Posts Tagged 'migration'

Outsiders looking in

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By Harry van Versendaal

It’s late winter 2016, at a makeshift cemetery for Muslim migrants on Lesvos, less than 10 nautical miles off the Turkish coast. An imam in a white hazmat suit reads a prayer as a 3-year-old girl who died of meningitis shortly after landing on the eastern Aegean island is laid to rest. A red excavator is on standby to cover her grave after the end of the short ritual.

“Logic has disappeared from this world,” says Dimitris, a local man, as he prunes the olive trees in his property right next to the burial site.

Europe’s refugee crisis has produced a rich, if uneven, crop of documentaries that promise to go beyond the voluminous albeit often superficial media coverage. “Citizen Xenos,” an independent full feature shot by promising 28-year-old Athens-based director Lucas Paleocrassas, may be short on data or sweeping revelations, but is big in directness and unprocessed emotion.

“We wanted to veer off the cliche themes that have recurred in so many other films about the issue,” Paleocrassas told Kathimerini English Edition about his movie which will screen at this year’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

Whether it’s the refugee family trying to put down roots on the island, the elderly woman and her granddaughter seeking family reunification in Germany, the Syrian-born activist catering for vulnerable newcomers, the teenage victim of jihadi persecution, or even the globe-trotting Dutch mercenary working as a security manager at a migrant facility, the existential condition remains the same: All feel unwanted outsiders, “xenoi.”

“The refugee crisis is the setting, but I want to focus on the characters. I am interested in the alienation of these people, in what they are going through, in how they grapple with the challenges of relocation and social integration,” Paleocrassas said.

Apart from exposing the refugee drama, the director hopes that such intimate, first-hand testimonies have the power to challenge people’s ingrained misconceptions about the situation.

“The testimonies are just too direct. It’s just not possible to stick to your sweet little narrative,” Paleocrassas said.

An estimated 1 million people fleeing Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries wrecked by war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa have poured into Greece in recent years in hope of moving to Northern Europe. More than 50,000 migrants and refugees remain stranded on the Aegean islands after the Europeans took action to halt the flow.

While shooting on Lesvos, the main entry point to Europe for migrants, the filmmaker spent considerable time at the notorious reception and processing center at Moria.

“Moria-by-night was a dystopian spectacle,” he says of the so-called hotspot which has reportedly degenerated into a breeding ground for criminal activity including human smuggling, drug trafficking and prostitution.

Paleocrassas witnessed the limitations of a dysfunctional state apparatus but also the commitment and generosity of small humanitarian groups and volunteers seeking to fill in the gaps. With the official structures of debt-wracked Greece bursting at the seams, refugees have often relied on the kindness of strangers.

With time, he also saw compassion fatigue set in. “In the beginning, people were handing out food, clothes and medical aid. They housed people in spare bedrooms. But as the problems remain unsolved, their patience is wearing thin. These days, you can see people guarding their chicken coops with rifles,” he said.

Produced by Valia Charalampidou, the film was made with help from Wemakeit, a Swiss-based crowdfunding platform. Shot mostly over 2015 and 2016, it ends with footage of trapped refugees at the now-defunct camp near the village of Idomeni on Greece’s northern border following the shutdown of the so-called Balkan route. The sprawling tent city became a symbol of human suffering and policy failure.

“How can you imagine they will smile when they see the white man in Europe?” asks the Dutch security officer struggling to impose some order on the chaos. “The wolf will come one time, and he will bite you.”

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Covering the refugee crisis: Rules of engagement

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By Harry van Versendaal

As soaked asylum seekers in the mud-choked tent city at Idomeni marched through the sprawling camp to protest the border shutdown by authorities in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), a rain-drenched Giorgos Moutafis followed them with his camera. Reports the following day said three Afghans were found dead, believed to have drowned when a group of about 20 refugees attempted to cross the Suha Reka river on the other side of the border.

Three days later, sitting inside a cozy and dry theater in the port city of Thessaloniki, about a one-and-a-half hour drive from the makeshift camp, Moutafis discussed the journalistic, moral but also psychological challenges of documenting the ongoing crisis.

