Bottom of the heap
Jun 19th 2008 | BRUSSELS AND BUCHAREST
From The Economist print edition
The dismal lives and unhappy prospects of Europe's biggest stateless minority
THE village of Vizuresti lies 35km (22 miles) from Bucharest and on the wrong side of the tracks. For the first few miles the road from the highway is paved, passing through a prosperous district with solid houses and well-tended fields. But once it crosses the railway, leading only to the Roma settlement, the tarmac stops. The way to Vizuresti is 20 minutes of deep potholes and ruts. Life for its 2,500 people, four-fifths of them Roma, is just as tough.
Mihai Sanda and his family, 37 of them, live in half-a-dozen self-built, mud-floored huts. In his two-room dwelling, seven people share one bedroom; chickens cluck in the other room. The dirt and smell, the lack of mains water, electricity, sewerage and telephone are all redolent of the poorest countries in the world. So is the illiteracy. Ionela Calin, a 34-year-old member of Mr Sanda's extended family, married at 15 without ever going to school. Of her eight children, four are unschooled. Two, Leonard, aged four and Narcissa, aged two, do not even have birth certificates; Ionela believes (wrongly, in fact) that she cannot register their birth because her own identity document has expired.
For the millions of Europeans—estimates range between 4m and 12m—loosely labelled as Roma or Gypsies, that is life: corralled into settlements that put them physically and psychologically at the edge of mainstream existence, with the gap between them and modernity growing rather than shrinking. The statistics are shocking: a Unicef report released in 2005 said that 84% of Roma in Bulgaria, 88% in Romania and 91% in Hungary lived below the poverty line. Perhaps even more shocking is the lack of a more detailed picture. Official indifference and Roma reluctance mean that data on life expectancy, infant mortality, employment and literacy rates are sparse. Yet all are deplorably lower than those of mainstream society.
The immediate response to this (as for most of eastern Europe's ills) is to blame history. The lot of the Roma has been miserable for a millennium, ever since their mysterious migration from Rajasthan in northern India sometime around 1000 AD. With the possible exception of a principality in Corfu around 1360, they have never had a state. In parts of the Balkans, Roma were traded as slaves until the middle of the 19th century. Mirroring America's history at the same time, emancipation proved a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for freedom. The Roma of Vizuresti went from being slaves to being landless peasants. Even now, seasonal agricultural labour of the most menial kind is the main source of income; that, and begging.
But a twist of history in the next century meant that Europe's Roma suffered even more than America's blacks. Hundreds of thousands perished in the Nazi Holocaust. Compensation has been stingy, belated and badly administered.
It would be even easier to blame the Roma's plight on communism. Certainly that system largely stamped out the Roma's traditional nomadism. Countries such as Czechoslovakia also practised forced sterilisation (though Sweden did that, too). But the paternalistic structures of state socialism to some extent sheltered, if usually in the most menial jobs, those unable or unwilling to compete in a market economy. And an ostensible commitment to the brotherhood of man restrained at least some racial prejudices. For the Roma, democracy unleashed their fellow-citizens' latent hostility, while capitalism offered them few prospects.
As eastern Europe prospered, the Roma fell further behind. Their surviving traditional skills (handicrafts, horsetrading) were out of date; they lacked the administrative skills to set up businesses in the formal economy; even those wanting to work found few factories or offices willing to employ them. And European Union membership has added a new bureaucratic burden even to the businesses in which they thrive. In Balteni, near Vizuresti, the local Gypsy chieftain or Bulibasha (at the age of 84 himself a Holocaust survivor) runs an immense informal scrapyard, where tractor-trailers, car shells drawn by horses and rickety lorries deliver precariously loaded piles of rusty metal to be sorted and then sold to a nearby metallurgy plant. A vast bonfire of copper cables fills the air with fumes as insulating material is burnt off. A ragged, shoeless workforce of all ages sorts the inventory by hand. There is not a safety notice, a glove or a visor in sight, and it is hard to imagine the business or its illiterate owner managing to cope with any kind of bureaucratic inspection.
The most conspicuous problem for the Roma is lack of education, which keeps them out of jobs. Others include hostility from the majority population, apathy in officialdom, dreadful public services and infrastructure, and a pervasive feeling of hopelessness. It is hardly surprising that many tens of thousands of Roma have moved west in search of a better life. But if they did not fit in well at home, they adjust even worse to life in western Europe. Begging on the street, for example, often with young children, scandalises the citizenry, as do Roma encampments in public spaces such as parks or road junctions. A delegation of top Finnish politicians visiting Romania this month publicly complained. “In Finland, begging is not a job,” the country's president, Tarja Halonen, told her hosts with Nordic hauteur. Maybe not, but for Roma it may be the only choice they have.
