However often the Romany and Traveller communities of Europe are moved on, from borough to borough or across national boundaries, they will not fade away or melt into thin air. Until there is pan-European political will to address the poverty and exclusion that many face, the situation can only worsen, and the right wing will continue to use this marginalised group as a vote-scoring chip
The first EU Roma Summit is set to unfold in Brussels this Tuesday. The living conditions of Roma, social integration and representation across Europe will be at the heart of debate.
The summit comes scarcely two weeks after the biggest gypsy encampment in Europe was broken up. Outside Paris, the improvised living quarters and heaps of rubbish were cleared to make way for new flats, and most of the 600 Roma residents were displaced.
Hungarian Roma MEP Livia Jaroka is committed to improving the lives of the more than 10 million Roma in the EU, and fighting discrimination. Jaroka said: “It is such a drastic situation not only mentally and human rights-wise and economically, but also culturally. It is a huge loss for Europe.”
Unemployment rates for the continent’s largest ethnic minority are very high, since Roma encounter the most barriers, said the European Commission. Lack of formal education is part of the problem, discrimination another. Roma children are often excluded from mainstream schools in Europe. Bringing together representatives of EU institutions, governments, parliaments and civil society, the summit is also aimed at tackling exclusion in health and housing.
The meeting, which will include European Union ministers, national governments and Roma organizations, is the first time the E.U. has organized a senior level summit on the Roma. The conference, which aims to begin forging a new policy based on inclusion, is well timed. Recent episodes, especially in Italy, home to some 150,000 Roma, one of the highest populations in Europe, have reminded Europeans of a problem many would rather forget. Last spring, local residents angry over crimes they blamed on Roma, burned down Roma camps on the outskirts of both Naples and Rome. Then, in July, a newspaper photographer caught Italian sunbathers relaxing on a beach near the corpses of two teen-aged Roma girls who'd drowned.
Plans by Italy's center-right government to fingerprint Roma residents in a mandatory census have also drawn fire, despite the fact that the E.U. ruled earlier this month that the scheme was legal because it was not aimed at tracking people by ethnic background, but rather fingerprinting those who had no other way of being identified.
Confronting the Roma issue in 2008 raises questions about immigration and citizenship, identity and belonging, social policy, individual freedom and collective accountability. With their ancestry tracing back to the Indian subcontinent, the Roma settled, over the centuries, across many parts of the world, but especially in central and eastern Europe. Poor and often living apart from mainstream society, an estimated 1 million Roma went to their deaths in Nazi camps in World War II.