While the EU and its member states are still trying to find its focus when it comes to Roma people, the members of these communities struggle with their daily lives. Next to Cluj, the Romanian town I live in, there are two large Roma communities, both of them next to the garbage deposits. I visited these communities, as a journalist several times, and I still remember how kids as young as 5 were telling me how rats enter their barracks every night and crawl up their beds while they sleep. Or an old man in his 60’s telling me how snakes basically live with him in the same barrack. The main activity of the children there is to search through the piles of garbage every day, in search of things that they can still use or, worse yet, food. I recognize every day many of the adults in those communities on the streets of Cluj, while they beg.
The authorities in Cluj refuse to deal with these communities. While the town is expanding and drawing more and more foreign investors, the Roma communities are treated as the dirt that needs to be hidden under the carpet, not to ruin its image. In the fall of 2007, two little girls were burnt alive in their barrack, because of the primitive system their family was using to keep warm. Another child died in the same way last spring.
Here is just one picture taken by photographer David Dare Parker at the Pata Rat community next to Cluj. You can see other great pictures of his from Pata Rat on his website www.daviddareparker.com, under the Romania section.
The Roma is the largest stateless nation existing within the current borders of the EU. It is believed that up to 12 million people in the EU are Roma, representing about 2.5% of the total population of the Union. However, the number is most likely much higher. Many Roma people are not taken into consideration in national census, because they do not have personal identification documents of any kind. For instance, in Romania, the official numbers say the Roma represent 2.5% of the population, meaning about 550.000 people, but unofficial numbers are as high as over 1.5 million. Besides, many Roma do not declare themselves as Roma when they are asked about their nationality, but as coming from the dominant nationality in their country of residence (Romanian, Hungarian, Spanish etc).
Until not so long ago, the Roma were regarded as a problem of Central and Eastern European states, because most of them are concentrated in these states. However, the Roma are nomads and they have quickly moved throughout the entire Europe. Their moving process has been facilitated even more by the less strict border controls throughout Europe in the past decades. Therefore, the Roma are no longer a problem of certain states, but of the entire EU.
However, in its over 50 years history, the EU has failed to tackle the Roma problem in an articulate, coherent way. While they live among us civilized people from developed countries, the Roma often lack access to the most basic human rights. They do not have access to education, health care, clean water and food. The right to a decent living standard is stated in many constitutions, yet it is denied to Roma people for decades. The nation states have constantly failed to provide sustainable solutions for the Roma or even ignored them and the EU, so far, has followed the same path.
Many have argued that it is the Roma people’s fault for its situation. That they are essentially uneducated, wish to be left alone and live their own way, that crime and rudeness is somehow written in their genetic code. Unfortunately, many Roma provide support for such claims daily. Another internal problem is that the Roma, taken as a whole, rarely regard themselves as a nation or as a bonded community. They live and socialize in small communities, similar to tribes, and feel like outside intervention, even from other Roma, is a threat. This lack of internal unity has made it difficult for Roma advocates to articulate a common position and put forward solutions that would be accepted or function for Roma throughout Europe or at least within a state.
Nevertheless, the EU has shown it is capable of putting forward guidelines and regulations for almost everything and everyone, if it wants to. So far, it seems that it has been more important for the EU to deal with the shape and size of bananas or tomatoes than with the daily lives of millions of its citizens dealing with the same problems.
Only last year, in September, the European Commission and the French presidency of the Council organized the first summit dedicated to the Roma. Over 500 people participated. However, the summit was another failure. The participants could not even decide if there is a need to adopt new policies for the Roma or use existing EU regulations which do not aim to target primarily the Roma, therefore the essential problems of the Roma were not even reached. Moreover, there was no translation provided for the Romanes language and the first Roma to become minister in Macedonia, Nezdet Mustava, was interrupted when he tried to delivered his speech in Romanes.
It seems the struggle for better life standards for the Roma is still left in the hands of NGO’s. For instance, the EU Roma Policy Coalition is a group of NGO’s from different states pushing the EU to take action and deal with the problems of the Roma. They even proposed a draft EU strategy for the Roma. The Commission deals with the Roma problem only at a lower level. 12 member states, under the guidance of the Commission, put together the EURoma network, which tries to use structural funds for Roma oriented projects. The main program developed so far is the Acceder program.
The European Parliament has taken tough action against the initiative of the Italian government last summer to register the fingerprints of every Roma living in Italy. Also, the EP as an institution and several MEP’s individually have called for sustainable solutions to the problems of the Roma throughout time. However, we come back to our old problem, the EP does not have enough power (yet) to take action itself or force the Commission or the Council to apply its decisions. The Italian situation was particularly sensitive for Romania, because the Roma coming under fire in Italy come in their largest part from Romania. In fact, because Roma and Romanian sound similar, a leading national newspaper in Romania is running a campaign to change to name of this nation from Roma back into “gipsy”, with strong arguments showing that gipsy is not an offensive name for a person of this origin.
It is clear that the road Roma need to face until they will live a better life in the EU is still a very long one and it won’t come anywhere close to ending until the EU accepts the fact that the Roma represent a nation living within its borders, which should be treated on the same terms as the ones enjoying the benefits of having a state.