Wandering now from land to land
Who is there here to feel my pain?”
— Younous Emre, Thirteeth Century Turkish dervish
In early August, the French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux announced that more than 40 Gypsy camps had been dismantled around France since President Nicolas Sarkozy had called earlier this summer for a crackdown on the camps calling them “sources of illegal trafficking, profoundly shocking living standards, exploitation of children for begging, prostitution and crime.” Some 300 Roma camps not on municipal sites organized for Gypsy or “Travellers” are to be demolished and some — the criteria for expulsion is not clear — expelled mostly to Romania and Bulgaria. The political motivations of Mr. Sarkozy are clear: to pander to the anti-immigration Right — basically the voters of the National Front — who have long had an anti-immigrant platform.
However, there have been anti-Rom measures in Germany where some 12,000 Rom are to be deported to Kosovo, in Italy where a “state of emergency” had been declared on the basis of fear of Rom immigrants, as well as in Belgium.
These measures come in the middle of a European Decade of Roma Inclusion (2005-2015) called by European Union officials as “an unprecedented commitment by European governments to improve the socio-economic status and social inclusion of Roma” although public awareness of the Decade is probably not high.
There are estimates that there are 10 to 12 million Rom living in the European Union with the largest concentration in Romania — some two million according to unofficial estimates. There are also fairly large Rom groups in the former Soviet Union, in particular the Russian Federation, Ukraine, Belarus, as well as in Turkey. Originally from India, the Rom have spread through Europe probably between the ninth and fourteenth centuries. Why they left northern India is not clear. They seemed to have been from the start a nomadic population living from handicrafts and providing music and dance to settled populations. It is only recently that some Rom intellectuals have become interested in their Indian heritage and have been making contacts with groups which still live in India and which may have had common ancestors.
The Rom have been known by a host of different names and only in the last few years have started using “Rom” as a common name in order to achieve some political attention to their conditions. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) which created a small program in 1994 uses the term “Roma and Sinti”. In former Yugoslavia, they are often called “Egyptians” due to a myth that Rom came from Egypt rather than India. Useful ethnographic studies on the Rom are published by the Project on Ethnic Relations, Princeton.(1)
The Rom face a wide range of often interrelated problems: citizenship, political participation, racially-motivated violence, poverty, unemployment, and an image which arouses ancestral fears of Gypsies. Governments and Rom NGOs need to work together to provide decent living conditions based on non-discrimination and fundamental rights.
A major difficulty is that the states with large concentrations of Rom such as Romania and Bulgaria have limited financial resources, and the Rom have little political influence in order to get their share. In Western Europe, the Rom are the easily identified “tip of the iceberg” of the larger issue of migration and integration as globalization has made the barriers separating different countries ever more permeable.
As Hannah Arendt has written “The individual who has lost his place in the political community risks to drop out of the boundaries of humanity.” The confrontation between nomad and sedentary peoples is an old one, always present in different forms and in different places. Compassion and political imagination are needed. Managing migration in a changing global environment is a crucial issue. The Gypsy camps are a text of a society’s ability to mediate between the universal nature of human rights and the protection of the cultural traits of a people.
Rene Wadlow, Representative to the UN, Geneva, Association of World Citizens.
1. See its website www.per-usa.org and the section PER and the Roma.