No Country for Lazy Men: The German Fear of Social Parasites

The lifting of the labour market restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian nationals on the 1st of January paved the way for a somewhat hysterical, pan-European debate on the possible influx of so-called “poverty immigrants” from Eastern Europe. While inordinate attention was given to the United Kingdom, where the tabloids have turned the political issue of European integration into a racist, classist mud-fight with few redeeming qualities, other countries, Germany in particular, have also had backlashes to the newfound opportunities of Eastern Europeans.

The discussion seems to have become disproportionately about Roma, with the underlying assumption being made that all Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants are of Roma origin. Even though they are usually not spelled out as such, it is heavily implied by politicians and media that there will be a flood of Roma immigrants taking over Germany. [1]

According to top Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU), a deliberation has to exist on how to best make it more difficult for „poor newcomers” to claim state benefit. “We are not against well-trained and qualified immigrants,” CSU Secretary-General Andreas Scheuer noted, “but we do not want to and cannot solve social problems of other EU countries through German social security system”[2]. Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, is reportedly suffering from a lack of skilled labour and many of its sectors rely heavily on immigrant workforce, in areas raging from healthcare to construction. But its relatively generous social security system sparks fears of “benefit tourism”, with the perceived threat of citizens from poorer European countries relocating to Germany solely for making use of the welfare state advantages.

Abandoned slum in Berlin - inhabited by Romani people. by Nico Trinkhaus (sumfinity.com)

Abandoned slum in Berlin – inhabited by Romani people.
by Nico Trinkhaus http://sumfinity.com/copyright/

German politicians mainly worry about poverty immigration from Bulgaria and Romania, with an unusual emphasis being put on – sometimes even reduced to – the Roma. Indeed, in Germany the immigration of poorer EU neighbours is often described as a Roma problem, with issues ranging from overcrowded apartments at horrendous prices to issues involving raising children. Behind the veil of this generalist poverty immigration discussion is the real fear that numerous Roma people will come to Germany to take advantage of the welfare system. The obvious question that arises then, is why there are such strong feelings of rejection towards the Roma population in Germany and, indeed, in the entire Western Europe. Why is the idea of social parasites from Romania and Bulgaria directly linked to the Roma population? Are there any solid arguments for that or is it just pure, irrational prejudice against Romani people?

Looking for Data

If one searches for the reasons behind this antipathy, it soon becomes evident that there is in fact not a lot of official knowledge about the national minority of Roma. Generally, the Roma population are referred to in terms of two groups: German Roma, who are German-born and whose ancestors settled in Germany some time ago, and foreign Roma, who moved to the country in the last few decades. According to rough estimates, about 70.000 German Roma and Sinti[3] are living in Germany. This number is undoubtedly controversial, due to the lack of demographic and socioeconomic data. This can be explained through the fact that, partially due to the particularities of German history, it is illegal to collect data related to ethnicity. The estimates for foreign Roma are even less reliable.

Information pertaining to the number of Roma on the labour market can also be described as sketchy, as any statistical indications with regards to Roma people working less than other ethnic groups in Germany completely lacking. Despite the fact, these beliefs are being held as gospel truth by many members of the public, as well as publicly stated by officials.

Moreover, the German employment agency clarifies that, at the moment, there is no sign that would suggest the appearance of a so-called “poverty migration” from Romania and Bulgaria, Roma or otherwise. The latest political debate surrounding the issue touches upon whether the influx of immigrants benefits economic development or whether it poses a burden to the social system. Consequently, German weekly Die Zeit wrote that, while the regional differences are significant, more or less 80% of immigrants coming from Bulgaria and Romania are in jobs that require them to make social insurance contributions, rendering the claims of impending economic disaster that arrives with Eastern migrants as being fundamentally untrue.

The power of prejudices

If these worries about exploitation of the state are ungrounded in any sort of data, where do these assumptions come from and why does the image of the Roma continue to be such an unpleasant one in Germany?

Sadly, these beliefs are held in place by prejudices and stereotypes which have dominated the public perception of Roma for decades. For example, a study by Bielefeld University’s Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence[4] showed that Roma suffer discrimination in a plethora of areas, such as when trying to rent an apartment, in the workplace and in government agencies, contradicting the government’s position, which seems to ignore the existence of any sort of racism against Roma in Germany.

A young Roma girl in the Czech Republic; a victim of an education deficit and poverty | Photo: Martin Holík

A young Roma girl in the Czech Republic; a victim of an education deficit, poverty and lack of opportunities | Photo: Martin Holík

The University of Bielefeld’s research brought to light that 40% of Germans would prefer not to have Roma living in their neighbourhoods and more than a quarter of them said that Roma should “be banned from German city centres.” Likewise, almost half of respondents agreed with the claim that Roma have a tendency to engage in crime. Moreover, three-fourths of German Roma claimed to be frequently discriminated against on a daily basis.

The mental image of the Roma as being homogenous homeless nomads is widely spread within German society, an image that not only separates them from the majority of society but also from other minorities, with the eternal mantra of the “refusal to integrate” dominating discussions on the matter.

An ever-present catalyst that propagates this depiction is the German media, whose portrayal of Roma remains overwhelmingly negative, with cases of abject poverty or criminality being presented as definitory for the entire ethnicity.

The news media portrays Roma people in a negative light all across Europe [5] [6], treating them worse than any other ethnic groups, with stereotypical and prejudicial reporting, Germany being no exception to this practice. Most of the newspapers focus their attention on certain social behaviours of the most destitute of Roma, often suggesting that if a Romani person is responsible for a crime, this is not due to social conditions but a genetic trait[7], mirroring, centuries on, the beliefs of early Social Darwinism. This method of reporting condemns the viewer to perceive the issue as a collective identity problem, and not simply an individual one.

An Irrational Belief

It’s regrettable that at the beginning of the free movement of workers for Romania and Bulgaria these prejudices are fuelled and affirmed yet again. It is hard to believe that the European system of free travel and free labour, one that has been robust enough to survive a few decades and also one of the largest economic crises in history, can be defeated by a handful of Roma immigrants looking for a better life. Nonetheless, politicians from some of Europe’s top decision-makers (Germany, UK, France) seem to believe so, treating the migration of Roma as being inherently different from all the other population movements that define the European Union.

Thus the necessity of offering jobs and allowing for the integration of the Romani population is compounded by suspiciousness. Freedom of movement for workers is an essential part of European integration and Germany has benefited tremendously from that, making the incitement against foreigners and especially against the Romani population a superficial moral panic, without any sort of grounding in reality.

German companies have difficulties in finding qualified personnel, making immigrants very welcomed in the work force, an undeniable reality that renders talks of additional migration safeguards ridiculous. The building of walls around the border will work against Germany, rather than in its favour, and there’s nothing outside of silly old prejudices that should make Germans do so, their efforts would be much better spent in fighting stereotypes and work towards a better integration of immigrants.

 

Lisa Vierheilig is a student of Anthropology, currently finishing her Erasmus stage at ELTE university in Budapest. This article is a result of her internship at Romedia Foundation.