The difficulties experienced by Romani migrants to France are hitting the international headlines again. The French Interior Minister Manuel Valls is calling for migrants to be expelled because in his view they will never integrate into French society. This has come in the same week that Amnesty International published a report which is highly critical of French policy towards Romani migrants from Eastern Europe. According to the report more than 10,000 Roma were evicted from informal settlements during the first half of 2013. “France makes no provisions for effective protection against forced evictions. In most cases they take place in a climate of hostility with no alternative housing proposed. Roma people are condemned to a life of constant insecurity, and forced to wander from one of makeshift camp to another. Forced evictions should be banned in law,” said John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Programme Director at Amnesty International.
The most troubling aspect of these news stories is that there is nothing at all new here. Romani communities have been part of the European landscape for at least a thousand years but for nearly all of that time they have been forced to live on the margins, treated as foreign and dangerous elements. It is important to distinguish between traditional Roma and travelling communities ‘gens de voyage’ who have lived in France for centuries and newly arrived Romani migrants from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). These Roma are not nomadic in the classic sense. Most have lived in settled communities for generations. Following the fall of the iron curtain and particularly since the accession of CEE states to the European Union many have chosen to move westwards with their families in search of a better future. The free movement of EU citizens to live and work in any EU member state is one of the key pillars of the EU project and these Roma are attempting to exercise that right in the same way as ‘Polish plumbers’ or academics such as this author.
Minister Valls’ comments (and subsequent refusal to retract them) highlight the increasing brazenness of mainstream politicians who are engaging in forms of anti-Romani rhetoric which were traditionally the preserve of right-wing populist parties. This is a trend which we can see across Europe and one which merits further research and explication. This story is all the more shocking given that as Minister for the Interior it is his responsibility to ensure that integration is successful for the benefit of all French society. If a state as wealth and powerful and diverse as France cannot integrate 20,000 economic migrants, then who can? More worryingly, comments such as these serve to encourage and empower the vigilantes who set Romani camps alight and hound them out of town.
Anti-Romani sentiments remain the one form of prejudice which polite society still tolerates. People believe that Roma bring misfortune on themselves through their refusal to integrate when in fact throughout history they have been offered few opportunities to make a contribution to the society where they live. This is indeed the case in France where the authorities decided to limit access to the French labour market for migrants from new EU member states. French ministers have been travelling to Romania to demand that more is done to support Romani integration there – and thus stem the flow of migrants to France. And while this criticism may be merited, change will come slowly if at all. In the meantime, many Roma from Bulgaria and Romania will continue to move far from home and take their chances in the grey economy. Yet again they are being forced to the margins by states and societies unwilling to offer them the chance to integrate.