Are refugees in Europe the new Roma?

By | January 23, 2017

As I watch the Syrian refugees, I wonder whether they are the new Roma (Gypsies). As a Roma myself, the Syrians trapped at borders or wandering through Europe, isolated in camps, cooking over improvised campfires, sleeping in the streets or train stations, look eerily familiar. Like the Roma, they risk becoming Europe’s unwanted—even more so after recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Berlin. The increased fear of terrorism and instability are invoked as reasons to further reject the refugees. But these are merely excuses and here’s why: As Roma we have known this sense of otherness for centuries and it is in fact Europe’s inability to recognize its history of immigration and difference that makes it so difficult to accept waves of refugees. While Europe’s attitude toward the upcoming refugees is not so welcoming (with perhaps the exception of Germany under the leadership of Angela Merkel who is becoming more insular), this is how the Roma, a population of about twelve million, have always been treated. The Roma oppression culminated with the Holocaust, when Roma—along with Jews, gays, and others—were singled out for persecution. The Roma ancestors left India’s Punjabi region about a thousand years ago in search of a better future. But to this day in most of the European countries, many Roma still endure conditions similar to those of the newly arrived refugees. Similar to the Roma, Syrian refugees face violence at the hands of police and other state authorities and remain at the mercy of international aid organizations and nation-states. Roma are frequently scapegoated for Europe’s problems just as the Syrian refugees are scapegoated each new act of terrorism. Syrians are told to go home (as if that were a safe choice) just as the Roma are still asked to go back to India, as if they had just arrived in Europe and were not also European citizens. Unlike the Roma, who trickled into Europe over a period of some three hundred years, today’s refugees are arriving much faster, leading to a major humanitarian crisis and an unenthusiastic call for “global responsibility.” Turkey has absorbed more than two million refugees and wants its European neighbors to accept more; some countries, like Germany have accepted hundreds of thousands of refugees; others like the United States, Canada, and Saudi Arabia, are doing little to help; still other countries claimed that they are too poor to help, marked Syrians’ skin to keep track of them or even discourage refugees from approaching their borders. Hungary, for example, blocked transit lines and forced refugees into camps with scarce resources. After the Paris attack things got even worse in terms of border control and public acceptance of the refugees. Most countries do not really want to deal with “them.” Treating the refugees as pawns on a chessboard comes as no surprise. We’ve often seen such attitudes against the Roma and other vulnerable groups. Calls for global responsibility are in fact nothing but a global disavowal of responsibility! Certainly, absorbing a large mass of people of different cultures and religions practically overnight poses challenges. But confusing the victims with the aggressors is not a solution. The refugees are escaping the same terror those in Paris or Berlin have recently experienced. Europeans should make this distinction and solve this complex puzzle—or more trouble can be anticipated. With little help and many uncertainties, where can these refugees turn when they no longer feel safe in their home countries? Or, in the case of the Roma who have no nation of their own, where can they go when there is no place to call home? Refugees’ future needs to be considered. The lens through which the refugees are seen now will define their legal and social status for a long time. Otherwise, pushed to the margins of societies, they risk falling into systemically inferior positions—living under conventions, rules, and regulations that alienate them from society. For too long, this has been true for the Roma. That was the case with my Roma grandfather who could never reach the same status as other Romanian citizens, even though he had lived in Romania all his life—as did many Roma generations before him. That was also my case: Growing up in Romania as a Roma, I never felt like I fully belonged. With Roma and other minorities striving to be integrated at the heart of the continent, and with Syrian refugees pressing at its borders, Europe is at a crossroads. It must have the vision to look beyond its current wounds and fears and foresee itself more than a union of “homogeneous cultures,” thus excluding “different cultures” that don’t fit neatly into its historical and national narratives. Europeans should envision “inclusion” as the core value of the “new Europe,” a continent open to the “domestic and foreign other.” Europe will be unable to solve its current refugee challenge until it accepts “the other”—people like its Roma, Jewish, Muslim, and LGBTQ residents who for various reasons have continued to be demonized as hopelessly different, dangerous, or unassimilable. If Europe (and the world) fails to embrace these differences, the Roma’s past and present plight will become the Syrian refugees’ future.