“I often take photos and cry at the same time. It is impossible to remain uninvolved emotionally,” he said during a panel discussion on the sidelines of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF), which this year returned with a tribute to migration. Having repeatedly highlighted the subject in previous years, one got the impression that the 2016 TDF was saying, “Told you so.”

As the refugee crisis deepens and the death toll rises, professional reporters often find themselves putting the stringent non-engagement code of principle on the back burner. A photo published by AFP in November showed Moutafis assisting an injured woman lying on the seashore after arriving on Lesvos island.

“You have to tell the story. But you can only go as far as your limits. You have to live with your conscience,” he said.

Since entering the field in 2007, the 38-year-old photographer has covered several conflicts and humanitarian disasters in more than 20 countries for a number of respected international publications including Newsweek, Time, The Guardian and The New Yorker. Recent developments sent him closer to home. He has spent the past year shunting between Idomeni, Lesvos and Kos, the latter two being the eastern Aegean islands on the front line of Europe’s refugee crisis.

Moutafis has taken thousands of photos and shot many hours of video footage which he plans to use for a future documentary project. His pictures include dozens of bodies of drowned people that were found on Greek shores, often by him first. He is not apologetic about these images. Instead, he believes that disturbing shots can have a consciousness-shifting potential, or what is commonly called “shock value.”

“I believe in the power of the image. It’s time to shock people. It could be a way to prompt people into action,” he said, adding that pictures can and should be taken in a way that shows respect for the subject as well as the audience.

Since January 2014, some 1,161 people have died on the Aegean crossing, according to data compiled by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

“We must not allow ourselves to get used to the idea of people dying, we must not allow ourselves to grow immune to this spectacle,” he said.

The debate on the use of graphic images gained fresh intensity last year following the publication of a photograph depicting the tiny body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach, face down in the waves. Most newspapers chose to publish the image, although in some cases pixelated. The impact, at least in the short term, was evident as charities supporting migrants and refugees reported a significant increase in donations in the following days.

The iconic photograph was last month recreated by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who lay face down on a pebbled beach on Lesvos. Several critics found the gesture to be in bad taste. In another controversial stunt staged at Idomeni last week, the famous artist set up a white piano in the middle of a muddy field before inviting an aspiring Syrian pianist to play for the first time in years. A tent filled with an actual refugee family and a small campfire was set up next to the piano. Ai said that the act was more than a performance. It was “life itself” and showed that “art will overcome the war.” The artist held a plastic tarp over the pianist to protect her from the pouring rain as she played a rather basic melody. A small group of refugees watched in wonder. One witness criticized the stunt as “cheap and superficial.”

Although art can serve a very real purpose using its own idiosyncratic vocabulary, it is rarely held accountable for its effectiveness or historical accuracy. The media, on the other hand, have an obligation to stick to a more literal language.

“Pompous as it may sound, this is history in the making. As photographers we have a responsibility toward the historians of the future,” Moutafis said.

Dozens of journalists working for the world’s leading news agencies, including Reuters, The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Al Jazeera, have in recent weeks flocked to the frontier to cover developments with the help of computers, satellite vans and the latest trend in refugee coverage: drones. When not on duty, you will usually find the pack drying their feet and cleaning their equipment at Asimenia’s, a taverna-turned-media-hub – complete with brand-new Wi-Fi and plug extensions – in the nearby village of Plagia.

Back in the camp, refugees dogged by a shortage of food, medicine and drinking water await the outcome of a key European Union summit with Turkey in Brussels on Thursday. This is unlikely to go in their favor, at least in terms of lifting border restrictions for the more than 45,000 people now stranded in Greece.

In a desperate attempt earlier this week, about 2,000 refugees tried to find a way around the border fence in order to cross into FYROM. Up to 80 reporters, aid workers and volunteers were arrested by FYROM police during the attempt.

As he continues to document their fate, Moutafis remains sober about his part in all of this.

“Let’s not overestimate the photographers’ role here,” he said. “We are not doing anything special. The real heroes are the people living in the mud-bogged tents.”

Home and away: Andreas Koefoed talks about his film on plight of displaced children

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By Harry van Versendaal

Big shocks change perceptions, and Denmark’s decision earlier this year to confiscate valuables from asylum seekers hoping to find refuge on Danish territory caused some serious damage to the nation’s benevolent image.