West Europeans also tend to believe that Roma migrants are responsible for an epidemic of pickpocketing, shoplifting, mugging—and worse. In Italy, public patience snapped earlier this year after reports of gruesome muggings, rapes and the alleged stealing of a baby. Such reports were not matched by any change in the crime statistics. But coupled with some incendiary statements by the incoming right-of-centre government, they were enough to provoke something close to an anti-Roma pogrom in May in Naples and other cities. Rioters burned Roma caravans and huts; the authorities followed up with arrests and deportations.
West European attitudes differ little in essence from those of the ex-communist bureaucrats in the east. They want the problem to go away. Emma Bonino, a feisty Italian politician and former EU commissioner, says that Roma make a “perfect scapegoat” for politicians who have failed to deal with Italy's other, graver problems. The authorities' response has been milder than their rhetoric suggests, she says, but she laments the lack of any programme to help the Roma integrate into Italian society. The biggest danger, in her view, is that politicians have made anti-Roma racism respectable for the first time: “When you go down that road, you will not stop it just by saying ‘Enough is enough’.”
That is not just a moral cop-out. It is also bad economics. Excluding an Ireland-sized group of millions of people from the labour market, particularly when they typically have much larger families than the average in fast-greying Europe, is a colossal waste of human potential. But those looking for encouraging signs have to hunt hard indeed.
Europe is supposedly in the middle of a “Decade of Roma Inclusion”, launched in 2005 when the governments of the countries with big Roma populations (Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia and Slovakia) agreed to close the gap in education, employment, health and housing. Fully €11 billion ($17 billion) is available from the EU's social fund, with a further €23 billion earmarked from the regional development fund in coming years.
Yet the main effect so far has been to create a well-paid elite of Roma lobbying outfits, fluent in bureaucratic jargon, adept at organising seminars and conferences and nobbling decision-makers. It has had little effect on the lives of the Roma themselves. As the Open Society Institute, funded by George Soros, a billionaire philanthropist, says in a recent report, most governments see the answer to the Roma problem in terms of “sporadic measures” rather than coherent policies. An official in Brussels says: “We don't lack the laws and we don't lack the money. The problem is political will.”
Certainly a bit of willpower can work wonders. In Vizuresti, for example, only 6% of the children never go to school at all—a triumph by local standards. But it is still nothing to cheer about. “When the girls reach nine or ten they are ready to get married, and it is shameful for them to come to school,” explains a local, firmly adding that “marriage” in this sense means betrothal, not conjugality. “The boys don't come if they are busy helping their fathers to collect scrap,” he continues, “and the boys drop out at 15 because then they have completed the eighth grade, which you need to get a driving licence.”
In much of eastern Europe Roma children are packed off to special schools for “backward” children, reinforcing stigma and prejudice and guaranteeing that they enter the labour market with a third-class ticket. Another obstacle is the lack of birth certificates: schools that do not want Roma children can simply refuse to register those without official papers. But perhaps the biggest barriers are parental reluctance and poverty. Children in school can't work. They need expensive uniforms and books. It may even be embarrassing if they can read when their parents can't. So why bother?
A well-run country can try to spend large amounts of taxpayers' money on alleviating social problems. The results may be patchy, but at least in western Europe they have got somewhere. Spain, for example, is regarded as a big success story. Its Roma were marginalised and neglected under authoritarian rule; now a mixture of good policy and generous EU funding has brought widespread literacy, better housing and integration in the labour market. But the ex-communist countries have much weaker public administration, and neither politicians nor voters consider Gypsies a priority.
Vizuresti is doing better than most places. Thanks to a charismatic and impressive head teacher, Ion Nila, lack of documents is no barrier to registration at the village school. His teachers go door to door in the mornings, cajoling parents into sending their children to class. The real breakthrough, he says, will come if he can get Roma children to attend the nursery attached to the school. But, says Mr Nila, parents are reluctant to send their young children, as they don't have the money to buy them shoes. He hopes that hot midday meals will be an incentive, if he can find the money to pay for them.
So, at the top, billions of euros are being pumped in; while, at the bottom, a teacher struggles to find the tiny amount needed simply to feed his charges. Indeed, most of the progress in Vizuresti comes not from taxpayers' money, which soaks away into bureaucracy far from the village, but from the work of a charity, Ovidiu Rom, headed by a fiery American philanthropist, Leslie Hawke. The charity, not the state, has paid for and helped with IDs, teacher training, student workbooks and a special summer programme designed to prepare 20 of the poorest children and their often illiterate parents for what seems, to them, scary school life.
So why is Europe floundering? The conventional answer is that the Roma's biggest problem is racism pure and simple. Enforcement of tough anti-discrimination laws, Roma-friendly curriculums in schools, cultural self-esteem, positive discrimination in both officialdom and private business are the necessary ingredients for change, say the politically correct.
