Emra is a Roma. The small man with the neatly trimmed beard came to Germany eight months ago from Albania. Today he lives with his wife and his small son in subsidised housing in Bonn. The 22-year-old doesn't like to speak about his former life. He fled in order to escape the poverty and hatred he faced. For a long time, misunderstandings and prejudices have plagued this minority group, of which he and his family are a part. The conflated terms “Sinti” and “Roma” are simply wrong, says Michael Schäfer, member of the North Rhein-Westphalia division of the National German Association of the Sinti and Roma. “Sinti are Germans. They’ve been living in this country for the last 600 years,” says Schäfer. The term “Roma”, by contrast, includes all groups outside of the German-speaking world.
The Roma’s ancestors came from India, and began to migrate toward Persia in the 8th century and toward Europe since the 13th century. Many of them now live in Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and in the Balkans. They speak their own language – Romani – which is based on the Old Indic Sanskrit. The Roma have their own flag and national anthem, but they don’t have a home. How many of them live in Germany today? There aren’t exact numbers, because ethnic affiliations aren't recorded in Germany. According to the national association’s estimates, roughly 35,000 Sinti and Roma in North Rhein-Westphalia have a German passport. According to the Federal Agency for Civic Education, there are roughly 12 million spread throughout Europe.
Since 2007, Romanians and Bulgarians have been able to live and work as EU citizens in all other European member states. In this way, many Roma have come to Germany. Others, who, like Emra, came from states outside of the EU, enter Germany illegally and then apply for asylum. “They are often marginalised in their home countries,” says Michael Schäfer. They live isolated in a number of villages or districts, in shacks made of trash and plastic, without access to education, work, or income. In Albania, Emra kept himself above water as a day labourer working under the table and pawning off scrap metal. It wasn’t often more than a day before he found his next gig – or didn’t.
An EU study from 2011 summarises the Roma’s state of destitution in numbers: During the previous two years, only 10 per cent of the minority group in Romania had stable employment. Roughly have were unemployed. The effects of the poverty quickly permeated all the other aspects of their lives: Only one in two Roma possesses health insurance, one in two households has running water, and only very few possess a toilet. Nearly 23 per cent of Roma children don’t attend school, and only half of them make it to the eighth grade. In his own village, Emra wasn’t even able to attend school – to this day he is neither able to read nor write. For the Roma, poverty begins in the cradle; they’re born into slums – right in the heart of Europe.
When all of this is added together – including the hatred and the desperation – the thought of fleeing isn’t far away. For Emra, fleeing cost 1,100 euro, which he had to pay the man who transported him. Far too much, which today he knows very well. But Emra’s cousins were already in Germany, told him about the beautiful streets, and said that he should come. “Many Roma believe that they’ll easily be able to find work, that they’ll quickly be able to amass a fortune, and that they’ll be able to seek help if things don't work out,” says Schäfer. In actuality, it takes two to three years to learn German, obtain a job, and acclimate to socially regulated conditions.
Emra still doesn’t have a plan for how things will continue for him in Germany. All that matters is that he has work, that he doesn’t have to go back. But his prospects of staying have grown nonexistent, says Schäfer. Even Roma families that have been in Germany for many years wind up being sent back, because Albania is seen as a safe homeland to which they can return. Emra’s asylum will not be granted; he knows this. That’s why he continues to postpone the dates for the hearings and decisions of his asylum process, in the hopes that maybe his son will have the opportunity to attend school.
Translated from the German by: Daniel Stächelin