However, as Andreas Koefoed’s latest documentary demonstrates, any absolute, black-and-white narrative must be treated with suspicion. “At Home in the World,” to be screened at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF), which opened Friday, tells a heartwarming, encouraging story from the same Nordic country.

Relying on an unobtrusive, fly-on-the-wall style, the 36-year-old director follows five non-native children attending a Red Cross school in Lynge while Danish authorities consider their families’ asylum claims. Denmark last year received 10,434 asylum applications.

Initial impressions can be deceiving. Unbending introversion or sudden outbursts of violent behavior suggest that the reasons that made these children and their families flee, the often treacherous journeys to safe territory and uncertainty about the future have resulted in profound psychological trauma.

Connecting these stories, which are documented over the course of a single school year, is Dorte, a committed and compassionate teacher whose presence and demeanor deconstructs another stereotype: that of the self-centered, robotic Northern European.

Born in Copenhagen, Koefoed graduated in documentary direction from the National Film School of Denmark in 2009. He holds a sociology degree from Copenhagen University too, where he also studied anthropology and political science. “At Home in the World” won the award for best mid-length film at the prestigious International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) 2015.

Koefoed spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about his movie, Europe’s response to the ongoing refugee crisis and mainstream media coverage of the situation.

What was your motive in making this film?

I wanted to understand what it’s like to be a child and a refugee. What it’s like to lose a home and be on the run and having to search for a place where you can feel safe – a possible new home. How do you face the challenges of everyday life, a new language, new people, new friends? And how do you deal with a troubled past and an uncertain future?

How conscious were the children of the situation they were in, in your view?

My understanding is that they know their present situation pretty well, the status of their case and so on. However, many of the children did not know why they had to flee, because their parents never told them. Not knowing your own story is difficult. You need it to create meaning in your life and to be able to engage in the present, to establish a new home.

How difficult was it to gain access and make this documentary? How difficult was it to become “invisible” and escape the attention of little kids?

It was not that difficult. The Red Cross in general and the head of the school in particular were very helpful and open. They normally do not allow journalists in because they have to protect the children. But they had confidence in my project and they felt they could benefit from the film in the sense that people could get an understanding of what they are doing there. The kids were very aware of the camera in the beginning, but slowly I became a part of the classroom and the kids lost interest and all the natural scenes would simply pop up.

Are you hoping the film will challenge mainstream Western perceptions of migrants and refugees?

Yes. I want to show that these kids are like other kids, but in a difficult situation. It seems to be such an obvious point, but because of the mainstream media’s and politicians’ representations of refugees they have become a stereotype with no personality and no face. You hear many refugee stories, but they are mostly presented by others, and as a result they are usually portrayed in a cliche manner. I also tell the kids’ story, but I try to take a step back and let the children come forward and let us into their lives.

Are you happy with the way Europe has responded to the ongoing refugee crisis?

I am not at all happy. I am disappointed that many countries, including my own, do not assume the responsibility that is needed, and that Europe as a whole hasn’t been able so far to solve it together.

What is your opinion of Denmark’s recent decision to allow authorities to confiscate valuables from refugees?

I think it is awful and completely unnecessary. I understand the point that if a refugee is wealthy then he can cover his own expenses, but I guess only a very small number of the refugees belong to this category. Taking a person’s valuables gives them the worst possible start for a new life in Denmark.

Do you agree with criticism of the so-called multicultural model adopted by Western European states? Is traditional Islam, in your view, compatible with Western, secular values?

I believe that there is room for all cultures within our societies. We have to make sure that young Muslims don’t get attracted to the radical groups by including them in society and letting them practice their beliefs and giving them an opportunity for a good life and a good career. If people feel accepted, respected and appreciated, they will also feel as a part of society.

Discipline and punish

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By Harry van Versendaal

A 16-year-old girl is locked up in a Croatian psychiatric hospital for being gay, teenage Iranian girls are incarcerated in a juvenile correctional facility for breaking the law, a Somali migrant is in detention in Finland until authorities decide upon his asylum claim.

