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Flooding the British labour market, plundering the social system, diffusing illicit drugs and fostering crime. With these headlines British tabloids have relaunched a racist-led media campaign against Roma. The timing is significant. The media campaign occurs just a few months before the entry of several eastern and central European countries – some of which contain large Romani populations – into the EU. The campaign was kick-started by ‘The Economist’ on January 15th when it ran an article on the likely impact of East Enlargement on immigration. Despite its sensational title, “The coming hordes”, ‘The Economist’ tempered fears that a new migratory movement from Eastern Europe could lead to a deterioration of the living conditions in the West. It concluded that the new immigrants from Eastern Europe “will still be valuable economically, because they are likely to contribute more in work than they take out in pay” and, in order “to make the best use” of the east-west migration, suggested to exclude short-term residents from social benefits.

“The Economist” already singled out East European Roma, which have then become the target of an overtly racist campaign in the tabloids. Accordingly, “the bigger worry for the rich-country governments concerns migrants in search for state benefits.” For those hard to understand it further explained: “Central Europe’s Roma minorities … are a particular case for concern.” The magazine refrained from suggesting concrete measures on how Romani people from Eastern Europe could be prevented from taking advantage of the British social system, but mentioned the former introduction of a visa regime with Slovakia as a positive example for tackling with immigration flows. In doing so, it made clear that it would be a good thing to keep the East European Roma out of the UK.

Not to be outdone, the British yellow press quickly jumped on the bandwagon. On January 18th, the Sunday Times announced that hundred thousands of East European Roma would only wait the day of Enlargement to move westwards. One later, ‘The Sun’ saw “tens of thousands of gipsies … poised to flock to Britain”. A day later, in the ‘Daily Express’, they had grown to 1,6 million “ready to flood in”. To give further credit to its argument, the ‘Express’ displayed a map of Europe with red arrows departing from the future new member states and ending in Great Britain. The arrows served to illustrate “the hordes of Gypsies” ready to assault the British islands.

Parts of the British press obviously seek to capitalise the strong popular scepticism over Eastwards enlargement. British support for the Enlargement is one of the lowest in the EU. Moreover they also play on deeply rooted anti-Roma prejudices and resentments. In Internet chat rooms users reacted with statements such as “we should now close our borders, enough is enough.” A Conservative MP from South East Cambridgeshire tabled a parliamentary question to the Deputy PM John Prescott where he expressed concern that his county might be “overwhelmed” by thousands of Roma.

The media reports fail to base their arguments on solid evidence: Even after 1 May, citizens from the new member states will not be able to move freely within the EU. The accession treaty foresees a transition period of seven years during which the old EU member states may keep their labour market closed for the new entrants. Several countries, such as Germany, Spain, France and Italy, have already announced that they will make use of these provisions. The Netherlands has stated that it intends to impose immigration quota for workers from the new member states.

Even though the British government has decided not to impose any restrictions on the labour immigration from new EU states, it is very unlikely that immigration from eastern Europe will have a significant impact on the British labour market. Indeed, there is ample scientific evidence which demonstrates that the propensity to move westwards is much lower as what is often alleged and that it may be well below the needs of the economy. Even among Roma, who have been the worst affected by economic decline and deterioration of the living conditions in Eastern Europe, the desire to move to the richer West is not as high as most tabloids would have us believe.

The assumption that the citizens in new member states may attempt to rely on the Western social welfare systems is also incorrect. Indeed, freedom of movement within the EU is provisional on either an economic activity or the existence of sufficient subsistence means. Put another way: immigrants are only accepted as long as they afford a country more benefits than costs.

These facts further underline the racist tendencies of the media campaign. At the beginning of the new millennium, Roma are still the most despised and hated ethnic minority in Europe. Hundred thousands of east European Roma have already settled in Western Europe long time ago taking advantage of the possibility to immigrate as so-called guest workers in the same way as did their non-Roma fellow citizens. This applies in particular for Roma from the Former Yugoslavia who could leave their country starting from the early 1960s. Others came to the West as asylum seekers, where they served as a welcome living proof to demonstrate the inhumane nature of the socialist regimes in Eastern Europe. Nobody perceived them as a threat; most of them went totally unnoticed as Roma, but were considered as ordinary citizens, which they are.

After the fall of Socialism, international bodies monitoring the Human Rights situation in Eastern Europe such as the OSCE, the Council of Europe as well as the European Commission have regularly highlighted the dramatic situation of the Roma minorities and the discrimination and racist violence they have been facing. Only last week a Council of Europe report on Bulgaria stressed out persisting “stereotypes, prejudices and discrimination against minority groups, particularly against Roma.” The report pointed out at the social and economic deprivation of the Roma communities and the segregation of Romani children in schools. It noticed as a particular concern “the excessive (!) use of firearms and force by the police against Roma”.

Despite this international acknowledgment of ongoing human rights violations against Roma, Romani asylum seekers from Eastern Europe have been systematically refused asylum in the EU. Several EU-member states maintained visa requirements for citizens from Eastern Europe or re-imposed visa regimes in particular on countries with large Roma communities such as Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

In October 1999, the Belgium government deported 74 Slovak Roma asylum seekers, for which it was later condemned by the European Court of Human Rights. In Summer 2001, the UK government established a “pre-clearance” of air passengers at the Prague airport, which served to single out Romani passengers and prevent them from boarding airplanes destined to the UK. Only recently the UK authorities again deported Romani asylum seekers from the Czech Republic.

Finally, thousands of Romani refugees from Kosovo and other parts of the Former Yugoslavia find their lives in a limbo, since they are neither granted a permanent residence status in Western Europe, nor able to return to their region of origin.

ERIO, the European Roma Information Office in Brussels, is calling on European policy makers to accept their responsibilities toward Europe’s largest transnational minority. The Roma’s claims for an end of discrimination and a life in dignity continue to be ignored. The forthcoming Eastern enlargement of the EU should be seen as a chance to finally find ways to tackle with the persisting discrimination and social exclusion of the Roma and improve their situation in both parts of Europe. It is high time to decide whether the new Europe will be based on respect, tolerance, and equal opportunities for all its citizens regardless of their social, cultural or ethnic origin. Or, whether this new Europe will become a two-class society, in which Roma remain at the bottom of the social ladder and continue to be excluded from the same rights that are naturally granted to the others.

For further information and/or interviews please contact:

European Roma Information Office, 17, Avenue Edouard Lacomblé, B - 1040 Brussels
Tel.: 00 32 2 733 34 62 Fax: 00 32 2 733 38 75

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