Eastern European Roma: Between the Balkan Homeland and Western Promise

Since the expansion of the EU in 2007 thousands of Roma Gypsies have come to Germany. What will become of a minority that is not welcome anywhere?

Approximately eleven million Roma are currently in Europe, and every fourth European would rather have nothing to do with them. Their reputation is exceptionally bad; at the same time almost no other people have fired up the imagination of citizens like the “wild gypsies”. Since 2007 thousands of Eastern European Roma have been fleeing the Balkan ghettos for Germany. What will become of them?

The woman in the white blouse is just a footnote. Alicia mentions her in a half-sentence; she lowers her voice. “Do you see the woman there? I wanted to buy some clothes for my daughter. She won’t sell anything to me. She insults me and chases me away.” At the Dortmund Nordmarkt the sun is beaming down on the stands and the headscarves, the hubbub and the children running around. Alicia is standing in the playground with her sister-in-law and the children. They are Roma and they look like it; colourful skirts, headscarves and gold teeth. If they want to go shopping, it is a problem.

The woman in the white blouse is not the beginning of this story. This woman also has a story which can be explained with a few words: “Roma stole from her,” as Alicia puts it. This is a point which comes up pretty quickly. Because of this, and because the woman wants to protect her market stand and also because it is not quite clear who is to blame in this situation, Alicia’s daughter must look elsewhere. Alicia does not question whether the woman would refuse to serve Germans, if the thieves had been German. Especially not in Dortmund, a city where the Roma discussion is more explosive than anywhere else in Germany.

The foundation for this was set in January 2007, when the EU expanded and Romania and Bulgaria became new members, giving their citizens the right to free movement within the EU. In 2006 there were about 500 Romanians and Bulgarians registered in Dortmund, this number tripled in 2007 to 1,600. In 2013 the official figure was roughly 3,200; the true figure is probably much higher. The question of “why Dortmund?” is a mystery to the experts. “The immigrants cluster in very few cities in a short period of time” says Michael Schaefer from the National Association of German Sinti and Roma for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. “Individual municipalities like Dortmund and Duisburg are already overwhelmed by their difficult economic situations”.

Dortmund is economically weak, has a high unemployment rate and a strong right-wing scene. This, along with the vulnerable, impoverished and often illiterate Roma coming from the Balkans makes for a miserable combination. The reputation which their ethnicity carries does not improve things. Nobody expects their motherland to support them: The people there are happy they are gone.

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Even the Romanians Alicia and Rosa came with their families, but not from the Balkans. They came from the crisis-ridden Spain. “They told us it would be great here” recalls Alicia. “A safe country, good work.” The journey ended in one of the dilapidated Roma-houses in the ‘problem-area’ in the north of the city. Alicia only leaves the house when she goes shopping. How about an interview? “We are poor people, I have four children,” says Rosa. “What will you pay me for it?” Then she laughs: “No, it was just a joke, of course we can do that.” They both soon take pleasure in the conversation; since neither of them can speak German, they would otherwise not have a conversation with anyone.

Alicia and Rosa are genuinely Roma, unlike many other immigrants. Even then, the talk among the Roma immigrants is that many of the new arrivals are not Roma at all. Frank Merkel from the Caritas Integration Agency estimates that 50 percent are Roma. The rest are simply Romanian and Bulgarian. Legally, there is no difference. But from a societal point of view there is a big difference, according to Frank Merkel. “In that moment when they are perceived as Roma, even if they are not, there are massive prejudices which are completely socially acceptable. In their countries of origin the prejudices are often much more severe.”

Even today, in a supposedly politically correct and enlightened Europe, hostility towards gypsies differs from that directed towards other racial groups, and is often not taken seriously. These clichés are hardly based on personal experiences. In most European countries they are a disappearing minority which the majority of people have had nothing to do with. Are they really more criminal, more immoral and less easy to integrate than other people?

Above all the Roma are harder to define. They are different to most other ethnicities as the term ‘Roma’ encompasses countless different sub-groups who follow vastly different traditions in different countries. Furthermore, because of the fear of prejudice, they do not identify themselves as such. Some gypsies, like the German Sinti, have lived in the same area for over 600 years. They have been German citizens for generations and do not differ substantially from other Germans. Others, such as the Eastern European Roma were slaves until the 1800s and today live mainly in ghettos in the Balkans. The only thing they have in common is their history. Maybe it is not exotic enough, maybe too much blame is contained within this history to explain. The story is about farmers from India.

