France began expelling the first of 700 Roma people as part of a controversial crackdown on illegal encampments around the country announced by French President Nicolas Sarkozy on July 31.
Two flights with 87 Roma, or Gypsies, aboard left airports in Paris and Lyon today bound for Bucharest, with more expected to be flown to the Romanian capital next week. The French government paid each Roma $390 to leave and about $75 for each child.
The expulsion policy, which has been criticized even by members of Sarkozy’s own conservative political party, was created after a July 17 riot by Roma at a police station in the village of Saint-Aignan.
The Roma being deported from France are legal residents of Romania and Bulgaria. Roma who are French nationals haven’t been targeted in the expulsions.
Roma, known more commonly as Gypsies, trace their roots back to India. Today, they live primarily in Eastern and Central Europe, with other communities in North and South America and Australia. Most — even the storefront fortunetellers in New York City and Orange County, Calif. — still speak the Romani language.
The French Interior Ministry says that Gypsy camps are “sources of illegal trafficking, of profoundly shocking living standards, of exploitation of children for begging, of prostitution and crime.”
Humanitarian rights groups, however, maintain that the initiative smacks of xenophobia, and some politicians have compared it to the roundup of Jews during World War II. As European Union citizens, however, the Roma are theoretically free to return to France for up to three months.
AOL News spoke to Yaron Matras, an expert on the Roma and a linguistics professor at the University of Manchester in England, where he coordinates the Romani Project.
Where are the Roma from?
From what we’ve been able to find out, the Roma probably came from central India and moved to northern India around the fifth century. The Romani language is one of the Indo-Aryan languages, like Hindi or ancient Sanskrit. We think the Roma people moved westward around the 10th century and into what is now Turkey. From the late 14th century on, they moved into Europe.
Why is everyone so vague about the origins of the Roma and why they left India?
First of all, there are absolutely no historical records. Nobody really knows. People have come up with all sorts of theories and wild speculation. There’s no evidence of a catastrophic event causing them to leave. They were part of an economically specialized caste; some of them, for example, were metal workers and continued that trade for centuries.
Do you mean they were part of a lower caste in India?
Well, there’s a generation of [Roma] activists that don’t want to talk about that now, as if that’s an insult to their ancestors. There’s a fashion among activists to say the Roma were upper-caste, proud warriors who were taken as slaves and forced to come to Europe. There’s no evidence to support that. There’s no written attestation.
Many people think the word “Roma” means Romanian, especially as the French are expelling many Roma back to Romania.
“Rom” comes from the caste name “Dom” in the Indian languages. The country of Romania has nothing to do with the Roma or the word “Romani,” which is an adjective for them. It’s a complete coincidence. There is a large population of Roma who live in Romania, but they are all over the Balkans, in Bulgaria and Slovakia and Turkey as well.
Roma are said to have been persecuted for centuries; they also have a reputation for being petty criminals and con artists. Did one lead to the other?
The Roma have a long history of persecution, of living in poverty, being marginalized, and have a high rate of illiteracy. There’s been a lot of social prejudice and isolation. It’s a vicious cycle than can lead to self-despair and a boycotting of mainstream culture. But you’re seeing the Roma who are out there begging; you aren’t seeing the ones working in offices and other good jobs. There are thousands of those too.
How does the persecution of the Roma compare to that of the Jews?
To an extent, they’ve been persecuted more than the Jews. Jews had more urban integration. The Roma never had a cohesive body. They’ve never had a territory or a tradition of literacy, which is what the Jews had. Often they were allowed to work in Europe only in certain trades and on the condition they not mix with the local population. The Roma in Romania and Bulgaria were the first to lose their jobs after the fall of communism.
Movies like “King of the Gypsies” present the Roma as having their own courts and an intricate social structure that involve scamming people.
There are no kings or queens. No Gypsy believes in gypsy kings. That’s for show. Some Gypsy communities have conflict resolution strategies that some of them call courts. Roma are often specialized in particular trades and services and have adopted survival strategies which outsiders often regard with suspicion.
Is there hope for the Roma?
There is a growing movement of young Romani intellectuals and activists who are working toward self-empowerment and social integration as well as fighting discrimination and prejudice against the Roma. They are promoting Romani media training and cultural projects that are increasingly gaining the respect of governments.