GLOBALCIT Review Symposium of The Fringes of Citizenship: Romani Minorities in Europe and Civic Marginalisation by Julija Sardelić


The stratification and the comparability of the Roma situation

Djordje Sredanovic, Université libre de Bruxelles

The Fringes of Citizenship adds to our understanding of the condition of Roma across Europe in a variety of ways that invite comment. The combination of analyses of general policies, specific discrimination cases, as well as the study of mobilisations and informal forms of resistance, gives an articulated reconstruction of the different forces that shape the rights (and lack thereof) of Roma. The author’s analysis is particularly interesting in showing how, along with the lack of positive measures and guarantees for the Roma, some of the measures taken in fact, create exclusion. In this contribution to the symposium, I focus on the book’s comparative dimension, on how it shows the potential for further comparative lines of analysis, and on the different forms of inequality presented.

The comparability of Roma experiences

One of Sardelić’s main approaches in her fascinating and wide-ranging analysis of the exclusion from citizenship rights of Roma in Europe is to compare their situation with those of Indigenous populations, in particular in Australia, Canada and the US, and of Black US citizens. The approach is a fruitful one: Roma are one of the few examples of a major, Europe-wide minority population that cannot be othered through the reference to a recent migratory history. The hypothesis about a remote origin in South Asia is not particularly relevant in the public discourse, which has more often marked Roma as ‘East European’ in West Europe, as part of a Romaphobic discourse that has increased Romaphobia in Central and Eastern Europe, for example in Romania (e.g. Woodcock 2007). As Sardelić observes, the unequal access to rights of Roma is mostly discussed in policy circles in relation to Central and Eastern Europe. This is partly because of the concentration of Roma in CEE countries. In addition to this, the condition of Roma in such countries has been examined more in depth at the various stages of EU candidacy, while the condition of Roma in Western Europe has attracted comparatively less attention. Sardelić contests such asymmetry, exploring discrimination against Roma both in CEE and Western Europe, as well as the discrimination against mobile Roma. A further point could be added to such approach. Discussions about minority rights in Europe are usually presented as moving from the West to the East, presenting Western European countries as early adopters, and CEE countries as lagging behind. However, CEE countries have been historically more consistent in ensuring some form of recognition of minorities, although with several ambiguities and outright tragedies. It has been Western Europe that has historically been the main locus of the national projects that denied any space to minority identities (cf. Hobsbawm 1990).

By placing the Roma case in a global perspective, Sardelić gives more insight into the meaning of Roma’s exclusion from citizenship and rights. Apart from Chapter 4, on statelessness (where the discussion is extended to Russian-speakers in the Baltic states, Haitians in the Dominican Republic and Rohingya in Myanmar), most of these comparisons are with English-speaking majority settler societies, in particular the US and Australia, but also Canada. Such comparisons are effective and extend the field of analysis of the Roma condition, which in the previous literature has been mostly conducted within the theoretical limits of the European context. The book also leaves the reader with the impression that extending the range of comparisons could bring further insight, both in terms of considering more diverse cases, and in terms of understanding what is comparable across the different experiences and what is more context dependent. A further potential line of comparison would be that between the experiences of Roma and those of ethnic groups in India who have been classified as nomadic. While keeping in mind the different legal, social, and historical contexts, studies of such groups in India show interesting similarities with the Roma. The fact that such ethnic groups are considered to have a nomadic lifestyle, or that they had it in the past, means that they are excluded from rights, such as access to land, which are based on norms of sedentarity. This despite the fact that the ethnic groups in question are very much sedentary (e.g. Pant 2005). While some literature has advanced comparisons focusing on the category of the ‘nomadic’ (e.g. Gilbert 2007), such similarities are to my knowledge still very underexplored.

Returning to Sardelić’s comparative analysis of statelessness there are some differences that can be identified in cases where citizens, and more generally populations with a legal status, are deprived of recognition by the state. On the one hand there are cases of deliberate mass disenfranchisement targeting specific groups, such as those cited by Sardelić, including Russian speakers in Estonia and Latvia, Haitians and Haitian-descendent in the Dominican Republic, or Rohingya in Myanmar (with the specificity in the latter case that, as Sardelić reconstructs, the disenfranchisement did not happen through legislation, but through the attribution of a lesser status and corresponding documentation). On the other hand, there are cases in which those losing their legal status do not exactly fall between the cracks but are rather the subject of wider hostile policies (which in some cases might not even have the victims as explicit targets) and of racialised discrimination. In this case the disenfranchisement seems less deliberate, or at least less systematic. This seems more likely to be the case in relation to the Windrush generation scandal, as well as to the stateless Roma in the Czech Republic and former Yugoslavia. The distinction is obviously complicated by the implementation dimension: actions to deprive status might not be explicit policy at the legislative level but may be pursued systematically by street-level bureaucrats, or even be policy at the administrative level. For example, ethnographic work in the Dominican Republic has shown how the wide-ranging withdrawal of legal status through the judiciary is amplified by practices of street-level bureaucrats that refuse to register for residence even the individuals who would have access to legal status under official policy (Petrozziello 2019).

