Saturday, August 21, 2010




The Roma and Europe

It was something like a year ago. I was walking in Spain with colleagues when a very old woman asked in Turkish for the bottle of water I was holding.

When I asked her where she was from, she told me that she was a Roma from Bulgaria and that she was able to speak Turkish because Turks and Roma were equally oppressed there once and that’s why these two groups feel close to each other. I don’t know what she was doing there, but she told me that her life in Spain was as bad as it was in Bulgaria and that the fate of the Roma never changes.

A Spanish colleague who was with us was saddened by this conversation. She reaffirmed that the Roma are Europe’s new “Jews” and they are one of the main targets of the rising nationalism in Western Europe. I sincerely thought that my colleague was exaggerating when she said she was afraid that Roma could even be subjected to mass killings. She insisted that Europeans cannot live without the feeling of threatening “others” amongst them, giving many examples from Roma history.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent decisions on Roma have reminded me of my colleague’s warnings. Following President Sarkozy’s orders, local authorities around France have started to dismantle a total of 300 Roma settlements throughout the country. It seems that every time his popularity declines President Sarkozy feels the need to use a nationalistic rhetoric to regain support. The Roma have become the latest victims of this attitude, following the “Muslims are not Europeans,” “Turkey is not European” and “Women wearing burqas must stay at home” policies.

Even in the oldest of times Roma travelled across the continent, and despite their nomadic way of life, were not considered foreigners in the countries where they spent their lives. With their ancestral traditions and beliefs, Roma are indeed quite different from most of the Europeans living in the cities or villages. The majority of the European Roma lived in Eastern Europe during the Cold War era but when the Eastern bloc countries joined the EU, they acquired European citizenship and thus the right to travel freely across Europe, just like the other ethnic and social groups living in those countries.

In addition, in the case of Hungary and Romania, the minority rights of the Roma populations were one of the major topics of the EU negotiation process. The EU was quite explicit in asking these countries to implement positive discriminatory measures towards these people. Some candidate Eastern European countries listened to the EU’s recommendations on how to treat their Roma populations, and they even forced them to live in big apartment buildings in the name of better living conditions. However, this policy was rejected by the Roma, who maintained that it was disrespectful towards their traditional way of life. In some cases, they reacted by putting their animals in these houses while they preferred to live in tents outside.

The usual nation-state concept envisages projects of “nation creation” through assimilation or integration policies, by force if necessary. Those who resist these policies are often excluded from society. Besides, their resistance often provides an excuse for those who label them as “bad people.” Some Europeans want the Roma to become invisible, and countries like France prefer to “resolve” the Roma problem by sending them by force to their countries of origin like Hungary and Romania. If this is what they call “unity in diversity,” it is then impossible to claim that the EU sets a good example for countries like Turkey.


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