Thursday, May 20, 2010

Gypsy Thieves

Fair Trade
Fair Trade, Helsinki, 2003

With the sunshine and the heat, the Roma of South-Eastern Europe are with us again, begging on their knees on the streets of Helsinki. This intrusion of abject misery into our Northern welfare state has disturbed many. When they first started arriving a few years ago, after Romania and Bulgaria entered the EU, they made pretty good money—Finns aren't used to seeing really dirt-poor people begging, and many of us have softer hearts than it appears from the outside.

Eventually, it turned out that some of the begging was professionally organized, with higher-ups busing in the beggars, supplying them with tents, pans, blankets, and even crutches and other stuff to make them look even more miserable, and, of course, siphoning off most of the money they made. Some of the beggars—or people who came with them—turned to petty larceny; pickpocketing became a regular occurrence rather than an exotic rarity, some were caught shoplifting or breaking and entering, and we encountered people first pushing flowers on us and then demanding money in somewhat aggressive ways.

Last year, one bunch figured out a loophole in our legal system: they discovered that if they showed up and applied for political asylum, they would be provided with housing and pocket money until the applications were processed (and denied; we don't grant political asylum to citizens of EU countries), which took as much as a few months.

Things went downhill fast from there. I hear that most of them now make no more than 5-10 euros per day begging (although I'll be damned if I can imagine how the journalist who quoted that figure verified it), while supplementing that by collecting bottles and returning them to shops. They've also been yelled at, spat on, and had their begging bowls kicked over.

We have a problem.

The problem isn't that we have a few dozen—or even a few hundred—Roma beggars (and pickpockets) working the streets of Helsinki. That's a minor inconvenience. The problem is that supposedly the most advanced part of the world—and not just materially—has a million people stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty and deprivation. That's not just a problem. It's an outrage.

The Roma are the most unfortunate ethnic group in Europe. Most European countries have at least a small minority. They've been here for at least 500 years, and have had to deal with institutionalized racism that's as bad as anything any other group has ever encountered throughout most of that time. Hitler tried to wipe them out along with the Jews, gays, and Communists (and the didn't get any compensation for that, to speak of). A few hundred years ago, many cities had ordinances that had Gypsies hanged without trial if they entered city limits.

Things have not improved a great deal, and in many countries, they've gotten worse. Industrialization killed their traditional forms of livelihood as migrant agricultural labor, horse-traders, and artisans, without diluting the racism they face should they try to work in more conventional jobs or doing much at all to give them the infrastructure and access to education that mainstream society enjoys.

The upshot is that the Roma—especially so in Southern Europe, but also, although to a somewhat lesser extent, in the rich and supposedly egalitarian North—are locked in a vicious circle of deprivation and misery. In the Balkans, they have lousy schools or no schools at all, lack of basic civil infrastructure, the police can beat them up or burn down their camps with impunity, and the prejudice they face makes it as good as impossible for them to enter the mainstream, should they even try. It's hardly surprising that most of them don't, and instead many stick to honing survival strategies on the basis of "whatever works."

So here they are, on our streets, rather than Bucharest's. It's kinda telling that a fair bunch preferred to stay here during last winter, which was cold and snowy, rather than going back there.

What to do about it?

First off, let's get a few things straight.

I have no time for any approach that only intends to get them off the streets of Helsinki. There are initiatives to ban street begging here. The Roma have been hit with similar restrictions, sometimes overt, sometimes indirect, usually informal—rules that only get enforced if you look Roma. They don't work, and they're wrong. Anything we do has got to address the structural problems the Roma face. If fewer of them turn to begging and larceny and we get inconvenienced less, that's a side benefit.

Only the Roma themselves can break the cycle of misery that brings them here. It would be naive, not to mention paternalistic, to pretend that we, or anyone else, can somehow magically fix things for them.

Yes, it's our problem too. We admitted their home countries into the EU, and we had full knowledge of the way they treat the Roma. Now we're dealing with the consequences of that choice. Some of these consequences we'll like. Others not so much. We can't just pick the raisins out of the bun. Romania's problems are now our problems too.

While we can't solve the problems of the Roma for the Roma, we can—and should—do something about the conditions that make the problems as good as impossible to solve.

However, these kinds of problems are very tricky to address. It's very easy to err on the side of idiot compassion on the one hand, or viciousness on the other. I don't think it's a great idea to give the  beggars money; that will only maintain the structures that keep them begging, and there's a good chance that the money won't even go to them. Nor do I think that we should give the ones who turn to petty crime or exploitation of our social security system a free pass on the grounds that they're miserable and deprived. Nor do I think that we should expect any immediate results from whatever it is we do; problems that take 500 years to develop won't get solved overnight. Whatever anyone does, it'll take a long time to sort itself out. Those Roma beggars will be with us for the duration, and all of us will just have to deal with them. Perhaps we can use a little reminder that not everyone has it as good as we do.

There are some things that I think we ought to try, though. Some of them look like sticks, others look like carrots. I think we'll need both, and neither will work quickly, if at all.

Put serious pressure on their countries of origin to address the institutionalized racism the Roma have to face. We may have admitted them, but they submitted the application, and we should take human rights very seriously. If Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and the rest want to be EU members, they'll have to treat their minorities fairly, whether they want to or not. The EU has a quite a bit of power, if it only wants to use it.  If we don't want to use it for something like this, then what is it there for? Bailing out banks?

