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Roma Fleeing the E.U.’s ‘Broken Promises’ Seek Asylum in the U.S.

Roma communities in Central Europe hoped institutions would protect their rights once they joined the European Union. Now they’re disillusioned with Western Europe too.

<> on September 11, 2013 in Ponorata, Romania.
<> on September 11, 2013 in Ponorata, Romania.

American border control agents are used to dealing with people of many different nationalities crossing into the country from Mexico. But in the past couple of years, officials have noticed a slight but curious uptick in a specific group of European citizens claiming refugee status.

As nationalism and xenophobia grow in Europe, the number of Romanians entering the country claiming to be part of the persecuted Roma minority has also been steadily rising: Nearly 1,800 Romanians were apprehended through July this year, up from less than 400 in 2015. Almost all applied for asylum, citing fear of hate crimes and persistent discrimination that limits their opportunities in Europe.

Mark Endicott, a border control agent in San Diego, told Foreign Policy that the 731 Romanian newcomers who crossed the city’s patrol area this year were extremely easy to spot. Unlike many other nationalities who try to reach established smuggling networks, they didn’t try to elude U.S. patrols in the slightest.

“They just immediately look for a border control agent and flag them down and try to get apprehended so they can start their fear claim,” he said. “Almost all of them are claiming credible fear for asylum.” Most were women and children.

The surge in arrivals has roots in a long history of forced migration. The Roma, sometimes mistakenly called gypsies, a racist slur, are an ethnic minority found throughout Europe. Originally from India, they’ve endured segregation, persecution, disenfranchisement and evictions for centuries, often by the state, and many still live in abject poverty. Waves of Roma migrated to the U.S. throughout history, particularly around the early 20th century. 

The new influx is tiny in comparison, but a sign of increasing desperation with Europe’s inability or unwillingness to protect their rights, Roma activists say.

“At this moment, Roma are not welcome, migrants aren’t welcome, the environment is hostile and marked by violence, even in Western Europe,” Ethel Brooks, a professor at Rutgers and chair of the Board of European Roma Rights center, told FP. In some Romanian cities, it’s still common to encounter segregated public spaces and signs that read “no dogs or gypsies,” she said.  

Only a decade ago many Roma were hopeful that a move towards market capitalism, democratic elections, and freedom of movement would change attitudes and have an impact on their prospects, Zeljko Jovanovic, director of the Open Society Roma Initiatives Office, told FP.

Around 2003 and 2007, when Central European nations were in talks to join the EU, the possibility of membership acted as a carrot to push countries like Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria to start cleaning up their act. They were urged to shore up human rights, and implement new programs aimed at supporting and integrating Roma communities who often live in squalid conditions on the margins of society and are stereotyped as serial beggars or thieves.

But Jovanovic called this a “broken promise.”

“We have seen a huge change in the last couple of years for the worse.” he said. “When these countries joined the EU, they lost interest in implementing their policies.”

Some Roma, taking advantage of the EU’s freedom of movement policy, initially tried to move to Western Europe in search of jobs. But with Europe’s debt crisis, the Syrian refugee influx, and heightened fears of terrorist attacks whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment, and the climate for vulnerable populations became increasingly hostile in almost every country.

Over the past few years, Pew surveys have consistently found overwhelmingly negative feelings towards Roma across Europe. In 2016, they were seen much more unfavorably than Muslims and Jews in Italy, France, and Germany. 

Rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch continue to document systemic discrimination against Roma in EU countries. The U.S. State Department’s 2015 human rights report on Romania, the country where the recent crop of asylum-seekers is emigrating from, pointed out discrimination against Roma as “a major problem,” citing complaints of harassment and police brutality, denial of service in public places, school segregation, and inadequate health care, among other related problems. 

Nevertheless, gaining asylum status in the United States is notoriously difficult, and there is no U.S. or United Nations policy specifically classifying Roma as meeting refugee criteria. Brooks has seen some Romani asylum claims succeed in the United States, but “they have to give a lot of evidence and it’s a long shot.” She worries that U.S. policy might be moving towards classifying them as economic migrants because they are poor and their countries are not at war.

Jovanovic said it would be a mistake to label Roma as migrating only for economic reasons.

“Roma have been poor in Europe for many centuries,” he said. “The main issue is that they don’t have any hope anymore.” He added that the EU has funds designated to promote Roma welfare, but believes they aren’t being used effectively.

“When we started some of the major initiatives on Roma rights in 2003 and 2004, we saw more political will and less money than we have today available for addressing the situation for Roma” in Europe, he said. “We don’t have a scarcity of resources, we have a scarcity of political will.”

Experts say the United States is a destination in part because it is seen as more open, a country where Roma can easily blend in and go under the radar. Most Americans aren’t even aware Roma is a persecuted ethnic minority or that the word “gypsy” is a pejorative.

Of course, the United States has its own problems with minorities  —  as this election cycle has clearly shown. Even if they manage to gain residency in America, Roma often still deal with racism and exclusion depending on where they move, especially if they have darker skin.

Photo credit: SEAN GALLUP/Getty Images

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