Sandrine Gil wrote “The State of Roma Integration in Europe: A Look into Human Rights Violations, Rejection, and New Initiatives” as part of the 2015 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship.
Seventy years after the fall of Nazi Germany, one could argue that the situation of European Roma has not drastically changed.
Between 1933 and 1945, the Roma and Sinti people suffered great discrimination and persecution from the Nazi regime. For centuries, Europeans regarded Roma as social outcasts, because they were a people of foreign appearance, language, and customs. Building on these long-held prejudices, the Nazi regime viewed them as “asocials,” living outside “normal” society, and as racially “inferior” people who were believed to be a threat to the biological purity and strength of the “superior Aryan” race. The Roma and Sinti communities of Europe suffered from discrimination, persecution, forced internment, and, eventually, were victims of a genocide that caused the death of an estimated 220,000 to 500,000 Roma and Sinti throughout Europe.
Seventy years after the fall of Nazi Germany, one could argue that the situation of European Roma has not drastically changed. Of course, they are no longer the victims of persecution and genocide, but they still face a high level of discrimination and are still victims of widespread prejudice. Wandering around major European cities, one cannot help but notice the families sitting on the streets or walking through subway cars asking for spare change. On the outskirts of those same cities, a myriad of shanty towns have appeared and they host an increasing number of families in more and more appalling living conditions.
A Restricted EU Citizenship
To make things worse, potential employers had to pay a tax, between EUR 800 and 1,500, in order to be legally allowed to hire a Romanian or Bulgarian citizen.
How could the situation of Roma (1) people not improve in 70 years? More generally, how could European citizens be left living in such precarious conditions on the soil of a political union that was founded on the principle of solidarity? Roma people living in Western Europe are indeed European citizens – most of them have migrated from Romania and Bulgaria, which have been member states of the European Union (EU) since 2007. They therefore enjoy the full benefits that come with EU citizenship, including the freedom of movement and the right to settle in other EU member states. Until January 1, 2014 though, Romanian and Bulgarian citizens’ residence rights were significantly restricted since they were only allowed to occupy a job in an industry that was considered to have prevailing job vacancies and persistent recruitment difficulties. In France, this list was updated in each region by Prefects, state representatives in the regions, and it simply worked as a tool that allowed the French government to prevent the complete opening of its job market. To make things worse, potential employers had to pay a tax, between EUR 800 and 1,500, in order to be legally allowed to hire a Romanian or Bulgarian citizen. These transitional provisions had been negotiated because Western European countries feared a massive influx of Romanian and Bulgarian workers in their labor markets. However, according to Amnesty International France, “the entrance of Romania and Bulgaria in the European Union in 2007 did not translate into a flood of Roma people, but only in more frequent round trips between France and the country of origin,” which means that newcomers have kept close ties with their home country. (2) With the end of the transitory measures, Romanian and Bulgarian citizens, including Roma people, are now able to look for employment freely in all EU member states. More importantly, they are finally able to register for employment support services, which means they can benefit from individual sessions with a career advisor, professional training, and support to help them find work.
The current Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, stated on various occasions that only “a minority of Roma” wanted to integrate in France.
With the lift of the transitional restrictions, one could assume that the economic situation of Roma people would improve. But it did not.
One of the reasons pointed to by many human rights advocates and the EU Commission is the lack of political support for the Roma community. Roma have been the designated scapegoat for many politicians in Europe on either side of the political spectrum. In the case of France, it has been the case for the previous right-wing government, with President Nicolas Sarkozy’s vehement statements leading the EU Commission to threaten to sanction the country. The current socialist government, though, is not doing any better. The current Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, stated on various occasions that only “a minority of Roma” wanted to integrate in France, and that Roma living in France “were destined to return to Romania or Bulgaria.” (3) Viviane Reding, the former Vice President responsible for Justice, Fundamental Rights, and Citizenship at the European Commission, has strongly criticized the French Prime Minister for such comments that have led to lawsuits.
Roma Situation in France
With the election of the current socialist government in May 2012, many activists thought the situation would change, given the party’s historic social agenda and its recurring denunciation of the former government’s practices towards Roma.
An estimated 20,000 Roma people live in slums in France.
A few months after its election, in July, the new government published a non-binding memorandum supposed to help Prefects should an eviction become necessary. This was reaffirming the repressive aspect of the law, especially when it came to the illegal occupation of private land, but for the first time, it also outlined social measures that local officials should take before dismantling Roma settlements. An estimated 20,000 Roma people live in slums in France. Some of these outlined measures include performing an evaluation of the situation and needs of the slum’s occupants, looking for alternative housing, and providing support in terms of housing, schooling, medical care, and insertion. But the State services fail to implement this insertion process. The prevention measures described in the memorandum are barely applied, and it is mostly the repressive aspects of the law that are implemented.
