Monday, October 04, 2010

The Trouble with the Roma: At the Margins of Europe

The Independent (London)
October 4, 2010
Europe's most persecuted minority has become the subject of increasingly draconian laws. But recent treatment of the Roma shames our continent, argues Peter Popham.
This Thursday, in a hall in the Council of Europe's headquarters in Strasbourg, a group of academics, government advisers and gypsy representatives will get together to discuss the next steps in a pan-European project entitled "The Decade of Roma Inclusion, 2005 to 2015".  The idea of the "decade", according to its authors, is to "improve the socio-economic status and social inclusion of Roma". The next phase will see Romanies stepping forward in museums and other institutions in Britain, Greece, Germany and Slovenia and talking about their culture, "getting people to talk to them and get to know them, to get rid of some of the fear," as one of the organisers puts it.

It's a low-key initiative, very modestly funded – but it has attained a new importance. Thanks to France's President Sarkozy and his policy of targeting their communities for repatriation, gypsies suddenly find themselves at the centre of European debate. How did this come about?

Roma after an eviction in Paris
Gypsies have been at the margin of European affairs ever since they arrived from India nearly a millennium ago. They have no claims on territory, have never started a war, are far from homogeneous and have produced few figures who bulk large in our history books. In the past they were usually in motion, trundling around the edges of European history, earning a living in the nooks and crannies of society, fortune telling, basket weaving, horse trading, dealing in scrap metal. They might be seen as people of doubtful honesty, capable of sly tricks, or seductively wild, depending on circumstance, but whatever they were it was of fleeting importance. They had their world, we, the gaje (non-Romanies), had ours. 

Just as only a few Romanies have been feted as culture heroes in the gaje world, few have become notorious. Their crimes were of a scale with the rest of their low-key, inconspicuous lives, picking pockets being the most obvious. But now Sarkozy in France and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Italy would have us believe that the Roma community as a group represents a security threat so grave that it demands the removal of its members en masse. One is reminded of the Criminal Tribes Act passed by the British in India in 1871, which stigmatised 161 communities there as "born criminals". A recent study concluded that the Act was a result of "profound ignorance of India's social structure and cultural institutions". 

Read the rest of the article here.



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