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Europe’s Roma Quandary

IR prof: proud, persecuted people test limits of tolerance


A Roma encampment on Canal St. Martin, Paris. Photo by Luke Robinson

By moving to deport the Roma, also known as Gypsies, from his nation’s borders, is French President Nicolas Sarkozy acting out of bigotry? That’s the allegation of the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, as well as Washington-based Human Rights First, which, in a statement signed by Amnesty International, the Council for Global Equality and other major rights groups, urged U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to comment publicly on what they see as France’s trampling of the Roma people’s rights. Last week the EU told France it would face legal action for failing to meet EU safeguards to protect those rights.

But to Eastern Europe scholars like Igor Lukes, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of international relations and history, the French and other European governments’ treatment of Gypsies, a blatantly persecuted minority for centuries, is far more complicated and historically fraught than many contemporary human rights activists understand it to be.

The Roma claim allegiance to no state, often shun mainstream education, public health requirements, and financial accountability, and live either as squatters in decaying apartment complexes or in temporary camps where they can and do pull up stakes at any moment. In many ways, says Lukes, the Roma live much as they did in the 11th century, when they migrated to Europe from northern India. Their refusal to play by anyone’s rules but their own has tested the tolerance of even the most committed liberals. Since July, the French government has sent nearly 1,230 Roma back to their countries of origin, mainly Romania and Bulgaria.

BU Today sat down with Lukes to learn more about the Roma, their history, and the conflict surrounding their place in the new, unified Europe.

BU Today: How many Roma are there in Europe today?
We don’t even know how many Roma there are. It could be anywhere from 4 million to 14 million.

The Roma face intolerance and discrimination all over Europe, so aren’t Sarkozy’s EU detractors being rather hypocritical?
This is the most sensitive core of the issue. I think the critics of Sarkozy may well love all humankind, but they see it only as an abstraction. They have not been tested because no one is camping in their neighborhood. Sarkozy says to his critics, “It is easy for you to criticize, but you don’t have a Roma encampment in the heart of your capital city.” It is important to note that any comparison between France today and the persecution of the Jews during the Holocaust is a hysterical overstatement.

Will the Roma ever assimilate into the cultures of the countries where they settle?
People like to talk about the clash of civilizations. I have never accepted the inevitability of that dire concept. But here, I confess, is one, for real. This is a true clash of lifestyles, a clash between a nomadic people who since they left India some time in the 11th century have heroically and against all odds maintained their lifestyle, even as the world became more and more settled and developed before their eyes. So you have a group of nomads, bringing their habits from the 11th century into the heart of Paris in the 21st century. The contrast could hardly be any bigger.

In what areas is the clash most pronounced?
The Roma are defending their values, their ancient and proud traditions, and their approach to human existence, which is utterly disconnected from the reality of the modern world. Of course, the host countries say, we are not against your culture, we might even enjoy and admire it, our skepticism has got nothing to do with your otherness or the color of your skin. This involves basic principles that everybody has to uphold. For instance, you have to send your children to school and you have to have your children inoculated before they can be admitted, and you should learn the language of the host country, and you should work for a living, and you should buy medical insurance, and save up for your retirement. If you wish to live on the road, fine, but you will need passports and money, and there are hygienic requirements you must fulfill. You cannot use Hyde Park as your bathroom.

What feeds the negative stereotypes of Roma that prevail among even the most progressive observers?
I have seen some dreadful photographs of what happens when Roma take over the center of a town. It can be pretty shocking. I have agonized over this many, many times. I go to Europe every summer, and I see people who don’t have an illiberal fiber in their body suddenly become scathingly critical when they see gangs of Roma families preying on tourists. When your passport, air ticket, and your wallet are stolen, the limits of your overall tolerance and appreciation of the eccentric are tested. Stealing can hardly be viewed as a human right. At the same time, it is a grave error to paint all of the Roma with a broad brush. Many have probably never stolen a thing in their lives.