Divert some EU funds for a Roma infrastructure bank. Say, we could take just a tiny slice of our agricultural subsidies—or a big slice, as far as I'm concerned—and use that money to fund basic infrastructure—both physical and immaterial—in Roma towns and villages in the EU. We're talking pretty simple stuff here: roads, plumbing, electricity, streetlights, healthcare, phones and other communication networks, Internet access, libraries, schools, teachers, and so on and so forth. And no, we shouldn't expect quick results. In fact, I'd expect that much of the infrastructure will get wrecked as soon as it gets built, that there will be problems maintaining it, and so on and so forth, but I also believe that if we just keep rebuilding it, eventually it'll stay up. There will be people in those villages who want to see improvements like this. If it starts happening and keeps happening, they will gain in influence, and mores will slowly change.

Create employment opportunities. As far as jobs go, street begging or collecting bottles has got to be one of the worst ones out there. Surely we can think of something better for them to do. Many of the Roma beggars interviewed in our media have said that they're looking for work. Of course, that's what they would say to a nosy interviewer, but I'm prepared to take them at their word. There's plenty of stuff that needs doing here, and that wouldn't be all that expensive to do—cleaning parks, shoveling snow, cutting brush by the roadsides, picking mushrooms, and so on and so forth. I would not do this as "positive discrimination"—the jobs would have to be open to anyone willing to do them. However, I don't see any problem with marketing them specifically to the Roma who show up here. Some of the money for this could come from the EU fund above; some we should provide from our own pockets—dealing with consequences, again. I know, this would have all kinds of knock-on effects, but I'm quite sure it would hurt Finns less than it would help Roma, which would make it a net positive.

Work with them, both here and there. We have to get boots on the ground. We have to talk with them, get to know them, to figure out what might work and what probably won't.

Stick with it. This will take time. We're talking generations. Some improvements will be visible relatively quickly, but real structural change is slow, unless it's a collapse—and the Roma have nowhere to collapse to.

And yes, we should fix our own society as well. While their situation is nowhere near as hopeless as their consanguinaries in the Balkans, the Roma in Finland experience discrimination and racism too—certainly more so than, say, blacks in the USA. The one option we don't have is just keeping on with business as usual—not for any compelling political or economic or social reason, but for a moral one. The way we're treating the Roma is wrong. We must change that, and stick with it, no matter how long it takes for things to change.


  1. Sounds like a cultural clash, and a severe one. You've outlined a lot of positive approaches to address it, and it's quite reasonable that some or a combination of all might well work. But I think, as you mention, you have to recognize that you can only do your side. One wonders why this cultural and ethnic group has retained its outsider status in so many countries and over so many centuries. IOW, is something perhaps working for them in being who they are and not assimilating into what would appear to be more advantaged cultures?

    Do you feel they are willing to assimilate but it's just impossible because of racial profiling and prejudice, or is it a conscious choice to retain their own separate identity, even at the price they appear to pay through others' eyes? Either way, of course, they shouldn't have to suffer for it by being treated less than fairly, but it seems like it would be much harder for the larger society to 'fix' the problem if both sides aren't looking for a mutually comprehensible solution.

    Obviously, I'm in a poor position to judge the facts on the local street, but I ask because so many other ethnic and racial groups seem able to eventually integrate themselves into diverse cultures, or at least carve out a functioning enclave for themselves, even those with histories of racial persecution.

  2. I think they're two sides of the same coin. For hundreds of years, the doors really were shut for them, much worse than even for the Jews, who were at least allowed to live within city limits and practice a limited range of trades. Over the course of that time, I think that marginality became a component of their identity—a kind of sour grapes effect of rejecting what they can't have. If that's the case, that's the part only they can change. However, it'll never change unless we create the conditions where changing it is a more viable option than not, and right now, those conditions don't exist.

    (A small disclaimer—things are significantly better for the Roma in Finland. They're a very long way from truly equal; for example, I cannot imagine that a Roma could get elected President here. However, they're not completely shut out of mainstream professions and society, and a good many of them do choose that path, and even the worst case conditions for them aren't anywhere near as bad as in South-Eastern Europe. But we too have a long way to go before we have any real authority to lecture people on racism and human rights.)

  3. Seems like a good sign that if when given the opportunity for a mainstream lifestyle, they are taking advantage of it. There's definitely a resistance to imposed outside rules that don't fit well in a lot of smaller ethnic groups. The example I'm thinking of is the difficulties Native Americans have had here in trying to retain some vestiges of their original culture in the face of a totally overpowering, and in this case, cruelly and ruthlessly imposed outside order. There's no doubt assimilating into the larger white world might be materially more beneficial to them, yet there is so much justifiable bitterness and also powerlessness, that it's a very heavy lift for a lot of people. They are definitely still struggling with all that today, a century or more later. Despite a change in philosophy and practice in the mainstream white culture around them that has begun to recognize and redress the inequalities, some wrongs are very difficult to make up for, especially in the short term. And in the case of the Roma, you're talking a great many more years of such stuff to overcome.

    But you're entirely correct in that you have to start somewhere, and as soon as possible. Hopefully,judging from the history of tolerance in Northern Europe, there will be plenty of societal support for all the things that need to happen.

  4. We're actually not all that tolerant. We like to think we are, but it's not really true. The Nordic countries are still very homogeneous, and it's easy to be tolerant if you never actually encounter anything to tolerate. So it ain't gonna be easy.