Exclusion and the European Project: Building Trust with Roma Communities

20 Jul, 2016 -

Note from the editor (Gonzalo): The Roma population in Europe suffers a particular pattern of discrimination that combines widespread marginalization with very little visibility. We have invited Ana Bracic, assistant professor in the department of Political Science at the University of Oklahoma and specialist in human rights and comparative politics, to discuss her research about trust between Roma and non-Roma.

In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, reports of hate crimes in the UK have increased five-fold. During the last two weeks in June, the police recorded 3,076 hate crimes in England and Wales, a dramatic rise over last year’s 915 incidents. The level of bigotry on display on the streets in Somerset, Huntingdon, and Walsall has been shocking for some. Others maintain that bigotry was always present, but better masked. What might be more shocking than open bigotry is the number and diversity of the people on the receiving end. EU citizens like Poles, Lithuanians, and Czechs are targeted; Pakistanis are targeted, Indians are targeted, as are refugees and other UK citizens of color. Make no mistake, shock and horror is an appropriate reaction. The reaction should be stronger still. But the dismay felt by many now also reveals something else precisely because it is new. When UK taxpayers were told that Brexit may be the only way to escape Romanian Roma (often derogatorily called “Gypsies”) gangsters who swindle millions of pounds in benefits, such dismay was rarely expressed.

For many Roma, maltreatment is unfortunately a fact of life. Historically, the Roma have been enslaved, forcibly assimilated, and subjected to genocide. Today, many Roma remain marginalized and face widespread discrimination in employment, education, and access to healthcare, housing, and social services. When political campaigns in Europe engage in scapegoating, the Roma are often the group of choice.

They have been called responsible for crime in Hungary, Italy, and Turkey, and described as a social burden in Slovakia and Romania. In the context of Brexit, taxpayers were warned that their money is spent building mansions in Romania and a town square in Slovakia. A cynical observer might say that such scapegoating is used because it works, incensing those who are predisposed to agree with it, and being treated as noise by the rest. Very few actually seem to get upset on behalf of the Roma.

The Brexit campaigns have mentioned limiting Roma immigration, but this is not a new idea; Sarkozy massively deported Roma from France in 2010, and Hollande did the same in 2012. In 2001, UK immigration officials stationed at the Prague airport prevented Czech Roma from boarding flights to the UK. Entire Romani settlements have been razed in Italy, while local leaders in Romania, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia have all built walls to separate Romani communities from other town residents.

Needless to say, deportation of Roma is unacceptable from a human rights standpoint. It’s a noxious act that suggests racism is ok, and preferred, and viable. It also suggests that sending the Roma back to places they’ve fled because of discrimination is not problematic. But the goal of a pluralistic society isn’t expelling minorities; it is sustainable inclusion—a goal mocked by refusing entry to the Roma who seek a better life and massively deporting or segregating those who have made it across the border.

Instead, nations, regions, and localities should promote inclusive community building, and that includes individual behavior. Addressing individual bigotry will not, of course, end systemic racism and ethnic discrimination; other steps are necessary as well. Without addressing individual behavior, however, systemic inequalities persist. A bigoted official who refuses to help a Roma person apply for personal documents, for example, helps perpetuate systemic discrimination. A nurse who physically abuses a Roma woman in labor does the same, as does a mayor who offers to pay a town resident for spraying a Roma settlement with manure. In eliminating systemic discrimination, individuals matter.

So how do we get non-Roma to include Roma? In a recent study, I explore one possible way of reducing discriminatory behavior by non-Roma: NGO-led promotion of intergroup contact and dialogue. I looked at whether non-Roma discriminate against Roma in two very similar towns in Slovenia. In one (Murska Sobota), a strong local Roma NGO promotes inclusion by promoting positive interactions between Roma and non-Roma, often in the context of cultural events. In the other (Novo mesto), Roma NGO action instead focuses on providing socio-economic aid to the resident Roma. I compared the behavior of non-Roma in these two towns.

To measure discrimination against the Roma, I asked a random sample of non-Roma from each location to play a trust game with another partner, who was either Roma or non-Roma. The trust game is played with a small amount of money (6 euros) that is nonetheless significant to the participants. Using this game to measure discrimination has at least two advantages. First, it measures discrimination in a game context without asking direct questions, which is useful because when asked, non-Roma may not openly admit to being bigoted. Second, the trust game takes advantage of the stereotype that the Roma are cheaters and thieves. Getting the most out of the game requires trusting your partner with your 6 euros. I wanted to see if—following the stereotype—non-Roma were more likely to trust their non-Roma partners with their money, compared to their Roma partners. You can read more about the game rules here.

I found that in the town where Roma NGO action focuses on providing socio-economic aid to the Roma, non-Roma trusted Roma significantly less than they trusted other non-Roma. In the town where Roma NGO action bridges the ethnic divide, and where intergroup interactions and dialogue are more important, non-Roma treated both groups equally. Positive contact between Roma and non-Roma is therefore related to a lower level of discriminatory behavior by non-Roma.

What are the implications of this finding? First, to achieve sustainable inclusion, we need more dialogue and positive intergroup contact. Attempts to limit contact, either through segregation or deportation of Roma, will not get us there. Second, national and international efforts (see the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies) against systemic discrimination are crucial, but not enough—both towns in my study are governed by Slovenian and EU laws prohibiting discrimination, but individuals still make choices, and those choices matter in day to day life for non-Roma and Roma alike. Both approaches are necessary. Brexit-related proposals like deportation are utterly incompatible with the goal of sustainable inclusion, but so is day-to-day discrimination against marginalized groups. We should take the dismay that hate-speech on the street has prompted and use it to push for real, sustainable change, at the level of the individual and the state alike.