Is there a grudging respect among Europeans for the sturdiness and pride of the Roma and the way they’ve kept their lifestyle alive?
Definitely. Since their great departure from the Indian subcontinent, the Roma culture has proved its ability to withstand true catastrophes, including the horror of World War II, when Gypsies were rounded up and murdered in concentration camps. At the same time, today’s mini-crisis in France is a mirror that reflects both the flawed Roma lifestyle and the limits of tolerance among the established European populations.

Do Roma in mainstream professions face the same level of discrimination?
There are Roma intellectuals, entertainers, police officers, doctors, and businessmen. I imagine that many live their whole lives having a hard time explaining themselves to their Roma families as well as to the “Other.”

Have rulers or governments ever tried to integrate the Roma rather than marginalize them?
Assimilation is where the battle takes place. Historically, the Roma had been brutally persecuted, for their failure to convert to the established church, for being different, for being dark-skinned, and for their general lifestyle. They could be hanged, drowned, or burned at the stake simply for being Roma. In the 18th century, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria attempted to assimilate the Roma by peaceful means. She tried to focus on coexistence, although in reality she had hoped to change the Roma so that they would become like the host nations, with the same religion, values, education, and lifestyle. That attempt continues to the present. As we can see in today’s Paris, it has failed. The Roma reacted to Maria Theresa’s campaign, and to all the other campaigns that followed, with the toughness of their unique and admirable culture. They remained themselves.

But some Roma do settle down and send their children to school—is there any estimate of the percentage that do?
The Roma do often settle down, at least for periods of time. I know a small town in the Czech Republic where the mayor rebuilt buildings in the center and gave them to a good number of Roma families; I believe they live there free of charge. They moved in but every so often they just disappear, and the outsiders have no idea when or whether they will ever come back. When they are there, the children go to school, but then they could be gone for half a year or a year, depending on where their traditions take them. Of course, you can imagine what impact this has on their children’s education.

What is school like for Roma children who attend?
It is likely that when Roma children present themselves at school, the teachers test them, find that they perform below the rest of the class, and try to send them to a special school, as if they were mentally handicapped. I don’t doubt for a moment that potentially brilliant and highly talented Roma kids have been mistreated this way for generations.

Do Roma serve in the military of the countries where they settle?
The communists tried to enlist Roma in national service. They were conscripted and forced to put on uniforms. Obviously their values and lifestyles quickly clashed with the military, where the requirement to conform was absolute. In the end, they would be sent for permanent kitchen duty—anything just to get them away from regular troops. It seems to me that if Hitler and the communists failed to destroy the Roma lifestyle, it is here to stay. The Roma will maintain their unique ways, and the Europeans, including Sarkozy and his critics in the EU, will have to live with it.

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.


One Comment on Europe’s Roma Quandary

  • Beznik Horvath on 02.24.2011 at 3:32 am

    Roma soldiers

    Many of thousands of Roma have fought as soldiers in wars Helios Gomez was a soldier and an artist on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War. Many tens of thousands of Roma served in WW2 in the Soviet Army. Pavel Yakovlevich was a pilot and ended the war as a Air Force general Aother one was named Baurov he was a musician turned soldier who was promoted to a colonel for leading his company across the Oder river into Germany, many received medals and many died. Jan Reshitnikov was a Russian general as well as a lawyer who is widely credited with ending the second Chechen War and for governing with restraint and building ties with the Chechen community. He was killed by a terrorist in his house in front of his family in 2004. Roma were also in the British and US armies in WW2, WW1 and today no doubt, my great grandpa was in the US army in WW2. Roma fought in The Yugoslav Partisans. Roma also fought in the Bosnian and Kosovo War mostly on the pro Yugoslavia side. Some would argue that war is unnatural and against human nature, I tend to think so but Roma are no less capable of fighting as anyone else. Perhaps it is more people doubt Roma can be disciplined. That is where the racist stereotypes come in.

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