The Roma in Europe: Paving a Brighter Future

By Smith, Pamina | Harvard International Review, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

The Roma in Europe: Paving a Brighter Future


Smith, Pamina, Harvard International Review


The Roma population constitutes the largest ethnic minority in the European Union, totalling 10 to 12 million citizens. Signifying "man" or "husband" in the Romani language, "Roma" was adopted as the official international appellation for the numerous Romani groups at the first meeting of the World Romani Congress in 1971. These groups include the Roma (concentrated in Central and Eastern Europe), the Kale (based in the Iberian Peninsula, especially Spain), the Sinti (German-speaking areas), the Manouches (French-speaking areas), and the Romanisael (Sweden and Norway), among others.

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The marginal socioeconomic existence of the Roma has most notably caused tensions with the emergence of the nation-state. In the nineteenth century, the ever-hardening borders of nations proved to afflict the Roma, who often came into conflict with government authorities and resulted in their removal from districts, towns, cities, and countries. This predicament continues to affect them to this day, most visibly in the infamous French expulsions of 2010.

However, there are growing indications that states are more willing to develop mechanisms and policies promoting the social integration of the Roma at both national and local levels, with the case of Spain frequently lauded as a "best practice" example. Although sporadic displays of prejudice continue to emerge in several EU countries, recent developments reveal an emergent international resolve to help the Roma, a European people, become more integrated in their own continent.

From Hunting Game to EU Citizens

After traveling from northern India through the Byzantine Empire and arriving in Western Europe in the 15th century, the Roma had extensive contact with already settled European populations throughout their migration that was marked by centuries of oppression. Amid fears of ordinary citizens and the subsequent proliferation of negative myths, states adopted discriminatory policies of expulsion or forced assimilation, with Western European countries favoring the former and Central and Eastern European countries attempting the latter. Some laws effectively put them on equal footing with animals; in many parts of Germany, Roma were still being hunted for sport as late as the 1830s.

Anti-Roma discrimination persisted well into contemporary7 society. In an act now known as the Porajmos or the "Devouring," Nazi officials during World War II gathered Roma into concentration camps, where hundreds of thousands were killed or died as a result. Post-1989, Roma in the newly democratized countries of Central and Eastern Europe found themselves in a unique situation. On one hand, they rapidly became the primary?-victim of discrimination and hate crimes due to greater liberty of expression. Roma also faced severe unemployment with the erosion of protected accommodation systems and the transfer of low-rental housing from the state to municipalities. In consequence, many relocated to the slum ghettoes of major cities.

On the other hand, the post-Communist era brought unprecedented opportunities. Roma organizations could now create global networks by easily collaborating across the former Iron Curtain divide, and a new incentive for addressing the problems of the Roma arose because of the new prospect of EU enlargement. Since Central and Eastern European countries now boasted democratic regimes, they could aspire for EU membership by fulfilling the 1993 Copenhagen criteria, which outlined the various requirements demanded of candidate countries. These included the stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and respect for minorities. Therefore, to help prepare Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries for accession, the European Union offered financial and technical aid with many projects geared specifically at promoting the greater integration of the Roma. After the 2004 and 2007 EU enlargements, a large portion of the current Roma community could finally boast EU citizenship and enjoy supranational protection of their human rights. …

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