Roma: Challenging all-or-nothing thinking

Article published on April 7, 2017
Article published on April 7, 2017

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Discrimination against Roma in Germany is showing no sign of slowing down. The community is calling for a 'right to stay for all' as the authorities send them back them back to their homelands. The annual World Roma Day celebrated its 46th anniversary on the 8th April. One of the aims of the first international Romani Congress was to create a more integrated society. Has it been successful?

The atmosphere at Saturday's demonstration in Berlin shifts between one of anger, frustration and belligerence. A motley crew has gathered at the Neukoellner Hermannplatz. Protesters' giant banners display Roma flags with slogans such as 'All Roma to stay here". Eventually, the colourful and obstreperous protest march sets off, accompanied by police officers. Tail-ended by a yellow pickup truck and spearheaded by loudspeakers, the protesters' powerful words penetrate the morning air.

Good and bad foreigners

The Romani people are the largest ethnic minority group in Europe. Many come from Eastern and Southern Europe. 'Roma' is an umbrella term used to describe population groups who share similar cultural characteristics, which also include Sinti. Most Roma in Germany have lived there for many generations and have German citizenship. Not in receipt of special support programmes, they consider themselves to be well integrated, according to the Federal Republic of Germany's 2011 report to the European Commission.

Johannes Kiess, Research Associate at Siegen University, examined German attitudes to Roma in his 2016 study "The Disinhibited Centre: Authoritarian and Far-Right Political Attitudes in Germany". This was based on statewide investigations into right-wing extremist attitudes in Germany. Acceptance of right-wing extremism has subsequently declined but another problem has come to the fore. "We are moving away from traditional xenophobia and antisemitism and towards a more specific devaluation of people. There is this perceived dichotomy of 'good' and 'bad' foreigners, and Roma, refugees and Muslims fall into the latter category.' They are categorized in this way because of their supposed negative qualities. 'Roma are perceived to be a threat to prosperity' says Kiess.

It is not really possible to define Roma as a single group, says Georgi Ivanov, who coordinates the welfare advice service, Amaroforo. Amaroforo is the Berlin state association of the AmaroDrom community, which mobilises Roma and Non-Roma, facilitating Roma participation in community life.

I am embarrassed to be Romani

A further obstacle for the minority group is that many find it difficult to identify as Romani. Safeta Zwietasch from Amaroforo recalls how a young boy, who did an internship at the association, was "embarrassed to show his internship certificate because the association works for and with Roma." On the contrary, the Bosnian native herself has been open about her Romani heritage for the entirety that she has worked for the organisation.  "Previously, I was concerned that I could lose my job and was worried my child would be bullied at school. Now I like to show my allegiance to the Romani people."

It seems however that discrimination only affects those who have certain physical features, which is consistent with the persisting 'foreigner' stereotype. Kiess explains: "If a Romani person is blonde with blue eyes then they simply won't face the same level of discrimination."

Who can stay?

In Berlin, the focus is on ensuring that a ban on deportation is implemented. According to Statista, The Statistics Portal, the Roma population in Germany comprises roughly 120, 000 people. This is however only an estimate because since the end of the Second World War, socio-economic and population statistics data have not been collected on the basis of ethnic affiliation in Germany and no data has been recorded in the Civil Register on this matter. Legally, identifying as Romani shouldn't bear any importance on a citizen's status in Germany. 

Nevertheless, Roma mostly fight for their rights as Roma and less so for their rights as Romanians, Serbians or Albanians. Perhaps this is because not only are they the largest ethnic minority group in Europe, but also because they are the societal group who are most often subjected to discrimination. According to Marijo Terzic, manager of the Duisburg integration centre, discrimination can occur anywhere within the state borders and in any situation.

Perhaps the Romani people's vehement fight for their rights can be attributed to  Germany's past systematic eradication of and preferential treatment of specific groups of people, during the era of National Socialism. Time and again, at demonstrations in Neukoelln, the responsibility of the Federal Republic's towards the Romani people is raised. Protesters believe that Germany is obligated to offer them the right to freedom of movement and right of residence.

Integration officer Marijo Terzic works in Nordrhein-Westfalishen Duisburg - a hotspot for  Roma immigration from the Balkans. He believes that: "The state is stripping itself of responsibility and handing over the integration work to the local authorities, who are struggling to keep their heads above water. We are overrun with Roma coming here for language courses and we simply cannot work quickly enough to meet their needs", says Terzic.

Authorized or not,  the measures for integration are the same for everyone, Roma or non-Roma. The main focus of the integration strategy is: "...education, education, education. Giving children a chance, further down the line, to access traineeships. And with regards to adults, assimilation into the job market is enormously important." 

Georgi Ivanov takes a similar stance when it comes to matters of self-responsibility: "One needs to have a little get-up-and-go.  If you simply sit at home, complaining, nobody is going to be able to help you - integration is a two-way-process. He believes the fact that so many Roma are locked out of the job market is one of the biggest problems vis-a-vis integration. This is because Roma who come from non-EU states, whilst 'tolerated' are not permitted to work. "Although many would like to work and many are also proficient in the language and thus able to work, they aren't allowed. Such is the paradox."

A colourful array of measures across Europe

For years, the European Union has launched a variety of projects in an attempt to end discrimination against different ethnic groups. In 2005, twelve EU states signed the ‘Decade of Roma Inclusion’ programme, backed by the EU and the World Bank. Germany wasn't a member. Within the framework of the Decade of Roma Inclusion programme, the 'Roma Education Fund' was established, a fund which offers educational opportunities to Roma living in members states.

In spite of this, the EU's capacity to protect ethnic minorities has its limitations. Some question the usefulness of the Roma integration strategies. Some parts of Duisburg, Mannheim, Gelsenkirchen, Dortmund or Berlin, which have a comparatively higher proportion of Romani people, indicate that the integration strategies to date have been unsuccessful.

'We want the same rights as Jews who come to Germany!,' thunders the voice through the loudspeakers at the demonstration. According to the State Ministry for Migration and Refugees, Jews are the exception when it comes to immigration; they can enjoy freedom of movement as long as they are nationals of the former Soviet Union and have a sound knowledge of the German language.

Roma are Europeans - I don't understand why they must leave

At the Neukoelln demonstration, there are many people who aren't Romani. One such demonstrator is a Brasilian tourist, who is there because she considers political engagement to very important. "The Romani people are also Europeans, I don't understand why they must leave." 

From a purely legal standpoint, Roma aren't being forced to leave because of their heritage.  Roma have always been discriminated against in Germany. To accuse the entire group of playing the victim game, would be rather shortsighted.  There are German Roma living in Germany,  as there are perfectly integrated Romani immigrants living in Germany, but there are also those who don't want to integrate or are unable to do so. As a young woman behind me on the train so perfectly puts it: The prevailing prejudices are 'pure racism', because ultimately, in every group of people you get the good as well as the bad.