NEW YORK: The Roma have been persecuted across Europe for centuries. Now they face a form of discrimination unseen in Europe since World War II: group evictions and expulsions from several European democracies of men, women, and children on the grounds that they pose a threat to public order.
Last week, France began to carry out plans to expel all non-French Roma, implicating them as a group in criminal activity, without any legal process to determine whether individuals have committed any crime or pose a threat to public order. These French actions follow Italy’s “security package” of 2008, which described so-called “nomads” as a threat to national security and imposed emergency legislation leading to expulsions of non-Italian Roma.
Stopping criminal activity is a legitimate government concern. But the expulsion of EU citizens on the basis of ethnicity as a proxy for criminal activity is a violation of EU directives on racial discrimination and the right to move freely from one EU member-state to another.
Indeed, it is a firmly established legal principle that crime should be addressed by a determination of individual guilt before a court of law. Moreover, convicted criminals are not routinely deported if they are citizens of another EU member state. Instead, European law requires an individual determination that deportation is necessary and proportionate to the crime committed, as well as consideration of other circumstances (such as the strength of the individual’s ties to the community).
Of course, European societies should not tolerate criminality and anti-social behavior. But no ethnic group monopolizes such pathologies, and all people should be equal before the law. Since WWII, Europeans have found it unacceptable to subject any group to collective punishment or mass expulsion on the basis of ethnicity, so, in casting aside fundamental rights in the name of security, rounding up Roma sets a worrying precedent.
By contrast, the French government is right to call for measures to improve employment and development opportunities for Roma in their countries of origin (primarily Bulgaria and Romania in this case), which would reduce the incentives and pressure for them to move to other countries. In response to France’s position, the Swedish government also called for concerted EU action to foster Roma inclusion.
Roma want to and can integrate if they are given the opportunity, as my foundation’s programs have shown. Most Roma share the aspirations of the majority populations: a home with adequate services, a decent education for their children, jobs that enable them to provide for their families, and to interact with the majority in their society. It is because they face appalling discrimination and deprivation at home that they continue to migrate across Europe. The EU must recognize that the pan-European nature of this problem demands a comprehensive and effective strategy for Roma inclusion.
Primary responsibility for safeguarding the rights and well-being of all citizens lies with EU member states. Policies and programs to promote inclusion in employment, education, health care, and housing must be implemented at the local and national levels. But the EU has a vital role to motivate, coordinate, financially assist, and monitor such efforts through an EU-level plan.
In 2009, the EU endorsed the principle of “explicit but not exclusive targeting” for Roma, and the European Commission allowed structural funds to be used to cover housing interventions in favor of marginalized communities, with a particular focus on Roma. This is a welcome step and “explicit but not exclusive targeting” should be extended to education, health care, and employment. Most importantly, the rules guiding how structural funds are spent should be changed to allow their use for health and education from early childhood, rather than only for job training.
Structural poverty in Roma communities is intimately linked to poor education and unemployment. The Commission’s Europe 2020 initiative sets specific targets for raising school completion rates and employment levels for all EU citizens. In both of these areas, Roma fall so far behind their fellow citizens that targeted measures to close the gap should be an integral part of the Europe 2020 plan.
The greatest divide between the Roma and majority populations is not one of culture or lifestyle — as is so often portrayed by the media — but poverty and inequality. The divide is physical, not just mental. Segregated schooling is a barrier to integration and produces prejudice and failure. Segregated housing has led to huge shantytowns and settlements lacking sanitation and other basic conditions essential to a life with dignity. The plight of so many millions of Roma in the twenty-first century makes a mockery of European values and stains Europe’s conscience.
The plight of the Roma is not just a short-term security problem that can be addressed by draconian measures to move people forcibly from one member state to another. Not only does this undermine European values and legal principles, but it fails to address the root causes of the problem.
As Europe’s largest ethnic minority, Roma inside the EU comprise the youngest and fastest-growing demographic segment of the population. By 2020, for example, young Roma will make up one-third of the new entrants to the workforce in Hungary. Europe cannot afford another lost generation. This is a matter of human rights and basic values, and it is vital to peace and cohesion in societies across Europe.
George Soros is Chairman of Soros Fund Management. This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with Project Syndicate, www.project-syndicate.org.