Despite coming from very different directions, these three movies, to be screened at this year’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (March 11-20), all explore the territory between liberty and law, personal responsibility and social structure, punishment and rehabilitation.

Girl, interrupted

Directed by Hrvoje Mabic, “Sick” tells the story of Ana Dragicevic, who was sent by her parents to a mental institution at the age of 16 after she confessed to them that she was in love with a girl. Ana was admitted to the hospital in Lopaca, which was at the time run by Doctor Mirjana Vulin, after being purposefully misdiagnosed as a drug addict. Her purported treatment, which lasted about five years, included pills, injections, being forced to wear a straitjacket and solitary confinement.

Ana is now out of the ward, but her brain is still very much trapped. The treatment has left indelible scars on her psyche. She sees a therapist and receives medication to treat her PTSD symptoms. Despite her condition, she has found a loving partner, Matina, whom she plans to marry in Amsterdam soon. Matina is mostly quiet. She lights one cigarette after another. She looks worried and her patience appears to be wearing thin as Ana’s panic attacks and nightmare flashbacks keep returning. More frustrating for Matina, perhaps, her partner appears to be animated by hate, the will to take revenge on those responsible for her misery. She is suing her parents and the hospital director.

“They are the crazy ones, not the patients. I hope I’ll put that woman behind bars. My parents too. What goes around comes around,” Ana says as she watches a TV program about her case.

Disturbing pattern

Unlike Matina, the Iranian girls in Mehrdad Oskouei’s “Starless Dreams” seem more comfortable with the daily routine inside the correctional facility on the outskirts of Tehran than with life back home with their parents.

Oskouei, one of the country’s most prominent directors and screenwriters, is not as much interested in the magnitude of their crimes – which they reveal to the camera with disarming, often playful honesty – as he is in the social context that allowed them to happen. His interviews reveal a disturbing pattern of destroyed families, drug addiction, poverty and molestation.

Masoumeh has been sentenced to death. She explains how she, along with her sister and mother, killed her addict father because he was subjecting them to systematic beatings. Oskouei asks fellow inmate Khateneh if she still believes in God. “I’m not speaking to Him,” the girl tells him.

Conditions at the Tehran facility are in stark contrast to the inhumanity experienced by Ana in Croatia. The young girls spend their time chatting, playing volleyball, attending hair styling classes, singing, dancing and housekeeping. The walls protect them from the stresses of the free world.

“They will welcome me with chains and a beating,” one girl says of her family near the end of her sentence. A female warden warns another that once she’s left the premises, the authorities will no longer be responsible for what happens to her.

‘Small lines’

Others face detention away from home. Ahmed, the leading character in “I Am Dublin” made by David Aronowitsch, Ahmed Abdullahi, Anna Persson and Sharmarke Binyusuf, sees his own dream of a free life in wealthy Europe put on hold because of a legal technicality.

The Somali fled his war-torn country, crossing Sudan and Libya before boarding a boat to the Italian island of Lampedusa. There, he had his fingerprints collected which were then uploaded on Eurodac, Europe’s shared fingerprint database. After failing to fit in, Ahmed moved to Northern Europe, moving between Sweden and Finland as a clandestine migrant for six years. His requests for asylum in Sweden are turned down because he is what is known as a “Dublin case” – a person who has breached the European Union’s Dublin Regulation that obliges them to be deported to the first EU state they entered and seek asylum there.

“These small lines are destroying my life,” he says explaining how he tried to burn away his fingerprints. He re-enacts the painful trick, this time for the needs of a docudrama with him in the leading role, showing that he first scrubbed his fingers with sandpaper before dunking his hands into a sink filled with hydrochloric acid.

Freedom, or its promise, often come at a price.

The dubious politics of Fortress Europe

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By Harry van Versendaal

An estimated 800 people died on Sunday when a boat packed with migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe capsized near Libya. The disaster came a week after two other shipwrecks left some 450 people dead. Little will change as long as European politicians insist on blocking all existing legal ways of setting foot on the continent, claims a new book on the subject of the European Union’s immigration policy.