On the one hand, there are not enough relocation options available. If any housing is available, it is usually in emergency housing centers, which means people can only settle there for a couple of days, and it often implies that families will be separated. On the other hand, there is a clear lack of political will, especially from local elected officials who do not wish to see poor, underserved Roma communities settling in their towns. Many French mayors discourage any long-term insertion by preventing Roma parents from registering their children in school, by stating that they do not have a valid address – since they live in shanty towns – or that they do not meet vaccination requirements.
Living in shanty towns, deemed shameful for our rich, developed, first-world society, they remind us of the extreme inequalities modern times have created.
Evictions more than doubled between 2012 and 2013 and continued throughout 2014, reaching 13,483 people evicted, i.e. almost 80% of the population living in slums of France, according to the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) and the Ligue des droits de l’homme (LDH). (4) Nonetheless, this systematic eviction policy does not constitute a long-term, sustainable solution toward the integration of Roma communities. On the contrary, evictions interfere with the efforts of social workers and the Roma who wish to settle down; they hinder all job searches, schooling, language courses, and medical care Roma living in slums might engage in and instead of accompanying them in this process, it pushes them further into the margins of the French society.
The problem of Roma integration is not only a housing issue. Using the broad definition of Roma, the Council of Europe estimated they were between 300,000 to 500,000 Roma people in France in 2012. Nevertheless, politicians – and the public opinion – only seem concerned with the estimated 20,000 who live in slums. Those are the visible Roma, but what happens to the invisible ones, the 300,000 to 480,000 who live in France but not in shanty towns? It is not exclusively their ethnicity that defines the Roma who are rejected by French society, but rather their socioeconomic status as well: they are poor, fled persecution, and are looking for a better life in France for themselves and their children. Living in shanty towns, deemed shameful for our rich, developed, first-world society, they remind us of the extreme inequalities modern times have created. The racism against them is being promoted by politicians and the media who inspire fear in people in troubled times. In that sense, they receive the same treatment foreign workers did in the industrial years of France and in the post-war economy. (5) Roma, too, are perceived as invaders who are deemed “different” and considered to be a “special community” by public opinion. (6)
How the European Union (EU) is Handling Roma Integration
The EU has long stressed the necessity for better integration of Roma populations in its member states, which the Union has called its “joint responsibility” with the member states to improve the integration of what represents, with twelve million people, the largest European ethnic minority. In 2011, the European Commission adopted communication pushing for the development of national Roma integration strategies, which detailed the concrete policies and measures to be taken. By 2012, each EU member state had to produce a national Roma integration strategy, which included a set of integrated policy measures to ensure the effective integration of Roma populations. The Commission has since been releasing assessment reports, evaluating the progress of member states on their own set of goals and is pushing for further efforts to achieve Roma inclusion as part of the Europe 2020 process.
As many as 77% of people think, in 2014, that Roma people do not wish to integrate into French society and live mainly off of burglary and trafficking (7)
One could argue that governments are not receiving sufficient financial support from EU institutions that would allow them to successfully achieve Roma integration. After all, most Western European countries are facing major public deficits and undergoing major cuts in their national public spending programs. Given the public lack of sympathy toward the situation of the Roma – with as many as 77% of people thinking, in 2014, that Roma people do not wish to integrate into French society and live mainly off of burglary and trafficking (7) – it would be understandable if governments did not make Roma inclusion their priority. However, the EU is massively funding the integration of Roma people, though the funds are not being used entirely. For instance, only 31% of the funds allocated to the integration of Roma until 2009 were used by the beneficiary countries. (8)
The Spanish Example of Successful Integration
Of course, governments can hide behind so-called technical or legal difficulties. In the case of France, a 2013 information report by the French National Assembly’s Commission on European Affairs on the integration of Roma people denounced the complexity surrounding the use of European funding and the difficulties associated with mobilizing such funds, such as the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). However, not all EU member states are dragging their feet on the issue of Roma integration.
One of the key components of the Spanish inclusion program has been investing in education.
In Europe, Spain appears to be a model for Roma integration and is widely presented as such by EU officials. For the past three decades, the Spanish government has focused its efforts on four areas in order to improve the integration of Roma people within its borders: education, housing, employment, and health care. With an estimated community of 750,000 people, Spain has the second largest Roma community in the EU, second only to Romania and tied with Bulgaria. Although it is almost twice the size of the Roma community in France, the Spanish Roma display better integration and perform better on various inclusion indicators, such as education, employment, and access to medical care. (9) One of the key components of the Spanish inclusion program has been investing in education. Virtually 100% of Roma children complete elementary school, while historically schooling of Roma children has always been low. There is obviously a margin for progress, as the school dropout rate for Roma children between 12 and 18 is 80%. (10)There is also a distinguishable gap between male and female schooling, with about 61% of young Roma boys in secondary schools as opposed to the only 39% of their female counterparts. However, more and more Roma children graduate from high school and pursue higher education studies. Parents’ mentalities are also progressively changing and young women are staying in school longer instead of marrying at a young age.
