Mass Demolitions of Roma Settlements Planned In The Middle of "Decade of Roma Inclusion"

The French executive announced Jul. 29 that 300 illegal Roma camps would be demolished in the next three months. According to the President's office, the camps are "sources of illegal trafficking, profoundly shocking living standards, exploitation of children for begging, prostitution and crime."

By the end of this year, France is set to adopt legislation to expel undocumented Roma residing in the country, "for reasons of public order."

Germany is set to deport 12,000 Roma back to Kosovo over the next years. Half of them are children and adolescents who grew up in Germany.

Sweden has this year deported 50 Roma from Eastern Europe for begging, even though begging is not a crime in this country. Denmark deported 23 Eastern European Roma in July. In Belgium, 700 Roma were forced to exit Flanders in July, and given only temporary shelter in Wallonia.

The UK government last month announced legislation that would lead to the eviction of tens of families of Roma and travelers, pushing them into illegality.

The steps taken by Western governments come right in the middle of the Decade of Roma Inclusion (2005-2015), "an unprecedented commitment by European governments to improve the socio-economic status and social inclusion of Roma."

In 2008, Italy declared a state of emergency over Roma immigrants.

Around 10 million Roma are estimated to be living in Europe. The largest concentration is in Romania, at two million according to unofficial estimates. Hundreds of thousands live in other Central and Eastern European countries.

The measures of Western governments are mainly directed at Eastern European Roma who have moved west in search of a better life following EU expansion. Despite being European citizens, they are now threatened with expulsion, in breach of the EU basic right to free movement.

Targets of evictions and demolitions are also "travelers", groups of people who often have Western European nationality but maintain a traveling lifestyle in keeping with their culture. Between 300,000-500,000 travelers (gens de voyage) are estimated to be living in France, while the UK is thought to host around 18,000 Roma and traveler caravans.

Human rights groups say that some Western politicians are keen on blurring the lines between travelers and Roma (itself a highly heterogeneous population made up of mostly sedentary groups but also of nomads) in order to give the impression that Roma are difficult to integrate.

Additionally, claim the activists, politicians are emphasising crimes committed by some Roma to create a sense that entire communities of Roma are threats to public safety, thus creating grounds for mass expulsions.

"Indeed there are Roma who are in charge of trafficking networks, but they represent less than one percent of this population, the rest are victims," says David Mark, head of the Civic Alliance of Roma in Romania (a coalition of over 20 Roma NGOs).

"But because that one percent commits crimes and the authorities are not able to stop them, all Roma are being criminalised," Mark told IPS. "The announced expulsions and demolitions of camps are based on the criminalisation of an entire ethnic group, when criminality should be judged on a case by case basis in courts of law."

"What we are seeing is a greater call by receiving countries to restrict freedom of movement inside the EU," argues Rob Kushen, executive director of the European Roma Rights Centre. "The danger is that this will negatively affect Roma rights and the rights of all EU citizens."

The European Commission (executive body of the EU) has thus far steered clear of criticising member states for breaching EU freedom of movement. "We are not here, as the EC, to judge on individual cases of Roma people," said EC spokesman Matthew Newman. "It's for each government, each authority to make those decisions."

The French government has insisted Roma social inclusion is the responsibility of sending states, putting pressure on main sender Romania to take measures to contain the Westward migration flow.

But there have also been calls for a European approach to Roma rights. The Swedish government has demanded a European action plan for guaranteeing access to housing, education and jobs and even the establishment of truth commissions to investigate anti-Roma abuses.

Rights activists, however, argue that the main obstacle to Roma social inclusion is the blatant lack of political will in all European countries.

According to David Mark, EU legislation is solid on Roma rights and European funding is available, but the irresponsibility of national governments makes it hard for these to materialise in progress for Roma.

"If even mainstream parties (such as France's governing Union for a Popular Movement) start adopting far-right anti-Roma discourses, where will we end up?" Mark says.

"Much of the problem is with the willingness of member states to use the available resources," Kushen told IPS. "Member states do not see the size of the problem. The EC should compel member states to collect information on the Roma that could serve as the basis for policies. It could impose conditions on funding to make sure it is used for Roma or at least does not violate their rights."

Even though he considers the recent measures of Western governments dangerous, Kushen hopes the outrage they caused leads to a positive momentum for a comprehensive EU inclusion programme.

Mark is more pessimistic. "We, the Roma, will always be persecuted," he says. "The first step made by Nazis towards dehumanisation was to stereotype. They started by classifying Roma as anti-social. Politicians today use stereotyping of Roma for their political goals. There is a serious danger in this."

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