September 22, 2010 / 4:26 PM / 8 years ago

For Roma, few reasons to stay in Romania

CALVINI, Romania (Reuters) - Vasile Ursaru shows off his freshly painted and double glazed house in Romania and says his family heads for Spain next week because of economic necessity after he left France because he feared deportation.

A Romanian Roma woman shows how she was begging on the streets abroad as she sits on the steps of her unfinished house in Calvini village, 110 km (68 miles) north of Bucharest, September 21, 2010. France has deported more than 8,000 Roma since the start of the year, rounding up families in illegal camps and offering them a financial incentive to leave the country as part of an initiative by President Nicholas Sarkozy to tighten security. REUTERS/Radu Sigheti

France’s repatriation of Roma prompted one European Union official to recall the Nazis’ persecution of the group, overshadowed an EU summit and sparked a row between President Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany’s Angela Merkel.

“France ... made someone out of us,” said Ursaru, 49, surrounded by his wife and children at a Roma settlement in Calvini, an area on the edge of a town in the hills some two hours north of Bucharest.

“Romania did not help us with anything — if things had been going good for us here of course we wouldn’t have left in the first place,” Ursaru, who left to avoid being deported after being sent back from France in 2007, told Reuters.

In the bleak settlement, unemployed men stand at street corners chatting while women wash clothes and children play on muddy, unpaved streets.

Half the vehicles passing are horse-drawn carts and the roads are lined with half-finished houses with no running water or sewerage. Many cars have French and Spanish registrations.

“What can I do here?” asked Ursaru’s partner, Elena Banica.

“No one wants to give me a job and I am a mother of five. We are leaving for Spain on Tuesday. We stayed here for a week and can’t live here because we don’t have anything to live on.”

Cash earned in western Europe has undoubtedly improved living conditions in Calvini and many Roma will return, at least temporarily, as it is more lucrative than staying in Romania and gives them a chance to improve their lot here.

Ursaru, who does not have a job in Romania, came back from France about a week ago with his wife and three of their five children, after spending 10 months in a camp in Paris.


Typically, he earned 15 to 20 euros a day there from collecting scrap metal while his wife and children collected the same amount from begging. They also received more than 300 euros a month as an allowance for the children and free medicines.

“Everything was great in France. I took the kids every day and went begging,” said Banica. “The money we raised, we used it to build our house here that was close to collapse. Now we want to go to Spain to raise money ...”

Billionaire philanthropist George Soros has said that France must stop its “illegal” repatriation of Roma to eastern Europe and called on the Europe Union to provide funds to end the region’s “worst case of social exclusion.”

Soros, whose foundation has spent $150 million promoting the rights of the Roma, said governments in Europe had long turned a blind eye to the region’s more than 10 million Roma. One in five live in Romania, nearly 10 percent of the country’s population.

Centuries of discrimination have left the Roma as an “underclass” with poor access to education and jobs, Soros said, making them easy targets for right-wing politicians in Europe as the economic crisis and rising unemployment stirs discontent.

A lack of integration in countries like Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia pushes many Roma to leave, political analysts said. Many children fail to attend school and adults struggle to find jobs.

“In France we were booed, police gathered us from the streets when we went to sell the things we found ... But it was better there. Here no one would give us a job, we have nothing,” said Catalin, who declined to give a last name.

Some far-right political parties in eastern European nations are tapping anti-Roma sentiment, which rose in the recession.

Hungary’s Jobbik, which said Roma thought a threat to public safety should be placed in “public order protection” camps, entered parliament for the first time in April.


Standards of living for Roma are now worse than during communist rule and most of the general public are suspicious of them and some accuse them of causing crime, said Peter Kreko, an analyst at think-thank Political Capital in Hungary.

“There are some generations of Roma who grew up in a context where they don’t see any people who are working, are going to school, are doing anything the majority of the country regards as beneficial social activity,” Kreko said.

Governments could act to ease the situation, for example encouraging Roma to learn technical professions such as car mechanics, carpentry and electronics where countries like Hungary are lacking qualified workers, Kreko said.

Rob Kushen, executive director of the European Roma Rights Center, said deportations and media coverage may spur some nations to take more effective action to integrate Roma.

“Structural poverty and discrimination are the two reasons people are moving,” Kushen said. “There needs to be top level political will to ... create a program and fund it.”

France called on the European Commission to force Romania and Bulgaria to use their structural funds to settle Roma and denied that Paris was specifically targeting any ethnic group.


Many Roma believe there is no option in these recessionary times but to seek their fortunes in richer countries.

“Romania is the one to blame for us leaving because it won’t give us social aid,” Ursaru said. “All here in the village have built our houses with money from France and Spain.”

Vasile Codin, a 47-year-old Roma, says cash earned from collecting scrap metal in Spain paid for his house. He and nine relatives are going back this week and the next target is a car.

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“We are returning to Spain now because we want to buy a BMW for our family,” said his wife, Steluta Dumitru.

Soros called on French President Nicolas Sarkozy — who ordered the demolition of hundreds of illegal Roma camps in July — to halt a crackdown which he said clearly contravened EU legislation by targeting an ethnic group.

France has deported more than 8,000 Roma since the start of the year, suggesting some illegal camps were a breeding ground for crime. It has drawn a threat of sanctions from EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding and divided leaders within the bloc.

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