Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Europe's war on the Roma

By Jonathan Simon

The latest target of "governing through crime" tendencies among politicians in the Euro Zone is the Roma. Often called "gypsies" the Roma have roots in Romania but are often citizens of the country in which they live, as well as of the European Union. Despite their legal status as citizens, the Roma increasingly find themselves subject to arrests and expulsions as if they were undocumented aliens with no legal rights. The Roma are often stigmatized as criminals, and accused of involvement in all kinds of scams and illegal activities, a stigma that goes back decades if not century. Along with Jews, the Roma were one of the ethnic groups targeted to genocidal extermination by the Nazis. Today, they are to be found in almost every large city in Europe. Economically marginal almost everywhere, the Roma are described as "nomadic" despite evidence that their irregular habitats are mostly the result of extreme poverty.

This summer President Sarkozy of France has made a major public campaign of expelling the Roma from France, irrespective of their French or EU citizenship. A series of sometimes violent round-ups, reminiscent of Jews being deported during the Vichy period, has generated considerable backlash from human rights organizations and activists throughout Europe. According to Elisabetta Povoledo's reporting in the NYTimes, Italy is also targeting the Roma, dismantling long established "camps" and expelling the Roma from Italian cities.

Public debate on the issue often has racist and xenophobic overtones.

There has been growing rancor against Roma and Sinti, in part because the media has hyped this issue, and in part because the government uses it as a means of gaining consensus, according to Lorenzo Monasta, the president of Osservazione, a research center in Trieste that monitors discrimination against Roma and Sinti.

The critics say recent federal laws have also made life more difficult for Roma and Sinti here, even though more than half are Italian or European Union citizens. In 2007, the government passed a decree allowing European Union citizens to be expelled after three months if they lacked the means to support themselves. Then in 2008 a decree granted the authorities new powers to expel European Union citizens for reasons of public safety.

The public campaigns against the Roma have all the features of governing through crime in the US. Led by politicians facing significant policy and political resistance in their own countries (Sarkozy and Berlusconi), the campaigns involve removal of elements of society with little regard proving any actual legal guilt, but all done in the name of security and public safety. That these campaigns could unfold only sixty odd years since the Nazi genocide against the Roma, and in countries at the heart of the supposedly human rights cherishing European Union, is extremely troubling.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon's blog Governing Through Crime.