But that is not the whole story. Even defining what “Roma” really means is exceptionally tricky. Europe has plenty of marginalised social groups, often with traditions of nomadism and their own languages: Irish Tinkers, for example, who speak Shelta. Their problems and history may in part be similar to the Roma's, but they are not the same. Even within the broad category of Roma (meaning those with some connection to the original migrants from Rajasthan) the subdivisions are complex. Some prefer not to use the word Roma at all, arguing that “Gypsy”, sometimes thought derogatory, is actually more inclusive. The impressive catalogue to the Roma Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale insists that Roma is too narrow a term, excluding as it does “Sintis, Romunglo, Beas, Gitanes, Manus etc”. Even ethnographers find it hard to nail down the differences and similarities between such groups.
Moreover, those more narrowly defined as Roma have surprisingly little in common. The Roma tongue—originally related to Sanskrit—has splintered into dozens of mutually incomprehensible dialects. The sprinkling of internationally active Roma activists have developed their own version (sometimes derisively known as “NGO Roma”), but it bears little relationship to the creoles still spoken in the settlements. The strongest common culture is traditional Roma music, where it survives. But its haunting chords and rhythms do not conquer tone-deaf bureaucracies.
The boundaries between the marginalised groups and “normal” society are fluid. One reason that a Roma middle class, which supposedly would provide role models, lessen prejudice and increase social and economic mobility, has failed so far to take root is that most Roma who become middle-class drop the “Roma” label at once. Hopes for a change rest on the new generation of thousands of young Roma graduates, who may be less shy about their origins.
Similarly, those not born into the Roma world can end up there—by marriage, adoption or choice. In Balteni, a blonde girl, Roxana, shyly shows off a necklace of seven big gold coins given to her as a mark of impending puberty; not born a Roma, she was adopted from an orphanage into the family of a local patriarch. A Roma—which comes from the Romani word “Rom”, meaning husband—is, ultimately, anyone who wants that label.
Furthermore, as Zoltan Barany, author of a controversial but acute book on the Gypsies of eastern Europe, points out, Roma lobbyists tend not to notice that the Roma's own habits and attitudes may aggravate their plight. Speaking off the record, a westerner engaged in Roma welfare tells the story of an exceptionally talented teenage pupil at her country's top academy. She was bound for university and a stellar career, but her family decided that this was too risky: she was bride-snatched, taken to a remote village, raped and kept in seclusion. From there she was trafficked to western Europe, where she is now in a group of beggars camping out near one of Europe's best-known stadiums. Well-wishers tried to rescue her, offering a safe-house where she could continue her studies; she refused, frightened that her family would find her.
The result of that is what a senior official dealing with the issue calls “self-decapitation”. A handful of Roma politicians have emerged, including a couple of impressive members of the European Parliament. But even their symbolic value is limited. The vast majority of Roma do not even vote in elections, let alone join the campaigns waged on their behalf. There is no sign of a Roma Martin Luther King, let alone a Barack Obama. But, notes the official, “There are lots of angry young men.”
Amid all this, the EU is tottering forward. A report due to be issued next week will criticise the “implementation gap” in the worthy policies conceived so far. It will rebuke governments for slow progress. Controversially, it is likely to say that formal equality before the law is only a starting point, and that American-style positive discrimination will be needed.
That may prove a risky course. As in America, race and a history of slavery make a potent combination, entrenching stereotypes and attitudes on all sides. But also as in America, it is unclear how far the problem is race, and how far it is a matter of poverty and other factors. Stop treating Roma as a racial minority, Ms Hawke argues, and concentrate on the poor level of public services they receive in housing, health and particularly education.
Seeing the problem only through an ethnic lens is great news for the “Roma industry”, as the campaigning groups are sometimes derisively known. Their activities turn all too quickly into a theoretical, nit-picking discussion about politically correct language, complete with internecine feuds between different lobbies. It plays badly with voters, who already tend to blame the Roma for their own misfortunes. In most ex-communist countries, polls show striking degrees of prejudice: as many as 80% of those asked say they would not want Roma neighbours, for example. In Hungary, the commendable idea of integrating Roma and non-Roma children in the same schools has sent parents scurrying elsewhere.
But there are some shoots of hope. One is that the violence in Italy has highlighted the Roma issue in a way that would never have happened if the misery had remained concentrated in the slums and ghettos of eastern Europe. “Just as Putin has galvanised Europe on energy policy, Berlusconi has galvanised Europe on Roma policy,” says Andre Wilkens, a thoughtful Brussels-based observer of the region who heads the Open Society Institute's Roma efforts. He believes that the new member states of the EU have a chance to derive advantage from the Roma by finding an economic niche for them—for example, by turning their tradition of scrap-dealing into the basis for a modern recycling industry.
Such hopeful nibbles abound. But even an optimist would have to concede that Europe's biggest social problem will persist for the lifetime of anyone reading this article, and probably far longer.