Around 69% of the Roma people who have been part of the program since 2000 have found jobs.
One reason that can explain the success of this education program is that Spain, in comparison to France, is more keen on granting Roma people access to social services, such as social housing, employment support services, and financial aid. But the Spanish government has made a rule of pairing these services with targeted inclusion programs, and sending children to school and healthcare facilities has been a condition to being able to benefit from these social services. When it comes to housing, the situation has changed drastically as well. According to a 2009 study, 92% of Roma in Spain lived in standard apartments or houses, and only 4% still lived in shacks, compared to the nearly 33% in neighboring Portugal. According to Isidro Rodríguez, director of Fundación Secretariado Gitano (FSG), the organization that administers the Acceder (or “to access”) job program, the reason for Spain’s success is that “the Spanish approach has really been different because it has been first and foremost about improving living standards,” unlike other EU member states or institutions who, according to experts, have been focusing too much on issues of prejudice and political rights instead of practical issues.One of the successful programs Spain implemented with the help of EU funding was the Acceder program, which aims to facilitate Roma people’s access to employment. The program targets long-unemployed people and offers them professional training in an industry facing high need in the labor market. Around 69% of the Roma people who have been part of the program since 2000 have found jobs.
This successful program is cited in a 2013 report by the French National Assembly’s Commission on European Affairs, as if to suggest France could learn from the Spanish example. Yet, France is lacking national integration programs that focus on practical issues as the Spanish one does. But more and more local initiatives are emerging and bringing hope to the future of Roma integration in France.
Local Initiatives Take the Lead in France
In 2009, in Lille, a city located in the north of France, the AFEJI, an association whose goal is to fight any exclusion, opened so-called “insertion villages.” With 18 permanent mobile homes and a maximum occupancy of 95 people, the association offered temporary housing for Roma families committed to integrating in France. Children are schooled and adults are offered professional assessments, training, and French language courses through the National Employment Support Services Agencies. Volunteers assist them with their administrative procedures, while the association manages the village with the help of European, state, and local funding. Despite the critique that these initiatives are a waste of money, the association management asserts that the cost of such integration programs is far less than that of emergency housing in cases of eviction from illegal settlements.
All associations running insertion villages agree that this is a temporary solution.
Some Roma advocacy groups are not too supportive of insertion villages. Their main critiques are that Roma families cannot properly integrate if they are segregated from the rest of society, and that they does not address the long-term issues Roma families face, such as access to employment and housing. But for many families, the improvement of their living conditions is drastic when they move into insertion villages. They now have access to drinkable water and reliable electricity coverage that does not put them at risk of fire, and garbage is collected, limiting the spread of pests and diseases. All associations running insertion villages agree that this is a temporary solution, which aims to take Roma families off the streets and hinder the risk of eviction, to allow them to start their integration through education and employment. Once a family’s situation has improved, for instance when one parent signs a long-term work contract, they can move on with their life and transition into common law social housing or even private housing.
Obviously, insertion villages are just a drop in the ocean when it comes to helping Roma communities, mostly because, outside of the Paris region, insertion villages are designed to be rather small. Studies have indeed found that the smaller the villages were, the better the integration worked. Town officials and activists who have implemented such villages want to avoid the segregation of Roma families, parked in the outskirts of cities, doomed to live in a ghetto-like village. In Lille, where the Roma population was estimated at around 1,900 people in 2014, the insertion villages can only welcome 95 people at a time. Successful initiatives have also occurred in Nantes, Strasbourg, and Orly. In 2012, Orly received the MERI Award (Mayors Making the Most of EU Funds for Roma Inclusion Network) in recognition of the success of the Hameau du Bouvray, an insertion village that hosted 17 Roma families, around 80 people, for three years. One could wonder why there are not more insertion villages. Local officials’ opposition is not due to financial constraint, since European, state, and local funding is typically largely available for such integration programs. Their concern comes more from a political perspective. Roma people remain unpopular in France and are viewed by many French citizens as a threat, due to the risk of burglary and the spread of begging that they are associated with. An example of such rejection took place this fall when the Rhône prefecture announced the creation of insertion villages in the area of Lyon, where an estimated 350 Roma people have been living in appalling conditions in slums. The prefecture located a large site, owned by the French Ministry of Justice, where a village could be created that could benefit about 150 people. But the elected officials of the rather affluent town where the land is located have already denounced the project and passed a motion refusing the creation of the village on the town’s territory. (11)
Four Roma families were pre-selected and visited the village, but only one decided to stay.
