Roma and the double standards of European migration

NOT IN MY BACKYARD! Equal Rights until they show up.

The last decade’s enlargement of the EU has given the right to work and travel freely in the EU to millions in Eastern and Central Europe. Accordingly, millions of Romanians and Bulgarians have taken advantage of this right and went to Western Europe in search of a better life. This has not been greeted with enthusiasm in some sections of the Western media. The expiration of working rights restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian citizens in 2014 was even less so. Last year, a fair number of Western European media outlets ran alerting headlines about an imminent ‘invasion'[1] of Romanians and Bulgarians, who would, supposedly, bankrupt the welfare state,[2] commit all sorts of heinous (petty) crime and even bring upon the UK a new form of super-resistant tuberculosis[3]. This sort of alarmist rhetoric has been present especially in the UK, where anti-immigration is tied with anti-EU sentiments, though other countries have went beyond rhetoric and adopted anti-immigration policies, such as Switzerland.[4]

by Mihai Rosu

edited by Mihai-Alexandru Ilioaia 

Even though the lifting of restrictions affect Romanian and Bulgarian citizens equally, Western media has been focusing mostly on Romanian migrants, in part because of the greater number of migrants from Romania overall and partly because it is easier for them to collect information on Romania compared to Bulgaria. In addition to these two reasons, a third factor undoubtedly plays a part in this focus on Romania: the seemingly ever closer association in the Western mind of ‘Roma’ and ‘Romania.’ Many of the Roma living in Western Europe come from places outside the EU, as well, notably the West Balkans, but it’s the fact that the Romanian and Bulgarian ones are legally that has thrown the media into frenzy. The British prime-minister, David Cameron, even penned an op-ed in the Financial Times called “Free movement within Europe needs to be less free”[5]. While it is true that Romania is home to the largest population of Roma ethnics in Europe, the conceptual entanglement most likely has more to do with the stereotype of the ‘Gypsy’ as the embodiment of backwardness and Balkanist[6] conceptions about Romania.

It is this conceptual association that causes the greatest reaction in Romanian media, whose strategy of choice in dealing with cases of foreign media accusing Romanian immigrants of anything bad is to shift the blame on to the ‘Gypsies.’ It is a sadly common occurrence, both in the press and in popular talk, to say that any wrongdoings committed by Romanian citizens abroad are not committed by ‘true’, ethnic Romanians, rather by ‘Țigani’ (Gypsies) and the reason ‘Westerners’ confuse Romanians and ‘Gypsies’ is because the official nomenclature of “Roma”, is too similar to “Romanian”.[7]

The case of Romulus Mailat illustrates this point: in 2007 a Romanian citizen of Roma descent, living in Italy is convicted by the Italian Courts of assaulting and murdering Giovanna Regianna, the wife of a high-ranking Italian Navy officer. While some Romanian and Italian news outlets simply referred to Mailat as a Romanian citizen, some made sure to mention that he was of Roma ethnicity,[8] with some Romanian newspapers going one step further to distance Romanians citizens from Mailat by calling him of ‘Rroma’[9] ethnicity.[10]Instead of looking at the socio-economic and institutional background of the crime, or questioning the effectiveness of Romanian judicial institutions to reform criminals (Mailat was from a poor background and had a history of delinquency since teenage years)[11]the media, popular opinion in general and the extreme right (most notably the Lega Nord in Italy and ‘Noua Dreaptă’ in Romania) saw this incident as a confirmation of the ‘Gypsy menace'[12], on the Italian side, and the need for stricter policing and differentiation between ‘Romanians’ and ‘Țigani’,[13]on the Romanian side.

