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Rethinking (im)mobilities of Roma in Europe

Roma are wrongly assumed to have a cultural predilection to move. Most Roma do not migrate, and many of their largest movements have been forced upon them.

A Roma camp is evicted in Bron, France, on 16 April 2015. Serge Mouraret/Demotix. All Rights Reserved.

In recent months there has been a great deal of discussion about forced migration and the distinction between who is a refugee and who is an economic migrant. In the case of people fleeing from Syria, the media discourse has changed significantly: many news outlets now refer to them exclusively as refugees. Yet while this is an important change, it has latently reinforced the dominant dichotomy of refugees, who ‘legitimately’ seek protection, and ‘undeserving economic migrants’, who do not since they are presumably mobile ‘by choice’. European Roma, who are often portrayed as social benefit tourists in the media, have long served as a stereotypical example of the undeserving economic migrant. However, much like those crossing the Mediterranean now, the degree to which the movement of European Roma has been ‘free’ is open to debate.

Fear of invasion

The Free Movement of EU Citizens Directive (Directive 2004/38/EC) came into force on 30 April 2004, one day before the so-called ‘Big Bang EU Enlargement’ that created ten new EU member states from mostly post-socialist candidate countries. This directive permits all EU citizens to move to and reside in member states other than their own for up to three months. However, over the past decade—particularly after Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007—we have witnessed heated media and political debates on whether this right should remain unconditional. The primary impetus for this discord has been the position of Romani EU citizens, who move freely between their own post-socialist country (usually Romania) and countries in Western Europe (e.g. France, Italy, Spain and the UK).

The issue of ‘Romani mobilities’ has been framed by three popular beliefs. First, Roma are presumed to have a ‘nomadic’ culture. Second, the mobility of Roma in socialist states was stopped or severely restrained by the local and state authorities. Third, now that those restraints on mobility have been removed—a result of the fall of the Iron Curtain, as well as the 2004 and 2007 EU enlargements—Roma have resumed their ‘traditional’ movement. Some believe that this will eventually result in mass migration to Western Europe with Romani migrants ‘stealing’ jobs and taking advantage of social welfare programmes. Although the fear of ‘West Romani invasion’ was proven to be unfounded, the myth that it might happen in the future fuels many popular media broadcasts such as the British reality show The Romanians are coming.

Mobile, but not of their own volition

This empirical reality forces us to not only ask why the free mobility debate revolves around Roma, who are EU citizens, but also why Roma are assumed to be more mobile than other populations. Indeed, history shows that the movement of Roma is more a product of their treatment at the hands of different authorities than of culture, and it is an open question whether they would be mobile if contemporary and historical contexts had been different.

Roma were viewed as bad omens in many folk cultures during the Ottoman period, especially during times of war. When a group of Roma was seen coming to a village, it was said, the Ottoman army could not be far behind. Authorities dealt differently with these ‘Roma nomads’. The city of Bamberg (now in Germany) was recorded as paying them a certain amount of money to leave in 1463, while a decree issued in 1697 in what is today’s Slovakia declared all Roma to be outlaws and instructed the authorities to expel or hang them.

Ironically, the mobility of Roma actually reached its peak during the second world war, in which many Roma suffered the same fate as Jews. Romani survivors that I met in different states of the former Yugoslavia told me stories of Romani settlements and villages that were almost completely emptied. Up to 90 percent of the Romani population in many countries disappeared, taken out of their settlements and either massacred on the spot or shipped by train to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Jasenovac, and other concentration camps. For most, this meant inevitable death. Ironically enough, such periods of forced, brutal mobility inflicted upon Roma by others in Europe do not attract much attention.

Moreover, it is well known that the authorities of the socialist governments curtailed the movement rights of Roma in the post-war period. What is less known is that prior to this, the authorities relocated large numbers of Roma so that they would not be concentrated in one place. For example, most of the Roma in the nominally socialist Czechoslovakia lived in the Slovak part since those residing on Czech lands were killed during the war. Many of these were relocated from the former to the latter to man the factories being built in Czech areas, yet remained registered as republican citizens of Slovakia. After the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, this ‘geographical mobility’ (conducted by the state authorities) was the main reason why around 25,000 Roma living in the Czech Republic had difficulties accessing Czech citizenship and were rendered de facto stateless.

Various patterns of Romani (im)mobilities

While these examples demonstrate that governments directly or indirectly caused many of the largest movements of Roma in history, it is also apparent that the contemporary treatment of Roma by state authorities continues to push them to move. Here we can think of the eviction and resettlement of Roma communities in several west European states, or be reminded of Roma and other Romani minorities (Ashkali and Egyptians, for example) who fled states of the former Yugoslavia due to war. Those who left to other parts of Europe were usually not granted refugee status. They were put under temporary protection, a status that made them eligible for deportation once the violence was declared over.

At the same time, large, seemingly more regular mobilities do not attract much attention. For example, an extremely large proportion of the Romani population in Slovenia commutes on a daily basis to the neighbouring country of Austria. These workers, who are unable to find jobs in Slovenia due to the economic situation and discrimination, are treated as other ‘gastarbeiters’ (guestworkers) in Austria. A similar situation exists for the many Bulgarian Roma working as seasonal labourers in Greece.

It must also be noted that not all Roma have the ability to move. In today’s Europe, a large number of Romani individuals do not possess basic documents, even birth certificates. This lack of paperwork makes them legally invisible and de facto stateless. Most such individuals lack the resources to be mobile, and by most estimates the number of sedentary Roma far outweighs the mobile Romani population.

Why some Roma become migrants is not fully understood. However, there are other, far more urgent questions for which we must demand answers: why do most Roma in Europe, whether migrants or not, remain so immobile on the socio-economic ladder? Why do they exist on the edge of poverty in most societies, and why are they one of the main targets of hate crimes and discrimination? More generally, is it correct to describe only those fleeing war and achieving refugee status as ‘forced migrants’, or should the old dichotomies of forced and migration by choice be reconceptualised?

About the author

Julija Sardelić is a Max Weber Postdoctoral Fellow at the European University Institute and a CAS SEE Fellow at the University of Rijeka (Croatia). She is conducting research on Romani minorities in Europe in the broader context of citizenship and migration. Her latest work includes an article in the Ethnopolitics entitled Romani Minorities and Uneven Citizenship Access in the Post-Yugoslav Space. She tweets @JulijaSardelic.


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