Register Thursday | June 27 | 2019

The Last Nomads of Europe

They number ten million. They live in squalor. Will the Roma fare better in the new Europe?

Where can I meet the Roma? I ask.

“Wherever you see open sewers and dirty barefoot children.”

This is how I was guided to these nomads in rural Romania. In these paradoxical times of opening borders and tightening security, the Roma are often perceived as the bane of Europe: chicken thieves who sponge off the very society they reject.

Because the Roma remain wary of census-taking—it makes them eligible for welfare benefits today, but at one time designated them for Auschwitz— exact population figures don’t exist. But according to estimates, around ten million of these so-called gypsies, tinkers or vagrants (half of whom are of school age) are dispersed across Europe. They form the continent’s largest trans-national minority group. Romania, a former communist country with a population of 22.3 million, is home to the greatest number: either 500,000 according to Bucharest, or between 1.8 and 2.5 million according to the European Commission.

 “They live poorly everywhere,” says Aurora Ailincai,  “although they are worst off in the East.” A Romanian woman in her thirties, Ailincai was born in a mixed neighbourhood of Roma and Romanians, in the northeastern city of Suceava.  She now lives in Strasbourg, France. Immaculately dressed and speaking impeccable French, Ailincai directs the Council of Europe’s education program for Roma children.

The expansion of the European Union to include Romania and Bulgaria this year means that over three million more Roma are now living within its boundaries. In preparation for this, the EU made it an urgent priority to improve the lot of the Roma—so they’d be less inclined to head west to seek their fortune. Back in 1998, the European Commission instructed Romania to improve the living conditions of its Roma population if it wanted to join the Union. Since then, Bucharest has attempted to follow a plan drawn up with Roma NGOs, mainly targeting education, health, living conditions and employment.

Access to education, medical services, and employment are among the rights that the Roma have demanded since the post-Ceausescu democratic reforms of 1989. Some Roma leaders have even appealed to the UN and the EU for official status as a nation without a territory.

Poorly organized beyond family and clan, however, the Roma seem to be getting nowhere. Living conditions, particularly lodging, are deplorable. Near the Hungarian and Ukrainian borders, we visited communities living as if in the Dark Ages. Pathetic shacks are constructed here and there on an open stretch of land, single-roomed huts without running water, where straw mats are rolled out at nightfall to sleep six to eight people. In some parts, shacks are made of cob (earth, clay and straw), or of wooden boards nailed roughly together. In others they are built with bricks of silt or from recycled materials.

Sometimes the Roma live on the edge of communities, sometimes within a village or town, but nearly always in an enclave. They own their houses, but not the land, which is municipal. Often they have no property rights, nor even identity papers. It is the mayor’s choice as to whether to give them access to water. 

Everywhere in Europe, the Roma have the reputation of being “scum of the earth,” but the majority of Roma enclaves in Romania are islands of extreme poverty in a country that itself is poor—even poorer now than under communism. “Under Ceausescu, we had money, but nothing to buy. Now it’s the other way round,” says one Romanian woman. Even if the Roma are the most ignored in the transition towards a market economy, widespread growing poverty has heightened apprehension towards them. “In Romania, if you don’t like someone, call him ‘gypsy’,” a hotel owner confides.

It was long believed that the Roma were of Egyptian origin. Linguistic research, however, recently established that they came from northern India. They left ten centuries ago toward the Balkans on a wave of Indo-European migration. With a feudal system already firmly in place, they could not become landowners. They had no choice but to serve others. Seen as foreigners in the Christian countries (people declared them Muslim because of their swarthy looks), they were ostracized. Gypsy musicians tended to be among the most privileged of these pariahs as they could travel around.

The Roma and the Romanians drag around their past like a ball and chain. The former were slaves to the latter and for centuries were even auctioned off. In 1856, the global anti-slavery trend, as well as major political and economic changes, brought an end to slavery, but even that didn’t free the Roma from their misery. Some of the freed slaves emigrated towards Russia and the West, but most stayed in Romania.

The communist regime in Romania guaranteed them individual rights, but nothing on a collective level, since it did not recognize minorities. When he came to power in 1967, Nicolae Ceausescu wanted to prevent Roma villages from taking hold, so he progressively funneled the Roma people into Romanian towns. But the Romanians felt invaded, and instead of the desired integration, gypsy ghettos were created.

By forcibly speeding up the assimilation of the Roma, Ceausescu deprived these people of what they cherished most: mobility. He confiscated their horses and carriages, in the same way that Canada, under the pretext of fighting rabies and overcrowding, slaughtered the Inuits’ huskies between 1950 and 1970.

“The fantasy of those in power, in a democracy as in a dictatorship, is to immobilize travelling people. People without ties terrify the powers that be,” says Georgiana Ilie, of the Centrul Pentru Jurnalism Independent in Bucarest. This not-for-profit organization financed by Canada (among others)  and established by the Independent Journalism Foundation of New York, specializes in training journalists from minority groups.

The revolution of December 1989 in Romania led to the collapse of state farms and heavy industry. The Roma were the first to be dismissed. The vast majority had little education at the start of the `90s; their lack of qualifications fed into their poverty. Even now, traditional activities (recycling, seasonal work, basket-weaving, sharpening scissors) are barely enough to ensure their survival.

