Roma Inclusion

What western Europe can do for one of the most marginalised communities in the EU

Text and photography by Jonadav Apelblat and Christian Ernhede.

Bobbi came to France from Ro­ma­nia in 2006 to be able to sup­port his fam­ily, and to look for a bet­ter life. Back in Ro­ma­nia things had got­ten worse eco­nom­i­cally since the fall of Ceaus­escu, and it be­came in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to find a job. He left his fam­ily in Ro­ma­nia to go to France ini­tially by him­self to try to find a job.

Bobbi is one of an es­ti­mated 15,000 Roma peo­ple of Ro­man­ian or Bul­gar­ian de­scent cur­rently liv­ing in France. The pres­ence of Roma peo­ple is a con­tested and di­vi­sive is­sue across Eu­rope, and of­ten­times lo­cal au­thor­i­ties make the prob­lem worse by de­stroy­ing camps and push­ing com­mu­ni­ties from one lo­ca­tion to an­other, thereby stig­ma­tis­ing and re­in­forc­ing neg­a­tive stereo­types of what is al­ready a mar­gin­alised group. Ac­cord­ing to the BBC, the cur­rent french gov­ern­ment is de­port­ing thou­sands of il­le­gal camp dwellers every year.

The me­dia also plays a role in re­in­forc­ing neg­a­tive stereo­types of Roma peo­ple. A study in Spain by Fun­dación Sec­re­tari­ado Gi­tano in 2009 found that in 188 of 688 cases of dis­crim­i­na­tion against Roma peo­ple, me­dia had been the dis­crim­i­na­tory party.

His­tor­i­cally the Roma com­mu­ni­ties in Eu­rope can be traced back to north­ern In­dia from where they mi­grated in the 11th cen­tury. To­day, it is es­ti­mated that around 10 mil­lion Roma peo­ple live in Eu­rope and it is one of the most dis­crim­i­nated and mar­gin­alised com­mu­ni­ties in Eu­rope.

In recog­nis­ing that Roma in­clu­sion is an EU-wide is­sue, the Eu­ro­pean Com­mis­sion has ex­plic­itly re­ferred to the Struc­tural Funds as an in­stru­ment to fos­ter Roma in­clu­sion. But EU fund­ing alone can­not adress the is­sue, and un­for­tu­nately there is some­times a re­luc­tance on the part of lo­cal and na­tional au­thor­i­ties to make use of EU fi­nanc­ing for fear of be­com­ing "mag­nets for squat­ters". Lo­cal au­thor­i­ties also lack di­rect ac­cess to EU fi­nanc­ing and the abil­ity to in­flu­ence EU pol­icy, and in turn na­tional gov­ern­ments of­ten lack ex­per­tise or po­lit­i­cal will to ad­dress lo­cal Roma in­te­gra­tion is­sues.

As a con­se­quence, some re­gions are over­whelmed by the re­cent stream of mi­grants from east­ern Eu­rope. In Ghent there are an es­ti­mated 10,000 mi­grants from Bul­garia and Slo­va­kia; many of them of Roma ori­gin. Lo­cal of­fi­cial Jan Bal­liu points to the ad­di­tional costs of school­ing and in­te­gra­tion ef­forts that the city of Ghent face due to the mi­gra­tion, and they would like to see the cre­ation of an EU com­pen­sa­tion fund that redi­rects un­used funds that are al­lo­cated to east­ern Eu­ro­pean coun­tries to re­gions fac­ing im­mi­gra­tion.

For Bobbi it was in the Paris sub­urb of Mon­treuil that he man­aged to es­tab­lish an ini­tial foothold. Mon­treuil is a neigh­bour­hood with a rich Roma her­itage dat­ing back to the 19th cen­tury, and in the last decade it has seen an in­flux of Roma peo­ple from east­ern Eu­rope. Bobbi re­calls that he would take what­ever job he could find when he ar­rived. "It was­n't easy; you're un­happy un­til you learn to speak some french". His wife and four chil­dren joined him 5 months later, and they tried as best they could to find some­where to live and to get the chil­dren to go to school. Bobbi taught his daugh­ter Lamaita how to read and write.

Bobbi, in his temporary home in Montreuil, Paris.

Even­tu­ally the neigh­bours helped them to move into an aban­doned med­ical clinic where they stayed for three years with other mi­grants. "We fixed it up so it was ok, and spoke to the com­mune and we set up an ac­count so that we would have wa­ter and elec­tric­ity. When you live out­side there is­n't any space to take a bath or do laun­dry so it's dif­fi­cult. In the clinic we had that." Bobbi says that he was happy to live in the clinic but the Mon­treuil com­mune sought a more durable so­lu­tion and in 2008 they launched a hous­ing pro­ject co-fi­nanced with the French state and the EU for 20 Roma fam­i­lies.

