Are the Roma Primitive, or Just Poor?

Publishedon The New York Times/Sunday Review, by Dan Bilefsky, Oct 19, 2013.

PARIS — THE cluster of Roma, handcuffed and caged-in behind glass walls, listened in silence as prosecutors accused them in court of selling child brides for up to about $270,000 in cash, valuing them based on their ability to steal. In a case that has riveted France, the prosecutors accused three family clans from Croatia of grooming girls and boys as young as 11 to steal as part of a gang that committed 100 robberies in France, Belgium and Germany in 2011.  

One 20-year-old witness told the court he had stolen about $600,000 in cash and jewels for his parents, or more than $7,000 a month, since age 13. Less skilled thieves could face punishment, including beatings by Roma elders.

All but one of the 27 accused were convicted on Oct. 11 in Nancy, in eastern France, of forcing the children to steal, and received sentences from two to eight years. At the top of the network was a 66-year-old grandmother.

The case highlighted an increasingly rancorous debate here and across Europe about what some politicians call, rather ominously, the “Roma question,” a reference to the nomadic people, also known as Gypsies, who came from India to Europe centuries ago. An estimated 11 million are scattered across Europe.

At a time of fiscal austerity, policy makers are raising a thorny question: after centuries of persecution and living on the fringes of society, can the Roma ever integrate into Western Europe?

This month’s trial only intensified that debate when members of the defense team offered an unusual legal defense: rather than focusing on the argument that the Roma are forced to resort to crime because of poverty and discrimination, it claimed that in some cases they were simply following age-old Roma traditions and generally operate outside the norms of society in “the style of the Middle Ages.”

In France, as elsewhere in Europe, the Roma issue is linked to difficult questions of ethnicity, race, social exclusion and political gamesmanship. Last week, highly publicized protests erupted in Paris and several other French cities following reports that police officers had detained a 15-year-old Roma girl in front of her school friends and deported her to Kosovo with her family, who had been living in the Doubs region of eastern France as illegal immigrants for five years. The government has pledged to investigate the circumstances of their expulsion … //

… Livia Jaroka, a Hungarian anthropologist who has studied the Roma and is the only Roma member of the European Parliament, maintains that decades of discrimination have resulted in endemic unemployment, extreme poverty, low education levels, segregated housing, human trafficking, substance abuse and high mortality rates. She argues that assimilation into Western European culture does not require abandoning Roma traditions as much as overcoming age-old stereotypes and investing in education, jobs and health care.

“The cultural explanation for Roma criminality is nonsense,” she said in an interview. “It is about economics.”

But critics counter that rights come with responsibilities and that throwing money at the Roma is futile, unless they fully commit to integration.

One glimmer of hope is in Spain, which has some 750,000 Roma, nearly half under 25. Nearly all Roma children there finish primary school, according to the Fundació Secretariado Gitano, a Madrid-based foundation, though only a small minority finish high school. In 1978, three-quarters of Spain’s Roma lived in substandard housing; today just 12 percent do. Isidro Rodriguez, the foundation’s director, cited access to free education, health care and social housing following the anti-Roma repression of the Franco years.

Ms. Jaroka, who grew up in a poor community of Roma musicians in Tata, in Hungary, said she owed her success to her parents, a waiter and dressmaker, who insisted that she, her sister and her brother get an education in unsegregated schools. Today, her sister is a music therapist; her brother, a soccer coach.

“We Roma,” she said, “also need to learn to emancipate ourselves.”

(full 2 pages text including hyper-links).
(Dan Bilefsky is a Paris-based reporter for The New York Times).

Map of the diaspora of 11 million persons: Estimates of Roma populations vary. These figures are from the Council of Europe, a human rights organization.

(see also: Welcome to our new blog: politics for the 99%).

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