Since the fall of Ceausescu, Western Europe has had an increasingly fearful experience of the Roma. It shed a tear for the Romanian orphans, many of whom were Roma. Then it shuddered when Roma killed and ate the swans on the lakes of Vienna. It panicked when Roma bandits descended in the night to rob Orient Express travellers on the iconic train’s journey from Istanbul to Paris. Was this the return of highway robbery? Western Europe finally spoke up as hordes of women, children and handicapped people, all trained to beg, descended onto the streets of its cities. The police regularly dismantle these begging networks that line the pockets of a handful of rich Roma. “Gypsies have tarnished the image of Romania abroad,” I often heard Romanians say.

Romanophobia is alive and well, says Aurora Ailincai. A few years ago in Petea, for example, at the Hungarian border, the humanitarian aid organization Caritas opened a day care for Roma children. “The Romanian teacher at the local school really holds this against us,” says Thomas Hackl, director of the European Committee for the Roma founded by Caritas. “She fears the Roma children will go on to join her classes, since there’s only one school in the village.”  This is just the type of intercommunity conflict that mediators were supposed to defuse. Alas, for lack of funding and training, they are conspicuous in their absence.

To Aurora Ailincai, such discrimination stems from prejudice, inaction and the weight of tradition. Certain countries, for example, see Roma children as social misfits and place them in schools for the handicapped. The League of Human Rights in France points out that certain job postings in Romania still say: “Roma need not apply.”

“Racism is not only hatred of Blacks in the US, it is also hatred of the Roma in Europe,” says Costel Bercus, director of Romani-CRISS in Bucharest, an NGO which documents the injustices inflicted on the Roma in Romania. In most countries of the former communist block, there has been violence towards the Roma (attacks by skinheads, police brutality). Blood has flowed and Roma houses have been burnt down. In Romania, tension has dropped since the late 1990s, but vigilance prevails.

For Costel Bercus, it doesn’t all boil down to discrimination: “We are not organized politically, and that costs us dearly.” He believes however that the Roma emancipation movement, which he likens to decolonization from the inside, is still well underway. The Roma struggle is inspired by the civil rights movement of Afro-Americans.

Are they hoping for their own Martin Luther King or Gandhi? “Might as well wait for Godot!” replies Judson Nirenberg, coordinator of the European Forum of Roma and Travelling People, an umbrella organization which has headed the Roma NGOs since 2004. “We certainly need a dream, but it’s wishful thinking to believe we can form a federation. We are too fragmented,” he says.

The Roma of Romania rarely vote, especially not for the Partida Romilor (The Roma Party), which is considered too corrupt. They prefer the populist parties, which promise them the world. Democratic reform  in Romania after 1989 led to the appearance of NGOs that lead the battle for Roma rights and benefit from the active support of European and international institutions.

A new generation of combative Roma leaders, often educated on European and American bursaries, is emerging in Romania and elsewhere in Europe. The children of parents educated under communist regimes, they make full use of the Internet to build new networks. These elite Roma dream of electing effective and legitimate representatives across Europe. That, they say, would be the prelude to a Roma Parliament, for which a blueprint already exists in Hungary.

In fact Hungary led the way in 1993 by voting in a law protecting the rights of thirteen minorities (twelve national and one “ethnic,” the Roma). It established community councils, or “autonomous minority governments,” which have given the 500,000 to 600,000 Roma there a greater say in their future. A lack of financing, and conflicts with the municipal councils have nonetheless weakened the impact of this groundbreaking law.

The activists of the diaspora dream of nothing less than a promised land for the wandering people: Romanestan (“encampment of the Roma”), beside northern India, their land of origin—an outlandish dream, according to the experts I consulted.

In the meantime, the plan put into action by Bucharest has achieved some success. Thanks to the Employment Bursary reserved for the Roma, for example, they have notably penetrated the insurance sector. A medical insurance fund has also been set up to help the unemployed; unable to assume the cost of medication and health care, year after year, the Roma have racked up national records for unemployment.

Are the Roma, as people claim, a social time bomb for Europe? “No, because with help, they have begun to help themselves,” says Calin Rus, director of the Intercultural Institute of Timisoara. This NGO assists the Roma of Banat, in the west of Romania, one of the most thriving regions economically. Thanks to private and government bursaries, Romanian universities awarded diplomas to almost four hundred Roma students in 2004.

For now, the best ambassadors for the Roma are musicians. Take the Caravane troupe in Quebec, the Gypsies of Sarajevo, Soleil Tzigane or the singer Esma Redzepova, who Indira Gandhi, former prime minister of India and friend of the Roma, designated “Queen of the Gypsies.”

With the support of Brussels, experts are piecing together the Roma contribution to European music, digitizing old recordings that previously lay dormant in libraries. Austrian rock and jazz groups scour Romania for gypsy rhythms and beats. But the best gypsy music, I was told on good authority, could be picked up in New York record stores.

“When you dance, you forget your hunger,” said Redzepova. The Roma are hoping in the future they won’t have to.