Given the sit­u­a­tion of many of these com­mu­ni­ties and the dire con­di­tions in which they of­ten live, the op­tions are lim­ited and the smaller well-in­te­grated tem­po­rary homes that were built in Mon­treuil for Bobbi and 19 other fam­i­lies, seems to be a step in the right di­rec­tion. The al­ter­na­tive, the long-term con­se­quences of a gen­er­a­tion of Roma peo­ple grow­ing up in il­le­gal camps in west­ern Eu­ro­pean cities, is all the more pal­pa­ble due to the per­ma­nence of much of the mi­gra­tion. As Bal­liu says in ref­er­ence to east­ern Eu­ro­pean mi­grants in Ghent "they are here to stay".

Build­ing hous­ing ded­i­cated to Roma peo­ple is how­ever some­times con­tro­ver­sial. As lo­cal of­fi­cial Claude Reznik says in ref­er­ence to an­other larger hous­ing pro­ject in Mon­treuil that was fin­ished ear­lier this year: "the cri­tique that we're build­ing a ghetto is­n't com­pletely wrong".

They were mi­grants. And the hos­til­ity changed them, welded them, united them - hos­til­ity that made the lit­tle towns group and arm as though to re­pel an in­vader, squads with pick han­dles, clerks and store­keep­ers with shot­guns guard­ing the world against their own peo­ple. In the West there was panic when the mi­grants mul­ti­plied on the high­ways.

John Stein­beck, "The Grapes of Wrath"

Some­times there is also the is­sue of lo­cal op­po­si­tion. In Mon­treuil the for­mer ma­jor Jean-Pierre Brard has ac­tively sup­ported the ef­forts by a dozen lo­cal res­i­dents to sab­o­tage the con­struc­tion of Roma hous­ing pro­jects. An­other pro­ject in Lille was halted due to the fierce op­po­si­tion from lo­cal res­i­dents. The is­sue is am­pli­fied by the fact that lo­cal politi­cians might be wary of start­ing in­te­gra­tion pro­jects due to fear that there will be a neg­a­tive re­ac­tion. In the end though Bobbi gets along fine with his new neigh­bours: "they are nice, and we help each other out if there is some­thing".

In con­trast to Mon­treuil, in Ghent there has been lim­ited ef­forts to pro­vide hous­ing for Roma fam­i­lies, al­though the city has ex­per­i­mented with a short-term pro­ject for two fam­i­lies, and are cur­rently work­ing on an­other small-scale ini­tia­tive. Bal­liu says that the city of Ghent is cur­rently not in­ter­ested in pro­vid­ing pre­fab­ri­cated hous­ing pro­jects sim­i­lar to those in Mon­treuil, and he points out that the city's wait­ing list for so­cial hous­ing cur­rently in­cludes 8,000 lo­cal res­i­dents and that they are re­luc­tant to pri­ori­tise mi­grants for per­ma­nent so­cial hous­ing. The lo­cal au­thor­i­ties in Ghent are how­ever open to con­tinue ex­per­i­ment­ing with pro­vid­ing tem­po­rary hous­ing to Roma fam­i­lies for short-term pe­ri­ods of six months.

Bobbi has lived in the hous­ing pro­ject in Mon­treuil for al­most two years now and he has found a part-time job as a van dri­ver. His wife works as a clean­ing lady. He has also started study­ing french in or­der to find a bet­ter-paid job. With­out speak­ing good french, you will not find a good job, he says. He would like to take a dri­ving li­cence for heavy trucks. "Like every­one, I want to make a bet­ter fu­ture for my­self and my fam­ily."

Bob­bi's daugh­ter Lamaita is 15 and still in school. She was six when she came to France with her fam­ily. She says that she likes school, and that when she grows up she wants to be­come a lawyer: "I want to stand up for peo­ple's rights". She likes it in the neigh­bour­hood and has her friends there. "It's bet­ter than be­fore. Now we have our own home." When asked if she feels french, she says that she does not know much about Ro­ma­nia. She has not been there since she left with her fam­ily as a six-year old. She speaks bet­ter french than Ro­mani.

The in­te­gra­tion pro­jects in Mon­treuil can be deemed suc­cess­ful at least in that they give the fam­i­lies a sta­ble place to live and a foothold upon which to build a fu­ture, but their con­tin­u­a­tion is un­cer­tain. The pro­jects were not meant to be per­ma­nent, and the fi­nanc­ing is com­ing to an end this year. Reznik says that it is un­likely that there will be any new pro­jects of a sim­i­lar na­ture in Mon­treuil in the near fu­ture.

"Ain't you think­in' what's it gonna be like when we get there? Ain't you scared it won't be nice like we thought?"

"No," she said quickly. "No, I ain't. You can't do that. I can't do that. It's too much—liv­in' too many lives. Up ahead they's a thou­san' lives we might live, but when it comes, it'll on'y be one."

John Stein­beck, "The Grapes of Wrath"

For Bobbi and his fam­ily, they are un­sure where they will be when the pro­ject fin­ishes, but he is op­ti­mistic that things will work out. For oth­ers, the re­al­ity of life in west­ern Eu­rope in­volves mov­ing from one il­le­gal camp to an­other with­out much hope for the sta­bil­ity and op­por­tu­ni­ties that a tem­po­rary home might pro­vide.