From the point of view of the receiving states, the differentiation between Romanian and Roma, or Bulgarian and Roma matters for little, at least as far as authorities are concerned. From their point of view, the matter is not one of identity (at least not directly), it is a matter of security and finance (on the face of it). The French government has been carrying a much publicized campaign to dismantle Roma camps and ‘voluntarily’ repatriate the Roma to their country of origin, usually Romania and Bulgaria (with the German campaign being more discreet, for a change). These campaigns, sold as actions to eradicate vagrancy, criminality and as charitable campaigns to improve the physical and social condition of the ones targeted (especially the children)[14]are the logical conclusion of the welfare chauvinism that permeates much of the public discourse on immigration (basically, that only ‘our’ poor are ‘worthy poor’) – it segregates the lower classes from upper classes, physically, institutionally and socially.

This welfare chauvinism, criminalization of migration and anti-squatting campaigns are highly reminiscent of the way late medieval and early modern states in England and Germany dealt with the migrant poor.[15]Then as today, the ‘Gypsies’ were only one subcategory in a broad category of mobile poor, encompassing itinerant workers and merchants, beggars, madmen and thieves. Indeed, the situation of East European Roma in Western Europe seems like a particularly acute case of precariousness that is characteristic of all low-skilled migrants, with legal rights to move or otherwise, including most of the Bulgarians and Romanians that are so eager to distance themselves from their co-citizens.

Photo credit: Steve Parsons/PA Wire

Photo credit: Steve Parsons/PA Wire

An article that illustrates perfectly the sort of welfare chauvinism that permeates public discourse about migration was published in the Daily Mail[16] just before the New Year. It paraphrases at length a report about the impact of Bulgarian and Romanian immigration on local economies, authored by the University of Reading and commissioned by a group of local councils in south-east England.[17] The report concludes that, overall, this wave of immigration will likely be beneficial for the economy as most immigrants are young, do not usually bring their children with them, claim handouts in a much lower proportion than natives and their taxes pay for whatever social services they use. The warning is that on the short term new immigrants might stress educational and medical infrastructure. Although the article is consciously made to seem impartial by avoiding emotionally charged language and including the stories of two hard-working and ambitious immigrants, one Bulgarian and one Romanian (who also express their concern about the ‘quality’ of new immigrants from their respective countries), it focuses almost exclusively on the potential negatives aspects raised by the report while sidelining the main finding of the report, which is overwhelmingly positive. But the visual part of the article, the most attention grabbing part, is unequivocally negative and perpetuates the stereotype of Eastern Europe as poor and backward: it features images of shabbily-dressed old women and men carrying around garbage and loitering in parks.

The article presents even legal, tax-paying, highly qualified immigrants as a problem: they will lengthen the waiting list in hospitals, occupy places in schools, claim benefits and most importantly, displace white native workers in the job market (even though the report explicitly mentions that this will be a marginal phenomenon). The argument of the article all boils down to ‘foreigners will take our jobs and money’. The Daily Mail completely fails to mention that the new Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants will fill in complementary niches in the economy and that immigrants are completely within their right to use the same hospitals and schools and claim the same benefits as natives as the EU is founded on the principle of non-discrimination of second-country nationals. One wonders if whether the new migrants were Britons from other parts of the UK the tone of the article would have been so alarmist, if indeed if would have been considered news worthy at all.

This type of discourse harks back to the late medieval and early modern controversies about whether local communities have the right to reject and select newcomers and whether communities are responsible for support of the migrant poor. As Leo Lucassen[18] argues, what made the mobility of the lower classes a social and political problem was the question of who is responsible for poor relief and whether individual cities or sub-state authorities have the right to exclude new-comers from settling in their territory. The EU guarantees the right to travel and move through all member states, so local authorities do not have the right to exclude those whom they do not like. The problem of welfare support is less regulated on the EU level and national and local authorities have more discretion in this regard, but even then the principle of non-discrimination between second-country nationals and nationals limits their power to refuse benefits to migrants. This means that the only way for an EU state to get rid of undesirable second-country nationals, ‘Gypsies’ and otherwise, is by invoking exception clauses in the law, practically taking the repatriation of second-country nationals out of the legal realm and into extra-judicial territory, where limits on the exercise of violence are non-existent.[19]

Roma population in the Schengen Area. The expulsion of Roma from France.  Source:

Roma population in the Schengen Area. The expulsion of Roma from France.