In the northeast of present-day India lie the roots of the Roma, who were previously a peasant people like many others – until 1000 AD when they were enslaved. Across Asia from one place to the next, they were imprisoned; any claims to their homeland have long since expired. Finally, some managed to escape, and struggled through the Balkans to Western Europe. This was the beginning of the misunderstanding: since nobody knows of their history and reason for eviction, they are considered vagrants, brothers of the devil, Turkish spies and more. It did not take long for the first persecutions to start.

In the following centuries, strong anti-Roma laws were introduced almost everywhere. The harshest laws were that Roma were often not allowed to settle in cities and were also not allowed to undertake any trade or craft. This forms the root of the stereotypical Roma professions such as entertainers, musicians and fortune tellers. The banishment caused poverty, the poverty caused criminality, and the criminality enraged the citizens and led to further rejection. A vicious circle which climaxed with the execution of between 500,000 and 1.5 million people during the Nazi era. However, this is just a footnote in the majority of books about the holocaust.

Around a thousand years of being at the bottom of society has left its mark. The situation in the Balkans is especially tricky, where the minority have fallen back into severe poverty after the fall of communism, and where nationalism breeds in ethnically mixed areas. No one wants to be considered a gypsy country. “At the moment it is certainly hardest for the Roma in Hungary,” says Frank Merkel from Caritas. “It is also not easy in Bulgaria and Romania.” So many flee to Western Europe, like Dortmund for example.

The day’s trade has come to an end at the Nordmarkt. Rosa and Alicia are sat in the shade at the playground; the sun burns hot on the pavement. As Rosa keeps the kids busy, Alicia tells her story.

Alicia’s childhood was short: She married illegally at 13, like many Romanian Roma girls. When the marriage became legally accepted, she emigrated to Malaga in Spain with her husband- that was 13 years ago. Her sister-in-law Rosa and her husband were already there. Spain was the starting point of their journey, and became like a second home; which, they think, was perhaps also their first home. “I miss Spain,” says Alicia. “The people are so warm-hearted and open, they were much less judgemental. Those were the good times.” She had a good job working in a nursery and as a trained interpreter (“mostly at the police station,” she says with a half-smile.). Alicia loves languages.

She does not understand why she finds German so difficult. The children try to explain it, but the language simply does not stay in her head. Romance languages are easier for her; Spanish obviously, and also Portuguese or Italian. She wants to see the world; whilst Rosa stayed in Malaga, Alicia went with her husband to South America- to Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia. She sold sweets on the train and her husband sold coconut at the roadside – that was a happy time. She returned only once to Romania, to apply for Romanian passports for her children who were born in South America. Rosa never returned there. Their origin only becomes important again much later: in 2007 with the expansion of the EU.

What has this expansion brought? Has it opened new opportunities to the Eastern European Roma? Or has it just reaffirmed the Balkan countries’ anti-Roma stance? “The countries were accepted too soon,” believes Michael Schaefer from the National Association of German Sinti and Roma. “The EU has missed the chance to push for better integration of minorities.” Now it must deal with the consequences.

There is also a lack of agreement regarding the necessary action to be taken: is broad governmental support for the Balkans the solution, or is integration in the newly emigrated-to lands more important? Even in a new country, many of the Roma cannot escape the poverty which they fled from in their homeland. “They flee from difficult circumstances, only to remain in them,” says Frank Merkel from Caritas. Currently only about 13 percent of immigrants in Germany are thought to be employed.

They have no regular employment – because they are barred from it. According to EU freedom of movement directives, until 2014 the travelling population are only permitted to work freelance, a damning condition in a foreign land. Many of those in need tide themselves over by working illegally, or they do what many seem to expect of them. “People always say: Gypsies, you’re all thieves,” says Alicia. “Of course there are some people that steal. They don’t have a choice. I would too, to feed my children. They’re more important to me than Germany is.” It is remarks like these that fuel the conversations down at the pub.

