Thursday, September 2, 2010
By Jan Jařab and Judith Kumin
A 'not in my backyard' policy will have little effect, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights writes.
In the last days of August, while many Europeans were still on their summer holidays, a storm was brewing about the treatment of some of Europe's most marginalised people. Hundreds of Bulgarian and Romanian Roma were rounded up in France and put on planes for Sofia and Bucharest. The French government's action was linked to an incident that involved French Travellers (gens de voyage), not east European Roma. However, France has framed the problem as one of irregular migration, to be discussed at a meeting of selected EU interior ministers on 6 September in Paris.
No one knows exactly how many European citizens are of Roma origin. Accurate figures are not available, as countries generally do not gather population information based on ethnicity. The Council of Europe estimates that in the wider Europe, there are more than ten million Roma and related minorities – including the French Travellers, who do not consider themselves Roma. The largest numbers of Roma within the EU, according to the Council of Europe's estimates, are in Romania and Bulgaria. Outside the EU, there are significant Roma populations in Albania and the countries of the former Yugoslavia.
Despite popular perception of Roma as ‘nomads', only a small minority practise an itinerant lifestyle today. The westward movement of Roma from central and eastern Europe does not generally result from ‘nomadism'. Mostly it involves previously sedentary Roma who leave their home countries because of socio-economic conditions and widespread discrimination in employment, housing and education.
Labelling migration as either ‘forced' or ‘voluntary' is difficult in the best of circumstances. This is particularly so in the case of the Roma. In their countries of origin, many Roma live in conditions of acute poverty, in segregated villages or neighbourhoods. Under these circumstances, it is hard to categorise their migration as purely voluntary. This applies even more obviously to Roma from the territory of the former Yugoslavia, many of whom were forced out by inter-ethnic hostilities.
Although Roma from outside the EU (for instance, from Kosovo) frequently apply for asylum in the EU, this option is generally not open to the EU's own Roma, as most member states do not consider asylum applications from EU nationals. This explains in part why Roma from Hungary and the Czech Republic have applied for asylum in Canada. At the same time, it is clear that the full range of problems faced by Roma across Europe cannot be addressed through asylum – although that may be necessary for some. But neither can they be resolved through security crackdowns, attempts to restrict free movement or xenophobic political discourse that stigmatises a whole ethnic group.
With open borders in the European Union, a ‘not in my backyard' policy will have little effect. The EU and its member states need to mobilise to support their Roma citizens, especially the children and youth. All the available legal and financial instruments should be used to guarantee the full enjoyment of their economic, social and cultural rights. Until and unless there is such a commitment – and energetic implementation of socially inclusive policies at a national level – the vicious spiral of crackdowns and expulsions will continue to inflame societal divisions and aggravate the deep-rooted problems faced by Europe's Roma: stigma, discrimination and desperate poverty.
Jan Jařab is the regional representative for Europe in the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Judith Kumin is the director of the UNHCR Bureau for Europe.
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