Sardelić’s analysis captures accurately such complexities, but it would be useful to deepen the general discussion of how groups of people come to be deprived of citizenship. Debates about denaturalisation linked to terrorism and, to a lesser degree, to fraud, have brought the phenomenon of loss of citizenship to wider academic attention, reconstructing also the history of denaturalisation in specific countries (e.g. Mantu 2015; Fargues et al. 2020). What perhaps could be analysed in more detail is how the terrorism- and fraud-based, relatively small-scale denaturalisation practices in fact compare with the large-scale denaturalisation practices linked to state succession. In this sense the analyses advanced by Sardelić about the statelessness of Roma are an important contribution, which however shows also how we might need a more general theoretical understanding of the variety of statelessness-generating practices to fully grasp statelessness as a wider phenomenon.

A variety of barriers in the access to rights

Sardelić’s analysis further shows several ways in which Roma are denied full access to rights. Some of these are well-established in the literature on discrimination. Sardelić shows cases of open hostility against the Roma – more direct in political discourse, likely to be expressed through reference to presumed social characteristics – or through policies that do not mention them explicitly, in legal instruments. She discusses examples in which apparently neutral legal measures statistically discriminate against Roma, as they do not take into account the specific vulnerabilities Roma have been and are subject to. She further analyses cases in which Roma with full citizenship have seen their citizenship rights openly disregarded. This a phenomenon that is relatively under-theorised in citizenship studies, although the author compares it with the case of the Aboriginal population in Australia (Chapter 2), and some theoretical frames have been offered by Lawrence and Stevens (Stevens 2010; Lawrence and Stevens 2017). I have already discussed the ways in which Roma are directly and indirectly brought to statelessness, by the combination of state succession, unequal access to registration procedures, and hostility encountered from bureaucrats.

There are two further specific phenomena among those shown by Sardelić that I wish to highlight. One is her observation that policies that aim to recognise (what are assumed to be) the specific needs of Roma can hinder their access to rights, particularly when the needs are linked to the assumption of a nomadic lifestyle. The second is the observation of cases in which Roma are denied mobility rights after being stigmatised as a threat for the mobility of majority populations (while keeping in mind Sardelić’s observation about the over-emphasis in literature on migrant Roma, when Roma do not migrate in larger numbers than the majority populations). Sardelić discusses the threat from the EU to interrupt visa-free mobility from post-Yugoslav countries because of the arrival of the relatively high number of Roma asylum seekers. While the official message from the EU was to apply pressure to improve the human rights of Roma in the area, the governments of the targeted countries reacted by hindering, or stopping entirely, Roma’s mobility rights. This can be compared with the above-mentioned worsening of Romaphobia in the pre-accession period in countries such as Romania, fuelled by the idea that Roma made free movement for the rest of the candidate EU population unattractive for the EU (Woodcock 2007). ‘Embarrassment’ in foreign relations is not a new reason for limiting the emigration of one’s own citizens. What is perhaps new is the cycle through which Romaphobia in Western Europe indirectly reinforces pre-existing Romaphobia in CEE. While the left hand of the EU promotes respect of minority rights and working asylum systems in candidate countries, the right hand of the EU stigmatises the vulnerable and minority populations arriving from the same countries. This is indeed in continuity with the asylum policies of the EU, in which more positive pressures to apply minimum asylum conditions in the confining countries have clearly coexisted with the aim to create a buffer zone of safe third countries and reduce the access to asylum in the EU (cf. Collinson 1996; Valenta et al. 2019).

There is much to learn from Sardelić’s book, one of the main points being how much Romani studies fall between different theoretical approaches – migration, racial and ethnic, Indigenous, postcolonial, etc. studies – none of which seem to account fully for the Roma situation. The explicit comparative approach that Sardelić has chosen seems a good way to bridge this gap.