Alicia is lucky; her husband has found a job in construction. She herself went to the job centre a while ago: she is trained as a nursery teacher and wanted to know if she could do something with that. Permission denied. Only in 2014 will the Roma travellers be able to enter into fixed employment. Her sister-in-law Rosa is sceptical: “They told us the same thing three years ago. We didn’t get the permission then either.”

In the meantime all concerned are battling with a situation which is unacceptable to everyone. According to the newspaper FAZ, integration assistance alone costs the city of Dortmund around €1.1m for every 100 cases. “The authorities have no one to help them with these costs,” complains Frank Merkel. Any support is usually from local projects – like the new IRON Project founded by the Dortmund Planerladen community and town-building organisation.

Gamze Caliskan knows what it is like to be a foreigner. Her Turkish descendants moved to the Ruhr district in the seventies, admittedly they were not from the ghetto and were not illiterate, but, Caliskan says, she knows the feeling. The insecurity and the discrimination, in particular. Now she helps those in similarly difficult situations: as the leader of the project ‘Roma integration in the North of Dortmund’, known as IRON due to its German acronym, established in October 2012.

This community organisation is well situated in the middle of northern Dortmund, among kebab shops and internet cafés and not far from the area’s notorious run-down housing districts. Despite this, getting in contact with the Roma is no easy task: “Many have had bad experiences with the authorities,” explains Caliskan. “The Romanians especially are very afraid. The first question many of them ask is whether we are from the youth welfare office.” To win their trust, the IRON colleagues go into internet cafés all around the Nordmarkt, chat with the men there, invite them to a film evening, for instance. In doing this, Caliskan estimates, they will have made contact with between 150 and 200 Roma.

The list of challenges is long: “The immigrants have gaps in all areas,” according to the social workers. “Education, knowledge, language, financial problems.” The IRON staff help them with visits to government offices, with learning German or with doctor’s appointments. Most of the immigrants have no health insurance and so are turned away from doctor’s surgeries. And then there are the houses, often barely inhabitable: mould, no hot water, tiny rooms, with extended families living on top of each other. “For many it’s a last resort.”

Alicia and Rosa initially landed in one of these homes: “When we arrived, there was no hot water, everything was filthy,” Alicia explains. “The previous tenants had just thrown the rubbish out of the window, so the whole courtyard was full of rubbish.” The two of them sought legal advice. It quickly became clear that the landlord was in debt. Since then, the authorities have taken care of the building, there’s hot water, and the rubbish is gone. Rosa and Alicia are proud of their achievement.

But despite this, they don’t want to stay permanently. Not so much because of the poverty, but more because they feel uncomfortable here. Their oldest daughter, aged eleven, is bullied at school, “Gypsy, dirty gypsy”, are words that Alicia knows in German. At home, the daughter asks her mother not to wear Roma clothes any more, as it embarrasses her. Alicia refuses: the clothes are a part of her culture. She is afraid of her children forgetting something that is very important to her. At school her daughter often sits alone, doesn’t play, doesn’t speak. Alicia feels helpless: “What do I do?” The school recommends a psychologist.

There are immigration statistics – according to the Federal Statistics Office, 175,000 immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria came to Germany in 2012. But within this same statistic there is another number: 104,000 returned to their countries of origin that year, a figure which is rarely heard in discussions. It sells better to talk of the huge wave of immigrants. But Rosa and Alicia are not alone in their wish to leave. “Many go back,” says Gamze Caliskan. “The rate of return is very high,” confirms Michael Schaefer. Often they come, look and then move on. Because unlike most other migrants, for the Roma this is a problem they have experienced for thousands of years: “Wherever they go, they are a minority,” says Caliskan.

Rosa and Alicia too want to return to the Balkans. Back to Romania, “to our country”, says Rosa. What awaits them there, they don’t know. But they can at least try.



Alina Schwermer (Germany)

Studies / Works: Journalism and History

Speaks: German, English, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, a little Arabic and Portuguese

Europe is…a good place to be.


Edward Grice (England)

Studies: European and International Law (LL.M.Eur)

Speaks: English, German, Polish, Russian


Abigail Rees (England)

Studies: French & Linguistics

Speaks: English, French, German

Europe is… finding puns in different languages.

Author: Anja

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