Even the road to segregation can be paved with good intentions. We spoke with sociologist Giovanni Picker about the situation of Roma in Europe’s cities, and the reasons why they are still being pushed to the margins of society.

Krisztian Simon: In the cities of the European Union’s new Member States, over one third of Roma live in segregated communities, without a chance for social mobility. How did this development come about?

Giovanni Picker: In order to understand this, we need to have a look at the histories of these countries. In the post-WWII years, Eastern Europe’s state socialism was engineered to create a society of workers, and this development has brought to life – in each of the Eastern and Central European countries in a somewhat different way – a number of state programmes that were targeting several of the Roma communities through the policy of ‘sedentarisation’[1]. During the process, those Roma families who were previously often traveling in search of seasonal work, were moved away from the countryside and turned into factory workers in the city. The jobs that they were doing in these factories, on average, did not lead to an improvement of their skills; as they were seen as less deserving as the majority population, they were mainly doing menial tasks, such as cleaning the stairs, guarding the factory, and so on. Moreover, they were very often living segregated from the rest of the population.

After 1989, with the collapse of state socialism and the beginning of the transition to capitalism, those communities remained low-skilled and on average less educated than the other socialist workers, which has meant fewer opportunities for upwards social mobility than the rest of the population, and their socio-economic situation has worsened more than that of other parts of the population.

This is the overall trend in Central and Eastern Europe. It is, however, important to mention that not all Roma were sedentarised – there are still Roma communities that live a pre-sedentary way of life, and not all the areas where Roma were sedentarised became segregated after ’89. It is a highly heterogeneous community, and a heterogeneous phenomenon: in every country and every city you have somewhat different patterns.

So a great number of Roma, who used to have a secure workplace prior to 1989, have found themselves without jobs in a new economy?

Yes, but the same happened to their higher-skilled colleagues as well. However, if you have developed skills, you have better chances to find a new job, even under new economic conditions, while a low-skilled worker’s situation will be very tough in a new economy. This is the reason why the disparity between Roma and non-Roma citizens in these countries has been growing in the last few decades. The segregation that we see now in such places as the Ferentari neighbourhood in Bucharest or the Fakulteta quarter in Sofia, are largely the products of de-industrialisation, and the associated pauperisation process: as many of the people living in these neighbourhoods were Roma who lost their jobs with the closure of factories, they were trapped in these locations without any hope for social or geographical mobility.

To what extent was the situation of the Roma different in the cities of Western Europe?

In Western Europe, there was no state socialism, but nevertheless there were also sedentarisation processes. In 1968 the so-called ‘Caravan Sites Act’ in the UK was the first state law that required all vagrant people to be sedentarised into caravan sites. At the time, there were lots of people in the United Kingdom who didn’t have the chance to have an apartment and were thus traveling around in caravans. But the 1968 Caravan Act basically criminalised nomadism.

Just a year later, the Council of Europe drafted its own recommendation on ‘Gypsies and other Travellers[2], which contained a high degree of ambivalence: on the one hand, it was benevolently aimed at giving these people services, but on the other hand it also put the blame on “gypsies and other travellers” – which could refer to a number of diverse groups, who have only their perceived nomadic lifestyle in common –, implying that their behaviour is problematic, as due to their specific lifestyle they do not send their children to school. The reason for this ambivalence has to be found in the expert knowledge of the time on nomadism: during the 1960s and 1970s there was a heated debate in the UK, France, and Italy about who ‘Gypsies’[3], Roma, and Travellers are. The prevalent theory was that their nomadism was a socio-psychological abnormality that was intrinsic in being a ‘Gypsy’.

So the Roma – who just a few decades before were being interned in Nazi and fascist camps around Europe, were made targets of human experiments, were exterminated in large numbers during Nazism and Fascism – were again largely subject to a new form of profiling. Of course, the new expert knowledge didn’t have the exact same assumptions as the Nazis, but the shift hasn’t been substantial: the essence of the idea that being a Roma is in itself deviant has persisted. Before it was racial and biological; later it became social and psychological.