This type of classism and racism makes affects not just politics the local or nation-state, but it proliferates into the supranational level as well. Most forcefully it has made its effects felt in the debate on whether Bulgaria and Romanian should be allowed into the Schengen group, which would abolish border controls between the two countries and the rest of the EU. The ‘Roma problem’ has been mentioned time and again by Western European politicians opposed to the two countries’ inclusion into the Schengen zone.[20] The specific issues mentioned were the Roma camps in France,[21] an issue which the Front National has utilized to great success in the latest municipal elections, and ‘welfare fraud’ in Germany. A recurring trope in this debacle is the pressure put by local governments to get rid of Roma camps, or to reduce the number of welfare recipients they have to host and support.

The problem is basically that of entrenched local communities who benefit from the structural racism and inequality promoted by national and international governments who have a sense of entitlement over the privileges they receive and the surrounding land they occupy. Their problem is that the appearance of the ‘unwashed masses’, be they ‘Gypsies’, Romanians, Bulgarians or whatever, challenge this entitlement and violates the symbolic boundaries they set up to justify their privilege. People feel pity and feel inspired to donate to charities for the suffering Others in distant lands, such as Africa or Asia, but when those suffering show up on the border of their town, seek employment and try to take advantage of their legal rights, they are no longer pitiable subjects worthy of their charity, they are a menace that threatens their very way of life in the most intimate manner possible.[22]

Nothing could be further from the raison d’être of EU’s freedom of movement plan than racial or ethnic double standards. A union that was supposed to assure that there could never be another war in Europe is seemingly unable to get over itself when it comes to blaming the poor, the foreign and the opressed for every ill, revealing a thriving pre-war attitude. Moving the blame on immigrants themselves for the failings of the state and businesses denies their right to a better life and their humanity and the way parts of the Western European media and political scene treat impoverished Eastern migrants, Roma in particular, a feeling so efficiently worded by David Cameron, shows that many would prefer the guiding principle of the European Union to change in something more akin to “Freedom of movement – but not for those who need it most!”.









[6]Maria Nikolaeva Todorova, Imagining the Balkans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

[7]Shannon Woodcock, “Romania and EUrope: Roma, Rroma and Ţigani as Sites for the Contestation of Ethno-National Identities,” Patterns of Prejudice 41, no. 5 (2007): 493–515, doi:10.1080/00313220701657294.


[9]The extra silent ‘r’ was put in place in the official denomination in 2000 precisely to avert any confusion between ‘Romanian’ and ‘Roma’.  The suggestion to add the extra ‘r’ was put forward by Romani representatives during the naming debates in the 90s (Woodcock 2007, 504). As most Romanians refuse to use Roma in everyday parlance and simply continue to use ‘Tigan’ (Gypsy), ‘Rroma’ has taken on derogatory nuance, becoming practically a thinly veiled politically correct way of saying ‘Tigan’ without running afoul of anti-discrimination laws. (Woodcock 2007, 504-508).



[12]The Gypsy “Menace”: Populism and the New Anti-Gypsy Politics (London: Hurst, 2012).

[13] for the Noua Dreapta protest see: and for the poster see: For a report in the media see:

[14] see Ayse Caglar and Sebastian Mehling, “Sites and Scales of the Law: Third-Country Nationals and the Roma,” in Enacting European Citizenship, ed. Engin F. Isin and Michael Saward (Cambridge University Press, 2013), 155–77.

[15]Leo Lucassen, “Between Hobbes and Locke. Gypsies and the Limits of the Modernization Paradigm,” Social History 33, no. 4 (November 2008): 423–41, doi:10.1080/03071020802410411.



[18]Lucassen, “Between Hobbes and Locke. Gypsies and the Limits of the Modernization Paradigm.”

[19]Caglar and Mehling, “Sites and Scales of the Law: Third-Country Nationals and the Roma.”

[20] for France see: and for Germany see:


[22]the phrase ‘NIMBY’ (Not In My BackYard), coined by US comedian George Carlin captures this mentality perfectly: