#14 movement
Jure Leko

On the Mobility of Roma

Roma are often pictured as a homogenous group, exceptionally willing to travel. Research disproves this image.

“We never wanted to leave Kosovo” Emsa says. She and her family fled the country of their birth during the Kosovo War in 1998/99 because their status as Roma put them between the fronts of the battling Serbs and Albanians. They were forced to embark on an involuntary odyssey through multiple European countries until they were granted temporary asylum in Germany in the form of exceptional leave to remain. Refugee status with exceptional leave to remain goes hand in hand with many forms of external controls and social degradation that make it difficult to participate in civil society. Still, the family was relatively happy in Germany. The children in particular learned German very quickly and made friends with a lot of non-Roma children at school. They keep their affiliation with the Roma a secret though, in hopes of preventing stigmatisation.

The Roma are stigmatised as travellers and freeloaders who take advantage of any chance to fulfil their supposed “above-average willingness to migrate”.

All too often, the political and media dialogue in Germany projects a very different image. The Roma are stigmatised as travellers and freeloaders who take advantage of any chance to fulfil their supposed “above-average willingness to migrate”. Additionally, the claim is made that Roma represent an additional strain on the German social system and that policies should be drawn up to prevent this. Upon closer inspection though, these assumptions do not stand up to a serious socio-cultural assessment. As soon as the current immigration patterns of Roma are embedded in social processes and taken as part of a European system of migration, not only can their supposed unity as a travelling people be demystified. Their mobility across national borders can also be seen as a comprehensible social practice, as it is closely linked to the living conditions in the regions they originate from. It is also closely tied to processes of European integration and an accompanying liberalisation of migration regimes inside the EU (such as for Bulgaria and Romania) and issues of political asylum (such as for Kosovo and Serbia as well).

The narrative of mobility

If Roma can be referred to as travellers in any real sense of the word, this is representative of a collective memory shared by a few individual (sub) groups; a cultural practice of the past that is hardly connected to their present way of life. Such cultural attributions serve to support and perpetuate traditional stereotypes – according to Klaus-Michael Bogdal – in which science, literature, and art play a large role, as do governmental authorities. In his much-debated book “Europe invents the Gypsies”, he reconstructs the grand narrative of European modernity that could not have been written without the Gypsies (a term he uses as a foreign appellation for members of the Roma, Sinti, Manouche and similar groups).

In contrast to numerous media reports though, neither above-average mobility nor cultural homogeneity can be presumed to characterise Roma.

While the sociology classics have focused on the ‘large’ motives (rationalisation, secularisation, capitalism, the process of civilisation) in their social analysis, Bogdal presents another image of modernity from the perspective of the marginalised. The constructed image of the Gypsy as an uncivilised, work-shy figure lacking roots represents “the underside of the European cultural subject's invention of itself as the agent of civilizing progress in the world.” If even one does not entirely agree with Bogdal’s account and does not wish to link Roma to cultural theories of the modern in this manner, the narrative of mobility does pervade public discourse. In contrast to numerous media reports though, neither above-average mobility nor cultural homogeneity can be presumed to characterise Roma.

There are, for example, Croatian, German, Catholic, Muslim, wealthy, dispossessed, well-educated, traditional, and modern Roma, and the list goes on.

Roma – a multiplicity of different groups and people

Even a brief look at the European settlement areas provides an indication that the group who identifies as Roma is an extremely heterogeneous one. Roma live in all European countries and in south-eastern Europe in particular. They also tend to assume the respective national, regional, political and religious practices. There are, for example, Croatian, German, Catholic, Muslim, wealthy, dispossessed, well-educated, traditional, and modern Roma, and the list goes on. In this context, the latest approaches from cultural sociology argue that to achieve a more appropriate image of social affiliations, one must assume multiple affiliations (according to Stefan Hirschauer, for example), based on the assumption that every subject is active in a number of social circles. As such, not only does an individual subject participate in a range of knowledge horizons, these also intersect in one subject. So questions of what systems of norms and roles have been internalised, the space-time context in which the respective background languages apply, and the basis upon which social demarcations develop hierarchical patterns of affiliation are of a more empirical nature. To identify these, a simple maxim applies: Speak with, rather than just about, as is much too often the case, the Roma. Emsa defines herself as both a Muslim and a Romni (feminine singular).

The term Roma is applied from the outside based on ethnic or cultural attributions, which are accompanied by a whole host of supposed “Roma characteristics”.

She stopped thinking of herself as Yugoslavian a long time ago. That was made clear to her during the war, when she was no longer viewed as such and reduced to just a Gypsy (in the pejorative sense). In conversation with immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania in Cologne, Dortmund or Berlin, reflexively classified as Roma and “poverty-driven immigrants” in innumerable reports in the media, it soon becomes clear that many feel no affiliation to a larger Roma community. The term Roma is applied from the outside based on ethnic or cultural attributions, which are accompanied by a whole host of supposed “Roma characteristics”.

Roma rank lowest on the social ladder and are thus generally more negatively impacted by the already difficult living conditions.

