More than 10 million Roma live in Europe. Tens of thousands of them are fleeing westwards from poverty and discrimination in the countries of southeastern Europe. But EU member states are failing to help them.
The cupboard door sails out of an upper floor window and lands on a heap of rubbish on a lawn in the Duisburg suburb of Rheinhausen. Half a dozen men in thick jackets and woolen hats stand just two meters (six feet) away. The door could have injured someone but Marian, Nico and the others don’t move a muscle. “They’re renovating,” says Marian. The men laugh. “There are no problems.”
Marian, who comes from the northeast of Romania, has lived in the eight-story brick building for the past three years. It has become known across Germany as a “problem house,” “house of horror” or just as “Roma house.” As if that said it all.
Here’s a brief history of the building: A few years ago, Roma came from Romania and moved into it. More of them came, until the building almost exclusively housed Roma immigrants, more than the structure could accommodate. They held barbecue parties in the back yard, which led to complaints from neighbors. Rubbish piled up around the building and the garbage disposal service refused to remove it. That attracted rats.
Window panes broke and no one replaced them. The stairwells began to smell of urine. Some inhabitants stole, tricked people or robbed them, which led to frequent visits from the police. In the first nine months of last year, a total of 277 crimes were attributed to people living in the building.
Then far-right activists came. They demonstrated in front of the building and railed against it in Internet forums. On a Facebook page named after the address of the house, “In den Peschen 3-5,” Stefan K. wrote: “Chuck a bomb in, that’ll sort it.” Marian D. demanded: “Burn those wankers down.” The page had 1,690 likes until it was shut down last August.
That month, the building’s occupants armed themselves with clubs. Left-wing activists mounted a guard at night. When the police tried to enter the building one night in August, the people inside kept them out with iron bars and pepper spray.
‘We Had Nothing in Romania’
But Nico still claims “It’s good here.” He says: “Our children can go to school, there are no problems with the neighbors.” He finds work occasionally, and when he’s not working he collects discarded bottles and retrieves the deposit on them from supermarkets. “We had nothing in Romania,” he says.
Politicians in Germany’s new grand coalition of conservatives and Social Democrats are embroiled in a row over immigration from Romania and Bulgaria because EU migration restrictions were lifted on Jan. 1. The coalition agreement between the parties states that “incentives for migration into social welfare systems should be reduced.” Elmar Brok of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, who heads the Foreign Affairs Committee in European Parliament, has demanded that immigrants who only come to Germany to collect benefits should be fingerprinted.
Many immigrants from the two countries are well educated but immigrants also include poor and unskilled people who have little prospect of finding employment in Germany. In many case, they are Roma people.
Tens of thousands of Roma like Marian and Nico have fled the misery and discrimination they suffer in Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and elsewhere. But in France, Italy and Germany, they end up in camps or living in ramshackle accommodation. Some resort to crime. In the West too, virtually all of them remain bitterly poor and discriminated against.
Some 10 to 12 million Roma people live in Europe — more than the population of Austria. They have lived here for over 1,000 years — and have been ostracized, persecuted and suppressed as gypsies for centuries. The Nazis murdered hundreds of thousands of them. The Roma are Europe’s biggest minority — and remain the Continent’s unwanted people.
Almost 70 years after the end of the Nazi era, Merkel in 2012 unveiled a monument to the Roma and Sinti murdered in the Holocaust. But the debate now fanned by the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s CDU, about so-called “poverty migrants” from Bulgaria and Romania, which is also raging in other EU countries, shows that old prejudices persist across Europe. The dark-skinned Roma sings and steals, doesn’t put shoes on his children’s feet and likes living in the dirt — that’s their tradition, so the prejudice goes.
Governments ignored the Roma for a long time. Germany had its integrated Sinti, France had the Manouches and Spain their Kale, but no one showed any interest in them — and no one asked about the Roma in southeastern Europe. The focus has only turned to them since more of them have started coming from Bulgaria and Romania and since the number of asylum seekers from Serbia and Macedonia doubled from 2011 to 2012.
Hans-Peter Friedrich of the CSU, who was German Interior Minister until recently, wanted to get rid of these immigrants as quickly as possible and to prevent more from coming to Germany. He demanded that the countries of origin improve living conditions for Roma people there.
Living in Slums
A visit to Antena, a settlement on the outskirts of the Serbian capital Belgrade, shows the extent of improvements needed in Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia. There’s no running water, the toilets are holes in the ground. The air smells of urine, mold and burned plastic.
Ramiz, 28, lives here along with 600 other Roma. He purchased eight square meters of a garbage dump for his hut for €40. Ramiz says the Roma are “the invisible people of Belgrade.” Half the inhabitants of Antena have no passport or birth certificate. For the Serbian government, they simply don’t exist, and they get no welfare benefits.
Most of them, like Ramiz, came during the Kosovo conflict at the end of the 1990s. They dream of getting to the rich West as quickly as possible.
During the day Ramiz and his children gather up cardboard or sift the garbage for packet soup past its sell by date, opened cornflakes boxes or cocoa powder. He has the business card of a man in his pocket who smuggles people without papers across the border to the north. Transport costs €100, bribes for the border guards cost €400. Ramiz hopes he can round up so many clients that the trafficker will let him go along free of charge.
Antena is just one such settlement in Belgrade. There are hundreds like it in Serbia and thousands in the other countries of Eastern Europe. In 2011 the European Commission together with the UN Development Program and the European Agency for Fundamental Rights examined living conditions of more than 80,000 Roma people living in 11 EU member-states and found that one-third of them were unemployed, 20 percent had no health insurance and 90 percent lived below the poverty line.
Racist Abuse and Assaults
But the Roma aren’t just trying to flee poverty. They are also trying to get away from discrimination and abuse. In Romania, a far-right group last January called for the sterilization of Roma women. Bulgaria last year saw anti-Roma demonstrations in the capital, Sofia. In 2012, a mob in the Czech Republic chanted “gas the gypsies” after a 15-year-old claimed he had been beaten up by Roma people.
Human rights campaigners say the situation for Roma is particularly precarious in Hungary — even though the government claims to have a strategy for integrating them. “The Roma in Hungary are systematically discriminated against,” says Gabor Daróczi, director of the Romaversitas foundation which funds education projects for Roma. “They can’t find work, children don’t get an education.” He said the sentiment against Roma in Hungary reminded him of the 1930s. In August, three men were convicted of murdering six Roma out of racial hatred.
Members of the right-wing government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán openly agitate against Roma people. Zsolt Bayer, co-founder the ruling Fidesz party and supposedly a confidante of Orbán, said: “Most gypsies aren’t suited to communal living. They immediately want to fuck everyone they see. If they encounter resistance, they commit murder. These gypsies are animals and they behave like animals. They shouldn’t exist, the animals. One has to solve that — using all means available!”
In March 2011, far-right militants occupied Gyöngyöspata, 80 kilometers northeast of Budapest, for several weeks. Neo-Nazis marched through the streets threatening and beating up Roma people. The government didn’t intervene against the racists. When an aid organization took hundreds of children from the village, the government described the rescue as an “Easter vacation.”
In the end, the police did get involved and the militants left. But life hasn’t improved for the Roma in Gyöngyöspata. They live in a settlement in the valley. Their homes are made of corrugated iron and chipboard, and in winter the paths are churned into mud.
This story originally appeared at spiegel