Frankenstein Roma: the economic fallacy

The governments of many Roma countries of origin are guilty of resorting to an economic fallacy that prevents the social inclusion of Roma – both at home and in western Europe. This fallacy must be exposed, and abandoned.

For many the word “Roma” is nothing but a euphemism for all kind of petty criminals (though of course many of these criminals are not Roma). This imagined group of Roma could be called the “Frankenstein” Roma - a term that is meant to emphasize both the confusion and simplistic Roma archetype that is largely spread among policy makers. As with any stereotype, the percentage of the Roma that fit the “Frankenstein” description is just a fraction of the total number of Roma.

From fallacy to policy

The economic fallacy about the Frankenstein Roma says that their countries are better off, in economic terms, without them. This belief justifies both inaction at home (lack of effort and funds spent on social inclusion) and a reluctance to work towards stemming emigration to western European countries.

Many eastern and central European governments think that the majority of Roma that leave their countries are, at best, singers, dancers, or menial workers (cleaners or restaurant helpers), but most likely live on welfare, steal, or are employed on the black market. Regardless, they consider that at home, Roma are essentially a significant economic loss for their countries’ economies.

They also imagine that once the “Frankenstein” Roma leave, the host countries (western Europe) will have to cover “their” costs of welfare, policing, education, health, housing - while most of the money these Roma save will be spent back at home. It is a crude, wrong but easy-to-sell message for the majority of voters who anyway are predisposed not to like - or openly hate - the Roma.

But this attitude, of course, is only making things worse. The “Frankenstein” Roma need to be incentivized and made responsible towards their citizenship. This would require an aggressive campaign to make Roma feel that they are an important part of their nations, through massive investment in social inclusion, fighting anti-Gypsyism and promoting active citizenship within the most difficult ghettoes and Roma communities. 

Such an action plan would require long to very long (over twenty years) strategic measures, involve significant budgets, not to say it would be moderately if not highly unpopular. It would require serious hands-on grass-roots work - an activity disliked not only by the policymakers themselves, but also by most NGOs active in the Roma and social inclusion field.

Why should any country do this? The answer is simple - there is no other better solution.

Most of the “Frankenstein” Roma governments want to get rid of will not settle permanently in other countries. They will continue to collect welfare in their own countries as well as welfare in the west. Some will use their criminal experiences in western Europe to strengthen the criminal networks in their own countries. It’s already happening: in the ghetto where I work, there is increasingly more money made from drug trafficking and prostitution. Criminal gangs control significant numbers of people through money or threats and are even able to influence elections. Links between those criminals and top-level politicians are sometimes public. All these come at significantly higher costs than the social inclusion measures meant to prevent them.

But there are some other reasons.

The lost generations of Roma children 

At the beginning of the 1990s, some Roma made a fortune by going to western Europe, together with their children. These children became the first of the many lost generations. Both children and adults were involved in begging, some in petty criminality, some sang for money and others collected and sold scrap metal. A few of those started businesses dealing with second hand clothing and cars. They spend their money back at home, much of it on strident signs of wealth.

Roma were among the first to lose their jobs during the transitions from socialism to democracy at the beginning of 1990s. The success of the few that made easy money by going abroad was much more visible than the “normal” but long-term success of those who worked hard on their education. The long-term success was rendered even less visible as most of those who managed to complete their education left the ghettoes or their Roma communities. Educated, prosperous professional Roma’s achievements are never as visible as the “achievements” of those who made “easy” money.

That many of those trying to make easy money end up in prison is ignored, as incarceration is considered a part of the normal life cycle in these communities.

The children who made money begging or stealing in the 1990s became adults that used their children for begging or stealing. Their children, in turn, will do the same with their children when the opportunity arises. Children that steal cannot be put in prison, and some children have become valuable assets for the parents, relatives or criminal networks who exploit them. The same principles apply when it comes to prostitution or selling drugs.

The focus on making money destroys generation after generation of children in the communities that live from these trades. It is a niche economy that was and in some cases still is very productive. I know a good number of families that go on begging trips by plane. 

The psychological damage suffered by the children involved in these trades is almost impossible to estimate and in the majority of cases is completely disregarded by their parents as they think it is for the economic benefit of their children. These children grow into adults who have no chance to compete on the job market but have the skills, the networks, the support and the motivation to do well in the criminal economy. Selling drugs, prostitution, stealing and begging pay them much better than any possible legal job for an uneducated (and usually illiterate) youth. 

Action is needed

Still, the worst conditions in western Europe are much better in almost every respect than living in the ghettoes or in dirt-poor communities in eastern Europe. The welfare, social services and educational systems are better. For criminals, beggars and prostitutes (whether they are Roma or not) the richer the country is, the better the pay - up to ten times more than in their own countries. Incarceration conditions are much superior and jail sentences shorter.

The increase in anti-Gypsyism is a direct effect of these migrations and makes social inclusion harder and more expensive. Rampant anti-Gypsyism could result in inter-ethnic conflicts – the human and economic cost of such conflicts are impossible to estimate.

The existing flux of Frankenstein Roma migration needs to be addressed much better. It is impossible to stop it completely but using the available EU money more efficiently could lead to a significant reduction in the number of these people (and especially of the children) leaving their countries.

It is true that there are immediate economic benefits in the short term for the “Frankenstein” Roma if they leave their countries. But this has a disastrous effect in the long term as it destroys generations after generation of their children. There may be long-term repercussions: Roma have the highest percentage of young people of any ethnic group in Europe; these children must complete their education in order to compete on the job markets. The sustainability of many EU member states' pensions might depend on it. 

About the author

Valeriu Nicolae has many years experience working in the ghettoes. He has visited a number of prisons in Romania and illegal Roma camps all over Europe. Three years ago he started a project in one of the worst ghettoes in Romania that received the 2012 UNICEF award for best Sports and Education project. His organization also received the 2012 award for the Development of Romanian Civil Society. Valeriu Nicolae is a Romanian Roma.