Tuesday, September 14, 2010



Challenge to Europe’s Conscience

There may be an upside to France’s move to deport thousands of Romanians and Bulgarians, if it helps pull the “Roma question” off the bottom of the EU’s agenda.

by TOL

10 September 2010

When something gets shoved under the rug, it can trip you up. At that point, you can either nudge it aside or pull it out and put it in its proper place.

Not to stretch the metaphor too far, but for years, countries in Europe have been stepping over or pushing aside – into someone else’s way – the question of what to do about millions of people who consistently challenge our value system and notions we have about ourselves as humane and enlightened.

Yes, we’re talking about the Roma – again. Wearying as the topic may be, we have no right to ignore it, especially as some countries dip into a playbook for dealing with minorities that we had hoped had been retired, that the wars of the 20th century and the subsequent founding of the EU itself had been insurance against ever being reopened.

But there it is. In France, more than 8,000 people have been sent back to Romania or Bulgaria this year. Paris calls them “voluntary transfers” because the deportees were given a lump sum for themselves and their children. Brussels calls that paying someone to waive their rights as EU citizens. We call it a fig leaf.

Those EU rights allow any citizen of a member country to stay in any other for up to three months without working. After that time, they must demonstrate that they are self-sufficient or have found legal employment. And even if they cannot, immigration authorities must weigh what threat they pose to public policy or what burden they would be on public funds before deporting them.

Admittedly, legal employment may not be widespread among those being booted out of France right now. And no one should expect French communities to tolerate unsanitary, perhaps unruly (but perhaps not), and almost always unassimilated, colonies of migrants in their midst.

Further – it’s faint praise, to be sure – at least France is not following Italy’s lead entirely, fingerprinting Roma indiscriminately and sending “back” to Romania even Roma who were born in the country.

And finally, some of Paris’ arguments may have merit. A statement from the Immigration Ministry complains that “vulnerable people, in particular children and the handicapped, are sent from the camps to the city centers to engage in begging, prostitution, and general delinquency.” It’s not much of a stretch to believe that of any chronically poor people.

But nor is it much of a stretch to see this crackdown as the desperate attempt of a politician to pull up approval ratings that were scraping bottom: so far, the tough stance on immigration has given Nicolas Sarkozy a few percentage points. We would be less inclined to doubt his sincerity if his proposals didn’t include such red meat as stripping French citizenship from immigrants who kill police officers or practice polygamy or female circumcision.

Almost 13 years ago, TOL published a point-counterpoint exchange on the issue of Romani asylum seekers heading west to escape persecution in Central and Eastern European countries. Jonas Widgren, a Swedish expert on immigration, argued that allowing Roma to stay in their new countries took the heat off the places they left behind, allowing those governments to backslide on reforms or even to encourage Roma to leave. Arthur C. Helton, who was then a lawyer for the Open Society Institute, argued that living conditions were simply intolerable for Roma in the East and that they faced a well-founded fear of persecution at home.

But that exchange overlooked something important: When camps of Roma head westward, the West has to pay attention to them. Romani migration to France, and the ensuing kerfuffle, has led to a debate this week in the European Parliament on the situation of Roma in Europe. It has also led to a review of how the EU’s 10 billion euro fund for social inclusion of Roma is being spent.

In other words, when the “Roma issue” gets shoved into the right borders – and France may be the perfect place for this to happen – it ends up back on Brussels’ agenda.

So what will that mean? In the short term, probably not much. The machinery of Brussels is too creaky, the recession has made European governments and their people too anxious about their own welfare, and the specter of Romani poverty is too familiar to goose anyone into quick action.

But surely France will not be the last country that ends up tripping over this bump under the rug. As more countries join the free-transit Schengen area – Romania’s entry is slated for January – and as labor restrictions on new EU countries expire, we’re likely to see more encampments, and the ensuing ugly roundups, in Western Europe.

Then, when it becomes clear that Romani poverty can’t be lumped together with a clutch of generally “eastern” pathologies, like fractious, dysfunctional parliaments or petty corruption or mercenary media, perhaps it will be time to take it out from under the rug and put it in its proper place.


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