathered by communal rubbish bins outside apartment blocks, expertly gutting them for anything of value. The city government looked on and did next to nothing.

As elections approached towards the end of that year, a mood of hysterical anger towards the new arrivals took hold. Then, in November, the wife of a naval captain was mugged and murdered in a dark lane on the city outskirts. The murder, it was alleged, was committed by a Romany who lived in a nearby camp.

That was all it took: a single ugly crime, and a possible Romany culprit. The city mayor, Walter Veltroni, a former Communist, a novelist and a man who has declared his intention of working for the relief of poverty in Africa when he retires from politics, wasted no time. He ordered the immediate demolition of the city's informal camps, and rammed through an emergency law mandating the expulsion of foreigners, including EU citizens, who were a "security threat". The target was the Romanies. "I am always on the side of the weakest," said Mr Veltroni, "and for me the weakest are those who suffer violence."

But Veltroni's post-Fascist opponents upped the anti-Roma rhetoric even further and stole the election. By the spring 2008, sicurezza ("security") – code for expulsion – had become Italy's populist cure-all. Taken up by Berlusconi and his allies, the chauvinistic and separatist Northern League in particular, the crusade against the gypsies was the single biggest factor in giving the centre-right a landslide victory in the general election.

Two years on, with the economic crisis raging, the contagion of hatred had leapt over the Alps to infect France, where another star-struck politician facing electoral meltdown took the same lesson from it as Veltroni in Rome. And when Sarkozy decided to turn the expulsion of Romanies into a test of wills at the European level, suddenly the issue was everywhere. And a great human tragedy was in the making.

Today the urge to kick the gypsies out has reached as far as the placid camp at Via Idro. Although this place has been home to Romanies for nearly a generation, today the mood is anxious and unhappy: all the residents have been given notice to quit. Ahead of local elections next spring, Milan's city government has promised to solve what they call the "Roma emergency" by the simple expedient of closing all camps in the city, the legal ones as well as the informal ones. Via Idro is to become a transit camp; no one will be allowed to stay for more than three months. Where will its residents go? "We have no idea," said a man identifying himself as Giovanni, an Italian Romany with family roots in Croatia. "They say they are going to put other people here, the Romanians. It's all in the council's hands..."

"The Romanians" are the 600 Romanian gypsies who live in a far worse official camp a few miles away in Via Triboniano, behind the city's biggest cemetery. No greenery here: only high fences, stark, tight-packed containers to live in, guarded night and day by police. After an outbreak of violence two years ago, the inmates were obliged to sign a "Pact of Sociality and Legality", swearing not to steal, not to beg, not to have house guests overnight. They did so as the only way to stay in the camp – but now this camp, too, is to be closed as part of the ruling coalition's drive to rid the city of Romanies. Like Veltroni's expulsion drive, Milan's policy is powered by election fever, and the competition between parties on right and left to be the toughest on the Romanies, who are identified – absurdly, seeing as they account for a mere 1,300 people, more than half of them women and children, in a city of more than 4 million – as the source of the city's problems.

But this is not a policy, just a slogan: gypsies out! Every few days the press announces new sgomberi, the demolition of illegal camps. But once Via Idro and Via Triboniano and all Milan's other camps are closed, their occupants will not simply vanish into thin air. Some will be induced by bribes to return to Romania. But given the high unemployment and discrimination there, they will be back in Italy as soon as they can. The rest will take to the road and build new shanties as soon as they are out of sight.

Against heavy odds, the gypsies in these camps in Milan have been doing what they could to improve their lives: putting their children through school, learning skills, saving money to buy homes. But as the Italian state forces them to adopt a roving lifestyle which their ancestors have not followed for centuries, all that effort goes up in smoke. And the "Decade of Roma Inclusion" is turning into quite the opposite.

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