The Economist – September 16, 2010

A long road

Europe’s Romanies have a mostly horrible time. But they are thriving in America

Sep 16th 2010 | NEW YORK

TOMMY’S International Sports Café, Inc, a makeshift social club on 657 East 189th Street in New York’s Bronx, would repay a visit from those Europeans who see their continent’s Romanies (also known as Gypsies, see article) only as a lawless and hopeless underclass, in which success means at most building a gaudy, windowless mansion (see picture).

Only the Balkan dishes on the menu, and the hum of Romani spoken from the mainly male clientele as they play cards and pool, distinguish the café from anywhere else in the neighbourhood. Just like the Albanians, Italians and Hispanics who live nearby, its patrons are Americans. They take vacations, work hard as cops, teachers and in business, and send their children to college. Asked what he thinks of his neighbours, a man across the street scratches his head and asks “We have Gypsies here?”

For their part, the Bronx Romanies view the old continent with mixed sympathy and disdain. “Money we spend on candy, they save to get food…to [expletive] live” says Vefki Redzeposki, a teenager who works for an electrical contractor.

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The contrast between the anonymous ordinariness of life in the Bronx and the ghettos and squatter camps that form European impressions of their Romani fellow-citizens could hardly be sharper. Headlines in Europe this month have highlighted the continent’s worst, and most ill-managed social problem: the treatment of millions of Romanies who face at best discrimination and at worst persecution.

Romanies in Europe, like any other ethnic group, are no monolith. They include rich and poor, success stories and failures, the talented, scroungers, and those unsuited for life in a modern society. They fare better in some countries than others. Spain and Macedonia count as (relative) success stories; the worst black spots of disadvantage are in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.

But a common factor is prejudice. Those who want to integrate or succeed are held back by stereotypes about dirt, crime, fecklessness and illiteracy. Individuals who do get on often dump their Romani heritage, and the baggage that goes with it.

The accession to the European Union of the ex-communist countries has brought laws on discrimination. But they are not enforced. Petra Gelbart, a Czech-born Romani musicologist, says a common experience among job applicants is that those speaking accentless Czech and with unremarkable surnames easily get interviews. But when they turn up, and their skin colour is apparent, the job turns out to have been filled.

Many Romanies do not even get that far. In Slovakia they make up under 10% of the population, but fill fully 60% of places in schools for special-needs children (that may not be purely the result of discrimination: some parents shun mainstream schools because of endemic bullying).

It is hardly surprising that, given the chance, many Romanies try their luck in the richer countries of western Europe. The experience is often an unhappy one for all concerned. Many west Europeans are furious at the growth of street-begging and pickpocketing (often involving children), plus fights and rapes, and the rise of squalid shanty towns on derelict land (or in parks). Politicians’ response has been robust. France has deported 8,000 people to Romania and Bulgaria this year alone and cleared hundreds of illegal camps.

Yet a crackdown on crime is not an excuse for racism. A leaked instruction from the French government to the police orders the clearance of 300 camps in three months, the Roma ones “a priority”. That has brought a stinging rebuke and the threat of a lawsuit from the European Commission. In a furious response Pierre Lellouche, the minister for European affairs, said France was the “mother of human rights”. President Nicolas Sarkozy suggested that Luxembourg, the home of the EU’s justice commissioner, might like to provide the Romanies with homes.

The Romanian government has pledged to come up with a new plan for Roma inclusion by the end of the year. It is hard to see any of that working soon: the Romanies were slaves in Romania until the mid-19th century. Under Nazi rule they were uprooted and dispossessed. Up to 500,000 perished in the camps. Both communism and the economic upheavals that followed it have made their traditional livelihoods more difficult. Most of those deported say they will eventually go back to France.

The long-term answer is schooling, where the cards are subtly stacked against Romanies who want to educate their children (and the system does nothing to win over those who do not see its value). Leslie Hawke, an American campaigner who runs a charity in Romania, notes that “the law that makes schooling mandatory…is not implemented, but the law that prevents registration of a child over the age of nine is strictly enforced”. Her charity runs an impressive scheme that pays €12 ($16) in food coupons to parents whose children attend school. Clothes and the like are provided free. The project is based on poverty, rather than ethnicity.

In the short term, the need is to provide work that the adult Romani population can do. That can lead to friction. Modern health and safety rules, for example, make it hard to run a scrap-metal business. In Britain the Big Issue magazine, designed to give homeless people something to sell instead of begging, has found eager takers among foreign Romanies. Their sometimes aggressive sales tactics are controversial. The magazine’s founder, John Bird, admits that these members of his salesforce are not strictly speaking homeless, but says that they are on the margins of society and thus part of the magazine’s mission.

In the bracing climate of the Bronx, such problems seem distant. “Once you give us a chance to succeed, we’ll grab that opportunity. And we’ll run with it,” says Saniye Jasaroska, a 34-year-old medical biller. America gives its Romanies that chance. Europe has yet to do so.

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