HCAW Blog #7: A Safe Space for Roma in Europe

G. Bolton

While 2023 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the European Union, the next few years are likely to be some of the most difficult in the bloc’s history. One of the greatest challenges posed comes from the rise of populist politics. Putting the national agenda first, populism simultaneously appeals to ‘the people’ – those who identify as and are accepted by the masses – while also constructing indeterminable ‘others’. Doing so poses a serious question as much for the EU as indeed it does individual nation states: what do we do about the ‘others’, those who fall outside any prescribed national identity due to their race, ethnicity or migration status among others?

My research focusses on one such ethnic group, Roma. Routinely excluded across a number of different national settings, I investigate experiences of ethnic Roma within the EU and their vulnerability to human trafficking from Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom. Against a backdrop of populist politics, I consider the effects of notions relating to ‘exclusion’ and ‘integration’ on their vulnerability to exploitation as well as the responsibility placed on nation states by the EU to integrate ethnic minorities. Not only has the exclusion of Roma from society made them more vulnerable to exploitation by criminal groups but so too has it made them more vulnerable to stereotyping, scapegoating and hate.

Encouraging Inclusion through EU Frameworks

The European Union’s fundamental values are respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law. Over the years, these values have been effectively projected throughout the EU via the carrot of EU funding and the stick of EU law. Whilst the European Social Fund has provided funding for social inclusion projects, these fundamental rights for EU citizens have been preserved legislatively by the European Convention of Human Rights and more recently the EU fundamental rights charter, which was entered into force by the Lisbon Treaty in 2009.

However, since the Lisbon Treaty’s strengthening of EU legislation, the proceeding years have seen crisis after crisis hitting the bloc which have made it more and more difficult for member states to toe the line between striving towards egalitarian EU values and furthering their own national interest. Events such as the global financial crisis, immigration crisis, and more recently the Coronavirus Pandemic, have caused states to become more inward facing and focus on “getting their own house in order”, sometimes at the expense of fundamental EU values, and thus at the expense of support for migrant integration efforts.

Push-Pull and Exploitation

Where nation states have failed to integrate Roma and other ethnic minorities, criminal enterprises have sought to take advantage of this position of vulnerability through recruitment of victims into human trafficking and modern slavery. Criminal organisations will offer the façade of something the state doesn’t, for example the prospect of a lucrative job offer in another EU nation and at first rely on the desperation and position of vulnerability of the victim as a method of control. Accordingly, these trends in human trafficking operate on a push-pull basis: events in one nation state act to push certain ethnic minorities away, while events in another act to pull migration towards them. Criminal organisations see the money to be made by leveraging this migration flow and thereby target certain migrants for exploitation.

An example of the potential for leveraging these push-pull factors can be seen in the recent anti-Roma protests in Hungary. On 29th May, groups of people including  neo-fascist group Mi Hazánk (Our Homeland) took to the streets of Budapest to protest “Gypsy Criminality” in response to the stabbing of two football fans in a fight between groups of young people. Despite the focus of the protests, media reporting at the time suggested that none of the people arrested for the stabbing were in fact Roma. Instead, observers fear that the far right hijacked the event as a means to spread its own anti-Roma ideology while at the same time creating fear among Hungary’s large Roma community. It is events like this which increase feelings of exclusion and vulnerability amongst the Roma population that may in turn make them more susceptible to exploitation and push them towards criminal groups who target them with the promise of something better elsewhere.

It is no surprise that historically, human trafficking can be traced from poorer source countries in which fewer economic opportunities exist to richer countries where there are more economic opportunities. These richer destination countries have historically offered other pull factors such as stronger social security and welfare state, along with the promise of a more inclusive society, however it can be questioned whether that is still the case as more and more nation states become more hostile towards Roma throughout the whole of Europe. 

A Shrinking Safe Space for Roma

Roma communities within the UK have grown steadily throughout the last few decades following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the expansion of the EU in 2004 and 2007. The total amount of Roma in the UK has been estimated between 80,000 and 300,000 (This is inherently difficult to measure due to the amount of Roma not recorded on the UK census). Despite the growth in Roma population, Anti-Roma attitudes have persisted; A 2015 YouGov poll showed 58% of the British public holding an infavourable view towards “Roma / Gypsies”. Since then, the Brexit vote has provided a platform for anti-immigration groups to contribute to anti-immigration rhetoric further. This prejudice against Roma has numerous measurable real-world effects on attainment in school, job opportunities and life chances. Where we have migration without integration, Roma and other migrant populations are more vulnerable to fall victim to human trafficking and exploitation by criminal organisations as they lack legitimate opportunities to succeed within society.

As European countries become more inwardly facing and immigration laws are tightened, criminal groups may no longer be able to rely on selling their victims the myth of a “better life” in Western Europe. Will this lead to less human trafficking? No, quite the contrary; as the “Safe Space” for vulnerable migrants in Europe continues to shrink, criminal groups will seek to take advantage of the lack of support mechanisms in place and Roma, along with other migrants, may in turn become more vulnerable to human trafficking.

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