In “Border Merchants: Europe’s New Architecture of Surveillance” (published by Potamos), Apostolis Fotiadis, an Athens-based freelance investigative journalist, seeks to document a paradigm shift in Europe’s immigration policy away from search and rescue operations to all-out deterrence. The switch, the 36-year-old author argues, plays into the hands of the continent’s defense industry and is being facilitated by the not-so-transparent Brussels officialdom.

“Their solution to the immigration problem is that of constant management because this increases their ability to exploit it as a market. The defense industry would much rather see the protracted management of the problem than a final solution,” Fotiadis said in a recent interview with Kathimerini English Edition.

“Without a crisis there would be no need for emergency measures, no need for states to upgrade their surveillance and security systems,” he said.

Fotiadis claims the trend is facilitated by the revolving door between defense industry executives and the Brussels institutions, which means that conflict of interests is built right into EU policy.

“There is a certain habitat in which many people represent the institutions and at the same time express a philosophy about the common good,” he said.

The book documents the growing interest of Frontex, the EU’s external border agency, in purchasing drones to enhance its surveillance capabilities in the context of its unfolding Eurosur project. Eurosur, a surveillance and data-sharing system that first went into effect in late 2013, relies on satellite imagery and drones to detect migrant vessels at sea.

The author goes back to October 2011 to tell the story of how the Warsaw-based organization hosted and financed a show for companies dealing in aerial surveillance systems in Aktio, northwest Greece. That was, Fotiadis claims, where Greek officials for the first time pondered the idea of acquiring drone technology. Greece is expected to sign a deal later this year.

The European Commission has defended the agency’s moves, saying that it is within the legal obligations of Frontex to participate in the development of research relevant for the control and surveillance of the bloc’s external borders.

“What they are doing is not necessarily illegal. However, an entire network of institutions has been held hostage as they have installed a non-transparent mantle behind which they promote their own interests,” he said.

No magic recipe

Fotiadis researched the subject for three years. Access to information was not always easy, he says, as much of what is at stake is decided behind closed doors. Despite the interesting insights, Fotiadis’s gripping book does not offer possible ways out of Europe’s problem. The author holds that efforts to come up with foolproof solutions are in vain. There simply aren’t any.

“There is no specific reason why migration occurs. Hence, there is no magic recipe. It is a constant problem which requires constant adjustment. The point is to have a genuine debate on it – which you don’t have – so that you can carry out the right adjustments,” he said.

More than 1,750 migrants have perished in the Mediterranean since the start of 2015 as people try to escape violence in Syria, Iraq and Libya. The Italian-run Mare Nostrum, a 9-million-euro-per-month mission launched in the aftermath of the 2013 Lampedusa drownings was ditched because it was deemed costly and politically unpopular. It has been succeeded by a much more limited EU-led mission called Triton.

Although there are no magic solutions, the Europeans could nevertheless shoulder some of the blame for the trouble, Fotiadis says. “The EU’s foreign policy is a push factor. The nature of many of the ongoing crises has in part been influenced by decisions of European states,” he said.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy led calls to intervene in Libya in 2011, an idea that found backing among other European leaders, including British Prime Minister David Cameron.

“By no means wishing to defend authoritarian regimes, the current situation is not necessarily better than the previous one,” Fotiadis said, adding that Europeans made similar mistakes on Syria as they continued to arm and fund the rebels even after the situation there had spun out of control.

“Europe likes to present itself as part of the solution while it’s actually part of the problem,” he said.

Significant in the overall process, Fotiadis argues, is the willingness of the EU to gradually externalize its immigration controls, setting up screening centers in the countries of origin – a process which he saw at work in the wake of Sunday’s tragedy.

A 10-point action plan put forward by the European Commission and backed by EU foreign and interior ministers at a meeting in Luxembourg on Monday foresees the deployment of immigration liaison officers abroad to gather intelligence on migration flows and strengthen the role of EU delegations. The plan was set to be discussed at an emergency EU summit in Brussels late Thursday. However, according to a report in the Guardian, EU leaders were due to only allow 5,000 refugees to resettle in Europe, with the remainder set to be repatriated as irregular migrants.

