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Roma, on Move, Test Europe’s ‘Open Borders’

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<Nikolay Doychinov for The New York Times>
<Roma in the Romanian village of Barbulesti. The town’s mayor, Ion Cutitaru, 59, says he is the only Roma mayor in the country.>

Roma, on Move, Test Europe’s ‘Open Borders’

Published: September 16, 2010

This city is full of stark, Soviet-era housing blocks, and the grimmest among them — gray towers of one-room apartments with communal bathrooms and no hot water — are given over to the Roma population.

Roma like Maria Murariu, 62, who tends to her dying husband in a foul-smelling room no bigger than a jail cell. She has not found work in five years.

“There is not much for us in Romania,” she said recently, watching her husband sleep. “And now that we are in the European Union, we have the right to go to other countries. It is better there.”

Thousands of Romania’s Roma, also known as Gypsies, have come to a similar conclusion in recent years, heading for the relative wealth of Western Europe, and setting off a clash within the European Union over just how open its “open borders” are.

A summit meeting of European leaders on Thursday degenerated into open discord over how to handle the unwanted immigrants. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France vowed to keep dismantling immigrant camps and angrily rejected complaints from European Commission officials that the French authorities were illegally singling out Roma for deportation.

Migration within the 27 nations of the European Union has become a combustible issue during the economic downturn. The union’s latest expansion, which brought in the relatively poor nations of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007, has renewed concern that the poor, traveling far from home in search of work, will become a burden on wealthier countries. The migration of the Roma is also raising questions about the obligations of Romania and Bulgaria to fulfill promises they made when they joined the union. Romania, for instance, mapped out a strategy for helping the Roma, but financed little of it. Mr. Sarkozy has demanded that the Romanian government do more to aid the Roma at home.

Much of Western Europe has reacted with hostility to itinerant Roma, who often have little education or practical skills. Some Roma have found marginal jobs collecting scrap iron or painting houses. But others have signed up for welfare or drifted into begging and petty thievery, living in unsightly camp sites.

In recent weeks, Mr. Sarkozy has tried to revive his support on the political right by deporting thousands of them, offering 300 euros, about $392, to those who go home voluntarily, and bulldozing their encampments.

The European Commission has threatened legal action against Paris over the deportation, calling it disgraceful and illegal.

The dispute peaked at lunch Thursday between Mr. Sarkozy and Jos&eacute; Manuel Barroso, the president of the commission, the European Union’s executive body.

“There was a big argument — I could also say a scandal — between the president of the European Commission and the French president,” said the Bulgarian prime minister, Boyko Borisov, according to the Bulgarian daily Dnevnik.

Mr. Sarkozy denied a major rift, and remained unswayed. “We will continue to dismantle the illegal camps, whoever is there,” he said at a news conference. “Europe cannot close its eyes to illegal camps.”

Expulsions seem unlikely to offer a long-term solution. Many of the deported Roma are already planning their return.

Privately, some Romanian officials snicker over the French action. “They are just giving the Roma a paid vacation,” one official said.

Still, advocates for the Roma hope that the latest conflict will force the European Union to get serious about helping the Roma, who are openly reviled in most Eastern and Central European countries where they have lived in large numbers for centuries, most often under appalling conditions.

“There is nothing to focus the minds of policy makers like an army of poor people heading your way,” said Bernard Rorke, the director of Roma Initiatives for the nonprofit Open Society Foundation.

There is little reliable data on the Roma population. Originally from India, the Roma were virtual slaves until the 19th century, working for aristocrats and in monasteries.

When democracy took hold, they were freed. But they were landless, uneducated and dark-skinned, and they had few prospects.

Human rights activists say that Roma women are often sent to separate maternity wards. Their children, when they attend school, are frequently steered into classes for the mentally handicapped.

In Romania, one census counted 500,000 Roma. But some advocates say the number is closer to two million.

Those who make it out of abject poverty rarely admit their ancestry — a factor that makes it harder for Roma to combat the discrimination they face, advocates say.

In the years that Romania was negotiating to get into the European Union, it promised programs to help the Roma integrate into Romanian society.

But government officials concede that few materialized. “I think you will see the current administration do better,” said Ilie Dinca, the director of the Romanian National Agency for Roma.

Budget cutbacks have hurt the few successful efforts that exist. Hundreds of mediators hired to help the Roma get their children into school and receive health benefits have been fired recently.

“What you see here these days is terrible conditions,” said Nicolae Stoica, who runs Roma Access, an advocacy group. “They have no hope of getting jobs. If they get 20 euros a month from collecting scrap metal, that’s a lot. How can we tell them not to go to France and beg on the streets?”

Flortina Ghita, 21, said her family once lived in a building in the center of Constanta, Romania’s second largest city. But city officials evicted them, saying the buildings had structural damage. The family now lives in shacks made of carpets, scraps of corrugated tin and plastic sheeting set up not far from railroad tracks. The only source of water is a train station more than a mile away.

Mrs. Ghita said her family had been told to fill out forms to get housing, but no one can read. Her son, Sorim, 5, is not in school, she said, because she cannot afford the clothing, notebooks and class fees.

Still, the Ghita family was savvy enough about Europe. Mrs. Ghita had paperwork showing that her mother had been to Belgium for medical care. “Her sister lives there and she helped us,” Mrs. Ghita said.

Experts say the Roma population has been battered by a combination of factors. Crafts that once sustained them, such as making brass pots and shoeing horses, are now obsolete. Recent European regulations standardizing the sale of livestock pushed them out of one of their few remaining businesses because they could not handle the required paperwork.

Some aspects of Gypsy culture have not helped matters, experts say. It is a clannish, strongly patriarchal society where youngsters are pushed into early marriage and education has not been much valued.

Not all Roma are poor, however. In the village of Barbulesti, about 40 miles northeast of Bucharest, there are signs of success. The village is a bright cluster of mustard- and ketchup-colored houses, with gaudy turrets and ornate gutters, many still under construction.

The village has a Roma mayor, Ion Cutitaru, 59, the only one in the country, he says. He estimates that a third of the village’s 7,000 residents have moved to Western Europe. They look for work there, he says, but beg when they can find nothing else.

“They make do,” he said, “and then they come back and build their houses.”

Twenty-eight Roma residents from Barbulesti were recently expelled from France. Among them was Ionel Costache, 30, who said he would return to France in a week or two.

“My son, who had eye problems, he got a 7,000-euro operation there that he would never have gotten here. And when you don’t have work, you can still eat with their social assistance,” he said. “France is a much better place than Romania.”

<The New York Times>,2010/09/17