Nonetheless, the integration of Roma communities in France is not always considered a burden. In some very rural villages of France, where the population is aging, welcoming a Roma family can prove useful, sometimes even necessary. In Saint-Martin-de-Boubaux, a village of 180 residents located in Lozère, France’s least populated region, the village’s school was about to close due to low attendance. Without enough children in the village, the one and only, multi-grade class was too small to be efficient, but closing the school would have meant that the local children would have had a long commute to attend another school. When the mayor heard of a Roma community of 12 families, who had settled some 200 miles away, he took it as an opportunity and decided to offer a relocation package, including a rent-controlled apartment, a job in the local sawmill for the fathers and education for the children at the village’s public school. Four Roma families were pre-selected and visited the village, but only one decided to stay. With an extra four children, the village was able to keep its school open. The Roma family, on the other hand, was finally able to settle, after five years of wandering through Spain and France. Given the success of this experiment, another mayor of a town of 480 inhabitants has shown some interest in the project. In rural areas of France, where the population is declining, where local craftsmen have trouble finding skilled employees, and where farms are left without successors upon their owners’ deaths, welcoming Roma families could be a solution.
In all these initiatives, there is one common factor: a strong commitment from public officials. The most basic human rights of Roma people are being violated everyday throughout Europe and the situation will not change until European governments decide to address it. There is still a clear lack of political will as well as public support to allow for Roma integration. On its latest recommendations to the French government, the High Committee for Housing of Underprivileged People denounced the increasing stigmatization of the Roma community and a increase of violent and racist acts and behaviors toward Roma in France. One of its recommendations was to implement a national plan, targeting local civil servants, elected officials, political officials, and citizens, in order to fight long-held prejudices. This is considered the first necessary step toward real integration. When it comes to public opinion on Roma, the French National Assembly’s Commission on European Affairs has been making clear recommendations since 2013. It stated that “prejudices, combined with a widespread tendency to link Roma and crime, have contributed significantly to the plight of Roma in Europe. We must therefore tackle with the utmost urgency the problem of discrimination. Campaigns against discrimination that target citizens in general need to raise awareness on discriminatory practices and the damages it causes. This struggle should be sustained over time and is of the utmost importance.” One can only hope that a share of the recent EUR 100 million investment plan that the French government announced to fund anti-racism programs will be allocated to projects focusing on Roma.
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Many thanks to Manon Fillonneau for her dedicated efforts in reviewing earlier versions of this article.
- From now on, the term “Roma” will be used exclusively in this paper. It is the official term used by the Council of Europe since 2010. According to the Council of Europe Descriptive Glossary of terms relating to Roma issues in its latest version of May 18, 2012, “The term “Roma” used at the Council of Europe refers to Roma, Sinti, Kale and related groups in Europe, including Travellers and the Eastern groups (Dom and Lom), and covers the wide diversity of the groups concerned, including persons who identify themselves as Gypsies.”
- Amnesty International, “Les Roms en France,” accessed Apr. 24, 2016, http://www.amnesty.fr/Nos-campagnes/Lutte-contre-les-discriminations/Presentation/Les-Roms-en-France.
- Pour Valls, “les Roms ont vocation à rentrer en Roumanie ou en Bulgarie,” Libération, Sept. 24, 2013.
- European Roma Rights Center, “Violent, Unfair, Unlawful and Shameful: France Evicted Close to 3 Romani Settlements per Week in 2014,” accessed Apr. 24, 2016, http://www.errc.org/article/violent-unfair-unlawful-and-shameful-france-evicted-close-to-3-romani-settlements-per-week-in-2014/4351.
- Martin Olivera, “Zone, bidonvilles, campements : une histoire parisienne (1850-2015),” Revue Projet, no. 384 (2015): 6.
- Nonna Mayer, “La persistance des préjugés anti-roms,” in La lutte contre le racisme, l’antisémitisme et la xénophobie – Année 2014 (Paris: La documentation française, 2015), 251-59.
- Ibid, 251.
- Eric Nunès, “Les Roms victimes d’une absence de volonté d’intégration politique,” Le Monde, July 4, 2014.
- Roma is used here in its broad definition. It includes “gitanos,” most of whom would not identify as Roma.
- Suzanne Daley and Raphael Minder, “In Spain, Gypsies Find Easier Path to Integration,” New York Times, Dec. 5, 2010.
- “Rhône: un village contre l’insertion des Roms,” Le Figaro, Oct. 2, 2015.