‘Sinister bulwark’

The book focuses on Greece which, being part of the EU’s external frontier, has become a major gateway for undocumented migrants and asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East. More than 10,000 people arrived illegally in the first quarter of 2015, while the number is expected to reach 100,000 by the end of the year. Greece’s handling has been mostly awkward but Fotiadis is equally keen to point a finger at the hypocrisy amid the nation’s European partners.

“They want Greece to do the dirty work and, at the same time, criticize it for any human rights’ violations. They know very well what goes on here, but they keep sending funds to keep this sinister bulwark in place,” he said.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other groups have in the past accused Frontex of turning a blind eye to the torture, beating and systematic degradation of undocumented migrants.

Does debt-hit Greece have what it takes to deal with the problem? For one thing, Fotiadis argues, the country has never seen a proper debate on the issue of immigration while news coverage has been largely hijacked by populist and scaremongering media.

“The topic has been communicated in a hysterical, vulgar manner. When the discourse is that of ‘hordes of invading immigrants,’ there is inevitably very little room for a reasonable reaction,” he said. “Throw them in the sea or else they will eat us alive,” said the headline of an ultra-conservative tabloid published ahead of the interview.

Otherwise, Fotiadis believes, there is no reason Greece should not be able to set up some basic infrastructure to deal with the influx. He says that the number of immigrants and refugees received by the EU is in fact small compared to the more than 1.5 million refugees who have found shelter in Turkey due to civil war in Syria. Jordan is estimated to be home to over 1 million Syrian refugees, while one in every four people in Lebanon is a refugee. Meanwhile, the EU, one of the wealthiest regions of the world, with a combined population of over 500 million, last year took in less than 280,000 people.

“All that hysteria is a knee-jerk overreaction to an illusory version of reality,” he said.

As the death toll of people trying to reach Greece rises, Fotiadis was happy to see leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras call for greater European solidarity to deal with the problem and plead for “diplomatic initiatives” to help resolve the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Libya.

He also defends the leftist-led government’s controversial decision to shut down migrant detention facilities across the country, saying that its conservative predecessors had abused the legal detention limits. However, he argues the government should have been better prepared to deal with the consequences of that decision.

“As with many other issues, they were well-intended but ill-prepared,” he said.

Unwanted masses on the move

 

Photo by Natalia Tsoukala

 

By Harry van Versendaal

Unwanted: There is no better word to describe European attitudes toward Roma communities. As France began to flatten some 400 camps hosting Roma migrants and to deport more than 8,000 back to Central Europe, President Nicolas Sarkozy became the latest prominent European figure to personify the continent’s prejudices against those forcibly nomadic people, also known as gypsies.

With his ratings shredded by unpopular pension reforms and budget cuts – a recent poll found that 62 percent of French voters do not want Sarkozy to seek reelection in 2012 – the French president is after a scapegoat. He has done it before. Unrest five years ago in the Parisian banlieues, the troubled suburban housing projects, shook the nation’s perception of itself. Sarkozy’s tough response as interior minister was hailed by conservative voters and was crucial in propelling him to power. Therefore, it was no surprise when after the July riots on the outskirts of Grenoble, Sarkozy replayed the law-and-order card that won him the 2007 election.

“The recent acceleration of expulsions and the fact that expulsions have been made more visible is part of a refocus of French policies on security, and probably an attempt to win votes from the extreme right,” Sophie Kammerer, policy officer for the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), told Athens Plus.

Because the Roma people are widely associated with petty crime, pickpocketing and aggressive begging, a police clampdown has been mostly welcomed by urbanites increasingly worried about public safety.

Also, gypsies are poor. The large number of 86 percent of Europe’s Roma live below the poverty line. Ivan Ivanov, of the Brussels-based European Roma Information Office, thinks the Roma are being targeted because the French government does not want them to be a burden on the welfare system. Their lifestyle makes them particularly vulnerable. “As Roma come in large groups and tend to live together in barracks, under bridges and in parks, they are more visible and easier to target,” Ivanov, a human rights lawyer, told Athens Plus.

Numbering some 12 million, the dark-skinned Roma are the largest minority group in the European Union. Until the EU’s eastward expansion, most lived outside the contours of the bloc – mostly in Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Seen as originating from northwest India, their European history has been one of slavery and persecution. About half a million Roma are estimated to have perished in the Nazi Holocaust.