Did the authorities at the time believe that if they force Roma to settle down, they will become like ‘regular’ Germans, French, or Brits?

Not necessarily. On the one hand, they wanted them to become more sedentary, but on the other hand, they also didn’t want them to lose the typical lifestyle of the “colourful gypsy”. This, in turn, has led to the ambivalent effort of incorporating them by keeping them outside, through the creation of the campsite. You have to know that these camps or parking sites are always in badly connected places of the cities, near railways or garbage dumps, thereby creating a form of exclusionary inclusion. It is the ambivalence which is always there when we think about policies for the Roma, at least until the 1980s.

What changed towards the end of the 20th century?

Even though every country and every city was to some degree different, we can identify a trend during the 1990s. In many Western European countries, except maybe in the UK and France, a new common sense has evolved, based on the recognition that the camp policy didn’t actually work as much as governments thought it would. But even in countries like Italy where there has been a lot of thinking done around changing the policy, regarding the actual policies very little has changed. Very often the improvement only meant that a small number of families managed to get public housing, while many others continue to live under the bad conditions of the previous decades.

In the meantime, there has also been another trend: since the 1970 and 80s, the migration of the Roma from the East to the West has started. Roma families from the deprived areas of Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia started looking for jobs in the cities of Western Europe, primarily in Italy, and then due to language reasons in France and Spain, and later in Germany, Sweden, and the UK. Once there, some of the families ended up constructing precarious shelters near rivers and hidden areas of the cities, as this type of housing allowed them to live affordably, while also being close enough to the city to be able to find some occasional work.

The number of Eastern European Roma in Western Europe has increased significantly upon the EU enlargement of the late mid-2000s, because traveling became easier in the borderless EU, and thus many of them were hoping to send back some money to their families. This has, however, lead to significant backlash from some Western governments. In France, for example, where Roma who were constructing shelters outside the official welcoming areas were already required to pay high penalties, President Nicolas Sarkozy decided to expel more than 18,000 Romani people in 2009 and 2010.

But are there also good examples? Are there cities where Roma were integrated successfully?

It is hard to look at one case and say that it is a good example. If out of 100 families only one is lucky enough to get public housing, can we mention them as a good example? Or are they just exemplifying how bad the situation of the less fortunate majority is? I have done more than 10 years of research in four countries – Italy, Romania, France, and the UK – and I have never seen a policy that can be called truly successful. I saw only single families who, thanks to their capacities, their luck, and the contingencies that they encountered, managed to secure housing and jobs. And I have seen this happen only when Eastern European Roma families have been in Western Europe for at least two decades. It took one generation for this to happen. And we are talking about the early 2000s, when the job market and the housing situation was far from being as bad as it is today. In my work, I have studied not so much the impact of single policies, but tried to understand the logic behind the policy-making for marginalised Roma in Europe – both at the level of the EU, and the level of the Member States that I studied. The logic behind that is very peculiar, and it is rooted in the ambivalence that oscillates between assimilation – the extreme idea of “they should stop being Roma”, whatever that means – and the benevolent calling for respect and toleration for their culture and traditions. The policies are striving to provide both, and it doesn’t work; that’s what the statistics on the level of poverty and social exclusion of the Roma in Europe show. The amount of money and effort that has been spent so far doesn’t meet any of the expectations.

I believe that the reason why people and policies got stuck in these ambivalences is the very idea of difference that we have in Western Europe, which is rooted in colonialism. Colonialism has been the context in which we Western Europeans learned to define the other, the non-European, the non-self. During colonialism, the other has always been the non-white, thus our idea of difference is rooted in a racial idea of difference. And so far, in 2017, 70 years after the official end of colonialism, nobody in Western Europe has ever done any self-reflexive work to change this racial concept of difference. Thus, the idea of Western superiority remains vividly with us, when looking at the ‘other’; and this makes existing power relationships appear as a self-evident and objective necessity.

