Begging, criminality, prostitution – these are the terms the mainstream German media most commonly apply to the subject of poverty-driven migration from eastern and southeastern Europe to the rich western EU. Usually the immigrants are members of Europe’s biggest minority, the Roma.
From the tabloid daily Bild to the conservative FAZ and the alternative Tageszeitung, reports have made reference to dark-haired women in headscarves with a sleeping child on their laps. They entreat strangers with pleading eyes, begging for money in city centers. The papers talk of “trafficking networks” that bring entire “Roma gangs” into the country to beg, steal or prostitute themselves on the orders of Roma bosses, the “Gypsy kings,” who meanwhile stay back home in Romania or Bulgaria, accumulating huge piles of wealth.
The politicians have got in on the act too. “Anyone abusing the right of free movement should actively be denied it,” said Germany’s conservative interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich. At a meeting of EU justice and interior ministers he promptly went on to block Bulgaria and Romania’s entry into the Schengen Zone, originally scheduled for Jan. 1, 2014. There are in fact some good reasons to be critical of the two former communist states that joined the EU in 2007. Observers speak of rampant corruption, a poorly functioning judiciary and flawed crime-fighting efforts. In addition, the fledgling EU members have failed to develop economically as hoped.
Bulgaria was and remains the poorest country in the EU. The average monthly income is €350, a kilogram of bread costs €0.78, a liter of milk more than €1. The monthly rent for a one-room apartment in the capital costs between €160 and €200. It’s little wonder that many dream of earning as much as the average German: €2,700 a month.
Immigration is in itself no longer a problematic subject in Germany. The largest economy in the EU domestic market is in urgent need of labor. Spaniards, Greeks, Poles, Hungarians and other Europeans from economically weaker parts of the EU have been arriving for a long time now. So what’s wrong with Bulgarians and Romanians?
It has nothing to do with the statistics. In 2011 only around 58,000 immigrants came to Germany from southeastern EU member states; 80 percent of those who arrived between 2007 and 2011 have been paying German tax and welfare contributions for a substantial period of time. Fears of a wave of cheap labor following the introduction of freedom of movement to Poland, the Czech Republic and the other new members have proven unfounded. Consequently immigration from two more EU member states shouldn’t pose a problem for the German labor market either.
When the Poles and the Czechs came, they didn’t bring beggars with them. As it is, the majority of immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania are neither poor nor members of the Roma minority. In those countries the Roma minority – worldwide estimates range from between two and 12 million – accounts for between 3 and 4 percent, and that’s likely the share they make up among the immigrants. However that 3 to 4 percent appear to be concentrated in specific urban areas.
New arrivals who’ve had little more than a few boards over their heads in the slums of eastern Europe are looking for cheap living space. That takes them to old, now de-industrialized, German manufacturing centers where’s there is a already a high rate of unemployment, low income and high welfare spending. The poorer towns and cities explains Germany’s Städtetag (German Association of Cities), are simply unable to pay for their upkeep. It is calling for financial help.
The immigration of Roma also arouses old European prejudices. Literary scholar Klaus-Michael Bogdal has just won the Leipzig Book Award for European Understanding. His book “Europe’s Invention of the Gypsies: A History of Cultural Violence” details, over 600 pages, how since the arrival of the first Roma 700 years ago, Europeans from Finland to Sicily have always talked about their new neighbors – but never with them.
The Roma – believed to have their origins in India – were regularly depicted as uncivilized, lazy primitive types living a day-to-day existence, frying hedgehogs and stealing babies. At best they were seen as gifted musicians, especially violinists.
According to Bogdal, that bears little relation to the real lives of todays immigrants. In his view, the Roma now making their way to the western EU nations are simply “the poorest of the poor, comparable with the indigenous people of Brazil now uprooted and streaming into the favelas.”
He says the poverty-stricken Roma have become a synonym for all eastern and southeastern Europeans, in whose poverty people in the West are simply uninterested.
Journalist Norbert Mappes-Niediek warns about the mass poverty that has befallen the transformation states in eastern Europe in the wake of the euro crisis. The 59 year-old has been reporting for more than 20 years from eastern and southeastern Europe. His book “Poor Roma, Evil Gypsies” recounts the history of the minority but is primarily a call to western Europe to finally pay heed to the impoverishment in its eastern member states. Mappes says, “It is a problem for Europe that a surgeon in Romania earns €300 a month, but ten times that amount in Germany.”
Indeed it’s not only the Roma minority who are living in poverty in Bulgaria and Romania, there are many others in eastern EU states too. In eastern Slovakia, a few kilometers from the European “Culture Capital” Kosice, 60 percent of all residents are without work. Of the Roma population, 90 percent are unemployed. Why does poverty affect eastern Europe’s Roma more than anyone else?
The communists had a policy of forced integration when it came to the Roma. They were usually given lowly jobs in large socialist enterprises. When those were shutdown as part of the post-1989 de-industrialization, the Roma were the first to lose their jobs. In addition most of them received no land during the era of re-privatization because they hadn’t owned anything in the first place. They settled instead on the edges of the cities and villages – precisely where the slums are found today.
It was a different story for Roma living in western Europe. Although there are poor, underprivileged members of the minority there too, the majority live inconspicuous, law-abiding lives. There are hardly any nomadic Gypsies left today, but the image of a peripatetic people endures as part of a the Roma image.
The minority has been depicted as a traveling folk since immigration began in the late Middle Ages. Indeed, in the past the Roma did move around simply because in many parts of French and German lands they were not permitted to settle. On the other hand, in an ironic historical twist, the Roma migrating from eastern Europe today are those whose ancestors were unable to live a nomadic lifestyle in the east because of their enslavement, a state of affairs, which persisted until the middle of the 19th century. It haunts them even today.
Poverty creates the kind of climate in which right-wing extremism and racism can thrive. For years the racist and xenophobic targeting of Roma in the newer EU member states has been documented, as have the social conditions in which most of them live. The “Decade of Roma Inclusion” that began in 2005 is a major attempt by 12 European countries to take joint action to counter it.
But the funds being made available aren’t only drying up; they’re often not even requested. The forms are too complicated for anyone with little education, so people are easily put off applying.
The Gypsy Kings are no exception. Michael Martens, now the correspondent for the FAZ newspaper in Istanbul, lived in eastern Europe for more than two decades and has written many articles on the Roma. He says although various hierarchies exist in the slums, there is hardly anyone actually capable of applying for EU funds, let alone creating a Europe-wide infrastructure of traffickers and beggars.
Meanwhile in Germany people are now not only talking about the poverty suffered by the Roma, but other eastern Europeans too. Now it’s not just social workers heading to the slums in eastern EU member states and the NGOs who have committed themselves to the protection of minorities, but the major media outlets too.
Politicians are also developing a more sophisticated approach. Local officials are protesting what they see as the German Interior Minister’s stigmatization of Bulgarian and Romanian EU citizens. They urged the government to facilitate the immigration process.
Germany’s president has also weighed in. Joachim Gauck stressed that there is no place for discrimination against Roma. He said the minority must be given the opportunity to live a humane existence, particularly in their own countries. “That is a challenge for us in Germany, but also in Europe. It is a European duty.”