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Why Roma migrate

Almost all central and east European Roma migrants to western Europe are not trafficked. They seek opportunities denied at home and escape from the racism perpetuating their marginalisation.

Police dismantle the largest Roma camp in Marseille, France in 2013. Erwann Merrien/Demotix. All Rights Reserved.

The arrival of large numbers of mainly Romanian Roma in Italy and France after Romania and Bulgaria became EU member states in 2007 triggered furious political and media reaction. In Italy this migration resulted in inter-communal clashes, the bulldozing of shantytowns on the periphery of Italian cities, and the proclamation of an emergency decree by Romano Prodi, Italy’s prime minister at the time. In France it led to a heated row between France’s former president Nicolas Sarkozy and Viviane Reding, then vice president and commissioner of justice, fundamental rights and citizenship at the European Commission (EC). This was an unprecedented confrontation between an EU founding member and the EC.

Sarkozy accused the Romanian authorities of turning a blind eye to ‘trafficking’ while Reding criticised French plans to expel Roma migrants as violating the fundamental right of EU citizens to freedom of movement. Research among Roma migrants by French NGOs found that the vast majority were not ‘trafficked’ but had come to France voluntarily.

Sarkozy is not the only politician to suggest that Roma migration is associated with ‘trafficking’. Similar allegations have been made in Canada, Italy, Finland and elsewhere. And yet, on the whole, Roma from central and eastern European (CEE) countries have adopted the same strategy as large numbers of their non-Roma fellow citizens in migrating to western Europe in search of better work opportunities. Bulgaria—the EU’s poorest state—is the most extreme case. It witnessed the emigration of 10 percent of the economically active population and an overall population loss of 18 percent between 1992 and 2012.

Reasons for emigration

Emigration appeals to CEE Roma because many of their marginalised communities suffer deep structural poverty. Detailed and disturbing studies by the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), UNDP and World Bank (e.g. on housing and health) reveal continued discrimination and deteriorating conditions in Roma employment, living conditions and health. In 2011 about 90 percent of Roma surveyed in CEE and other countries had an income below the national poverty threshold and about 40 percent of the children lived in households struggling with malnutrition or hunger. Over half of those surveyed lived in segregated areas in dwellings falling far below minimum housing standards. A 2009 FRA report concluded that “poverty and racism are the main factors ‘pushing’ Roma to leave their countries of origin”.

While some Roma may have been coerced into migrating and then exploited in their destination countries, a 2009 study argued that this was not true of the vast majority of CEE Roma migrants to western Europe. When and where exploitation occurred, regardless of whether or not it was preceded by coerced movement, did not differ qualitatively from practices involving non-Roma groups. Nevertheless the study found that Roma are more vulnerable than others to such abuse.

Since 2007 a significant factor driving Roma migration has been a dramatic increase in hate crimes and speech in parts of Europe. Although Roma are not the only victims they are the main target in CEE countries. The most extreme example is that of Hungary. In 2007 a mere 24 Hungarian Roma sought asylum in Canada. However, that number jumped to 1,990 in 2011 in response to a series of murders, assaults, and media attacks targeting Roma communities.

Mainstream politicians frequently tap into the ugly phenomenon of racial hatred in order to win votes, cynically exploiting the space created by the racist discourse of extremists. While generally more cautious with their words, these politicians nevertheless convey similar messages in coded form, such as alleging damage to the economy caused by welfare dependency. For example, in 2012 the Czech prime minister declared that “the state does not help scroungers who abuse benefits”. But even mainstream politicians can be brutally outspoken. A former Czech mayor was elected to the senate after evicting Roma families from his town, proudly describing this as ‘the removal of an ulcer’. He went on to become deputy prime minister and, having built a political career on racially abusing Roma, was later elected chair of the senate subcommittee on human rights and equal opportunities.

History of persecution

Hostility to Roma is nothing new. Since their arrival in Europe from India via the Near East over six centuries ago they have suffered persecution and discrimination. Some smaller groups migrated to northwest Europe and many of their descendants have remained largely nomadic. In spite of their contributions to local economies they have been regarded as unproductive and unwanted vagrants. In CEE countries the experience of Roma was quite different. They were made to settle in the region and were forcibly exploited for their labour power. In Romania their enslavement lasted more than 300 years, ending only in the mid-nineteenth century. The Romanian sociologist Nicolae Gheorghe—himself a descendant of Roma slaves—wrote that this determined their identity to the extent that ‘țigan [Gypsy] in the Romanian language was equivalent with rób [slave]’. They were divided into house and field slaves, much as in the slave-owning states of North America, and were clearly identified by their brown skins as a distinct and stigmatised caste.

Most CEE Roma lived a pariah existence in segregated rural settlements or urban ghettoes up until the second world war. However, the newly-established CEE communist regimes saw them as potential workers for their labour-hungry command economies. Roma were recruited mainly as unskilled workers but after 1989 became victims of post-communist economic restructuring. They were the first to lose their jobs and the last to be reemployed, resulting in many families quickly becoming dependent on welfare benefits. This fuelled mounting resentment in majority populations who saw Roma as work-shy and also believed they had been unfairly favoured during the communist era. Neo-Nazi groups soon emerged with Roma as a principal target of their verbal and physical attacks, and several Roma were murdered during this period.

Reluctant inclusion

Continuing marginalisation of Roma populations posed an awkward challenge for EU enlargement from the outset, since one criterion for membership was ‘respect for minorities’. In spite of EC-assisted projects promoting Roma integration in candidate countries, the situation of their respective Roma communities had barely improved by the time of their accession. Subsequent large-scale migration of Roma from new to established member states sharply increased pressure on the EU to find a solution.

In response the EC required all member states to prepare national Roma integration strategies, supported by EU structural funds. The goal is to improve Roma inclusion by 2020 by offering them a better future in their home countries. However the austerity climate following the financial meltdown of 2007-2008 presents a difficult environment for social inclusion initiatives. It is not hard to see why the massive expenditure necessary to improve the situation of Roma would be hard to sell to generally hostile majority populations at a time of widespread economic hardship. This partly explains the extremely limited use of available EU funding to benefit Roma by CEE countries, especially since states are required to make a contribution. Unsurprisingly some activists report that remittances from migrants working in western Europe have done far more to transform Roma communities in Romania than any EU-funded integration project. With a few exceptions, the political will to take such measures has always been in short supply among CEE national leaders. The EC furthermore has limited leverage in confronting such politicians since they are members of the European Council—the most powerful body in the EU.

The politicians of western Europe often criticise CEE governments for not stemming Roma emigration but fail to acknowledge the degree of continuing racism in the region at all levels. Hypocritically they also fail take action to counter racist discrimination towards Roma, gypsies and travellers in their own countries.

About the author

Will Guy is Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship at the University of Bristol, UK. From 2000 onwards he has evaluated Roma integration programmes in Central and East European EU candidate countries for the European Commission. He was lead author of a study of Roma-related policies and good practice in eighteen EU Member States.


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