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A picture dated 19 August 2010 of Romanian Gypsies arriving at Bucharest Airport, Romania, after having accepted voluntary repatriation from France. 300 illegal camps have been dismantled in recent weeks by French authorities. Photo by EPA/BGNES

Persecuting Romanies won't solve Europe's biggest social problem. Education might

The Economist

Preaching to outsiders comes naturally to the European Union's leaders. They are comfortable castigating Iran for its abuse of human rights or America for its unequal society. They are less happy when outsiders point to their own shameful social problem: the conditions and treatment of the continent's 10m-plus Romani (or Gypsy) citizens.

On every social index, from income to life expectancy, from illiteracy to health, from criminality to child welfare, the Romanies do worse than any other European group. They are not just poor, but also persecuted. In some countries even allegations of forced sterilisation persist, amid official denials.

Until the European Union expanded eastwards, this was mostly a problem for eastern European countries. But many Romanies have since moved westwards, boosting the numbers of an ethnic group which is rarely welcomed. Rightly or wrongly, locals believe they bring with them dirt, crime, begging and squatter camps at beauty spots.

Some western European governments have a simple solution: deport them. Pioneered by Italy, that approach has now spread to France, which has sent some 8,000 Romani home to Romania and Bulgaria this year, in what it insists are mostly voluntary deportations, aided by cash resettlement grants. The policy is generally popular among voters.

It is also immoral and probably illegal. In July the French government ordered police to clear 300 illegal camps, "with priority" to the Roma ones. Imagine a government ordering that lawbreakers be rounded up "with blacks as a priority". The EU's justice commissioner, Viviane Reding, has rightly threatened to take legal action against France, which may lead to large and humiliating fines. It is a sad way to mark the middle of Europe's "Decade of Roma Inclusion".

The plight of Europe's Romanies is grave, but it is not hopeless. Given the opportunity they can thrive just like anyone else. Some are doing well in America. Aspects of their culture, such as purity codes that discourage dealing with outsiders, certainly hamper efforts to improve their lives. But a much bigger problem is the sense of despair and exclusion that makes going to school or seeking work seem a hopeless waste of time.

Reading, writing and Romanies

The place where the EU and member governments can break the cycle is education. Many Romani children attend school patchily if at all. Those figures are static or in some countries worsening: given the demography (Romani families are usually large), improving schooling is a matter of urgent European self-interest as well as of principle.

Integrating Romani children into mainstream education is going to be hard, given a history of humiliation in the classroom. A child who has never used indoor plumbing or seen a book is easily mocked. Many Romani parents believe their children should be earning, not learning. The cost of books and uniforms and the difficulty of getting to class are barriers, too. By the time formal school starts, at six or seven, it may be too late. Integration begins with good nursery education.

But experience in Romania suggests that Romanies can be persuaded to send their children to school, and that governments can help. A first step is to end the discrimination that persists in many countries—such as Slovakia, where 60% of children in special schools are Romani. Hot meals, food vouchers, subsidised shoes and uniforms and even making child-welfare payments conditional on attendance all help. Such measures cost little money. It's not cash that's needed, so much as ingenuity and willingness.

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Tags: Romania, Paris, Pierre Lellouche, Francois Fillon, Schengen, European Commission, ethnic Turks, Roberto Maroni, Italy, deportation, European Union, Roma, France, Bulgaria, Romania, Integration, European Commission, Viviane Reding, Romani, Romanis


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