Beyond all difference: motives for migration

Irrespective of all the different living conditions in the respective countries and regions of south-eastern Europe, some commonalities in motives for migration can be identified among Roma. These emerge from a conglomeration of economic, social, political and legal framework conditions. In their countries of origin, Roma are more likely to evidence high levels of unemployment and a relatively low level of institutionalised human capital, accompanied by exclusion and practically non-existent opportunities for social mobility. The slums, like those at the edge of Belgrade (Serbia) or in Stolipinovo/Plovdiv (Bulgaria), that are home to many Roma are the most visible mark of their marginalisation. These places evidence a poverty that especially increased with the introduction of the market economy in south-eastern Europe. It affects not just Roma, but also large segments of the population, though with one key difference: Roma rank lowest on the social ladder and are thus generally more negatively impacted by the already difficult living conditions. Even well-meaning EU programmes designed to improve the economic, social and political living conditions (like those of the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015) have ultimately proven unsuccessful and yielded few notable results. They can be seen as more of an empowerment strategy for social workers and local politicians than as programmes to drive sustainable development for Roma.

…the affected Roma often know much better how to act given their situation.

The reasons this marginalisation persists are the subject of debate. Two overriding paradigms shape the political and scientific discourse: One blames the Roma themselves for their isolation, arguing it is based on cultural otherness and an attendant inability to adjust and conform. The second school of thought views it as the result of social discrimination by each respective majority society. Norbert Mappes-Niediek finds neither argument particularly convincing. He attributes the supposed inability to conform to an “economics of poverty”, contending that ethnic and cultural reasons play a secondary role, if any at all. The social practices in an economics of poverty follow their own logic focused on daily survival and the short-term maximisation of happiness. It is therefore in direct opposition to the (petit) bourgeois work aesthetic: “It is no less sensible than our economics of savings and investment; except that it is adjusted to the conditions of constant adversity.” In this context, it is hard for development programmes to be successful, since the affected Roma often know much better how to act given their situation. The experience from and social consequences of the post-socialist era have left their marks. Roma were the losers in the transformation process and among the first to lose their jobs in communal facilities and industrial enterprises. They were left even more dependent on themselves and their families than ever. Since family networks are a more reliable source of solidary in times of crisis, they enjoy greater trust than government or European institutions. Migration to Western Europe appears to be one way of escaping from these difficult living conditions. This applies to non-Roma as well.

Germany: The anticipated mass onslaught has not materialised

During the Europeanisation of migration control, the EU developed a migration regime that distinguished different legal zones based on two fundamental principles: EU citizens were granted mobility inside the Schengen zone with no visa requirements, through entry for third country nationals (such as from Serbia and Kosovo) was strictly regulated if not prohibited entirely.

Constructing a migration problem here fuels fear and a growing desire for security.

The “Fortress Europe” is probably the best-known phrase associated with this closed-door policy from the EU. While countries like Bulgaria and Romania are not in the Schengen zone, citizens of these countries enjoy extensive freedom of movement rights inside the EU by now. Politicians and the media predicted a “wave of migration” of people from Bulgaria and Romania to Germany with the opening of the border. But this did not occur. No significant entry into the German social system has been observed either, as a study by the Centre for European Economic Research has shown. Even the so-called “low-qualified workers”, including some Roma, have integrated themselves into the job market for the most part. Additionally they are taking some of the strain off the social system serving an aging German population. The danger of using an economic cost-benefit analysis to legitimise migration in this way is that it reproduces the discourse on the economisation of life and the social through the back door. According to sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, such discourses inevitably construct useless people and groups. Put more pointedly: Only those who bring added value are welcome. Constructing a migration problem here fuels fear and a growing desire for security. This sets the stage for both xenophobic resentment (see the “Pegida” movement) and for (supra) state control measures.

… around 11,000 Kosovo Roma are in the process of being deported.

Kosovo – a safe country for Roma?

During the Kosovo War in 1998/99 and additional conflicts, over 100,000 Roma fled Kosovo. Some sought refuge in Germany where, due to restrictive asylum policies, few refugees are granted protection as defined in the Geneva Refugee Convention and as such the right to remain. Rather, they are tolerated under the legal status of “de-facto refugees”. This means they are subject to deportation back to Kosovo as soon as the situation on the ground renders this possible. This is currently the case. Based on a repatriation agreement signed by the German and Kosovo governments in 2010, around 11,000 Kosovo Roma are in the process of being deported.
With the involvement of many Roma, social movement has sprung up in response to push for the right to remain (e.g. “Everyone stays!” “Roma Initiative Münster”). Roma advocates extend beyond the “usual suspects” – such as progressive groups or refugee organisations. The UNHCR, the UN Security Council and the European Human Rights Council have expressed criticism of the Federal Foreign Office’s assessment of the situation. They have appealed to the German government to halt the deportations on the grounds that human rights abuses against Roma continue to be everyday occurrences in Kosovo. Additionally, those in favour of the right to remain emphasise Germany’s historical responsibility – based on the gruesome acts committed against Roma in the Second World War and Germany’s involvement in the NATO intervention in Kosovo (1999), which was the central trigger for the expulsion of Roma by the Kosovo-Albanian militia.
Fundamentally those in favour of the right to remain emphasise the fact that the Roma situation is a European problem and cannot be solved by a dubious repatriation agreement, as in the case of the Kosovo Roma.
These appeals have done nothing to mitigate Emsa’s current situation though. She and her family have been deported. Her children, who spent most of their lives in Germany and speak no Kosovo-Albanian, yearn to return to their homeland: “Germany”.

Photo: “Zoll” by Michael
2012 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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