And the same idea is also adopted by Eastern Europeans?

Until 1989, Eastern Europe didn’t have a prevalent, hegemonic discourse of difference. Instead, it had a discourse of social justice, internationalism, women’s right, and equality – I don’t want to romanticise state socialism, and my aim is not to make a value judgement, I am just saying that there were different discourses at the time. After 1989, these countries had to come up with partially new categories to think about capitalist society. These were, among others, the categories of competition, profit, accumulation of capital, as well as difference, nationalism, and nativism.

Why is it that the city itself didn’t manage to provide opportunities for the Roma through its multicultural character and its proximity to jobs?

The short answer is the socialist legacy (the lack of opportunities due to being forced to do menial jobs), the long answer is that most Roma have been discriminated against since they are in Europe, so how do you expect that just by moving to the city and having proximity to workplaces, their situation would become better. If you want to understand why the Roma are discriminated against in the 21st century, just study their history. We know from the work of historians that the first 500 years of the Roma in Europe were only characterised by segregation, exclusion, and subjugation. Since the beginning of the 15th century, there have been large numbers of laws that have banned Roma from living in the territory where the majority lived, or excluded Roma from schools.

But cities are supposed to be more accepting towards difference.

I have a single example: this is Città Sant’Angelo, a very small municipality in Southern Italy, where perfect integration has taken place. The Roma, who live in this city since the 14th century, are recognised as Roma, and have as such become part of the social life of the municipality. There were historically situated circumstances for this to happen, and in big cities it is harder for this harmony to be created. But in order to understand the drivers, we need to do more research. And every city requires its own research, as it is very hard to generalise. In one city, the reason for marginalisation and segregation may be the lack of political interest, in another city, you will find the idea that segregating Roma in an “acceptable way” or putting them in “nice camps” is a good temporary solution.

The problem is, however, that temporary solutions often end up becoming permanent. So, sometimes you can even have very good intentions that have adverse effects: for example, when policy-makers in the UK say that they provide “Gypsies and Travellers” with camps in order to avoid conflicts with the majority populations, when they give them showers and washing machines, they might believe that they thereby achieve social cohesion. However, this reasoning can very easily be deconstructed and thereby we can show that it is completely false, because it is not cohesion but segregation that the policy creates.

So, one answer to the question of why policies for marginalised Roma don’t work – and this is pretty much generalisable – is that critical analyses of past policies are very rare. There are many policies that come with very good intentions and with enthusiasm that the idea is good, but there is very little analysis of the impact, and thus very little opportunity to make corrections.

And what about the involvement of the Roma? Do they have a say in the formation of these policies?

Not very often. But if you would do a critical analysis, you would immediately understand that when Roma were included in the policy making process, things happened better. I refer to this issue in one of my papers,[4] in which I give four recommendations on housing to policy-makers: first, stop deciding yourself what the difference is between Roma and non-Roma, let the Roma decide for themselves whether they want to be seen as different or not. The second is, look at the past, in order to understand what has and what has not worked. Third, design and implement integrated policies: if you want to improve housing conditions, you cannot do that without also tackling problems on the labour market, the education system, health care, and so on; and fourth, use all available European funding schemes that you can.


[1] This term is used in cultural anthropology to refer to the settling of a nomadic population, it was also used by various state apparatuses during socialism (and before).

[2] See the Recommandation 563 (1969) of the Consultative Assembly on the situation of Gypsies and other travellers in Europe.

[3] ‘Gypsy’ is used in inverted commas, as it is not a Romani word, and has in history often been used in a racist and offensive way to denote Romani people.

[4] See ‘Policy Logic and the Spatial Segregation of Roma in Europe’ published in 2013, by the Foundation of European Studies.

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