Despite European laws on free movement, the expulsions were, technically speaking, legal. Most of the Roma who have been deported are citizens of Romania. As an EU newcomer, Romania  is subject to an interim deal that limits their nationals stay in France to three months, unless they have a work or residence permit.

However, group deportations are restricted by EU law. European Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding originally attacked the Roma expulsions as an act of ethnic profiling and discrimination. “You cannot put a group of people out of a country except if each individual has misbehaved,” she said, drawing parallels to Vichy France’s treatment of Jews in the Second World War that made the French cry foul. Brussels, however, eventually decided to take legal action against France’s perceived failure to incorporate EU rules on free movement across the bloc – not on discrimination. Reding’s admission that there was “no legal proof” probably raised some malign smiles in the corridors of the Elysee.

Do as I do

The truth is France is not alone on this one. Denmark, Austria, Sweden, Belgium and, to a larger scale, Italy have also been deporting Roma immigrants. Apart from working toward stripping racism of any guilt in France – the proud home of liberte, egalite and fraternite – as well as in other nations, the clampdown by Sarkozy threatens to make the expulsion of unloved minorities official policy across the continent. “After France, other countries will try to deport Roma as well, citing all sorts of reasons but mainly the security issue,” Ivanov said. The campaign spells trouble for other minorities as well – if only for tactical reasons. “They might adopt such policies toward other minorities as well to avoid criticism that they are only targeting Roma,” Ivanov said.

Some critics say that there can be little progress unless it is first acknowledged that Roma not only suffer from but also cause problems. Writing for the Guardian, Ivo Petkovski said that higher crime rates among Roma may indeed be due to institutional as well as societal factors, such as poor education but integration into the mainstream “may mean letting go of some historical and cultural practices” – an issue often lost in the haze of political correctness.

It’s hard to disagree that a rigid patriarchal structure and controversial cultural habits, such as early or forced marriages and child labor, are out of tune with modern Western life. But the stereotype of the lawless nomads who want to keep themselves on the fringes of modern society is exaggerated.

“Let’s face it,” Ivanov said. “If the Roma have failed to integrate it is not because they do not want to. Who would choose to live in a miserable ghetto with no running water and infrastructure, such as normal roads, regular transport, shops, pharmacies and schools,” he said.

Integration is a two-way process. “Society should not wait for the Roma to integrate themselves and the Roma should not wait for society to integrate them,” Ivanov said. But although the Roma should follow the rules of mainstream society, he said, this should not take place at the price of their own culture, traditions, lifestyle and language. “Integration should not be confused with forced integration and assimilation. If they have to respect the culture and ethnic specificities of the mainstream society, theirs should be respected as well,” he said.

Kammerer agrees that, like every citizen, Roma have both rights and responsibilities. But the first step, she said, is to ensure that these people are able to fulfill these responsibilities. “If you argue that Roma parents should take responsibility for sending their children to school, you should first ensure that their children have access to school,” she said.

Blackboard politics

Empowerment is key. Roma hardly vote in elections. Education and training is the only way to offset centuries of abuse and exclusion and make sure that the Roma can integrate into the surrounding community and play a meaningful part in local life. “Without proper housing, healthcare or education, it is unsurprising that many people are forced to live a marginal lifestyle,” Nele Meyer, a Roma expert at Amnesty International, told Athens Plus.

Roma are often placed in schools for the mentally challenged – and many are not allowed to attend classes at all. Three primary schools in Thessaloniki, northern Greece, were recently shut down by parents protesting the presence of gypsy pupils in the classroom.

France has tried to persuade its eastern peers to do more to tackle the problem at home before it becomes a French problem. But it has found it hard to motivate their governments, particularly in a Europe without borders. Most rights activists, like Ivanov, are calling for a European Roma strategy. But Roma issues do not win elections – so it’s hard to see how national politicians will be persuaded.

Ivanov does not despair. He says it would be great to one day see Roma travel across the continent not as luckless nomads searching for a better life “but for pleasure, like any other European citizen.”


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