Illustration by Alex Săvescu
Migration and Changing Expectations in a Roma Segregated Neighborhood
Remus Gabriel Anghel
The segregation and poverty of the Roma have been debated for the last thirty years in Romania and some other Eastern European countries. Academic research was conducted to better understand the conditions of Roma discrimination, poverty, and segregation, while applied programs were designed and implemented to improve their standing in the society. Despite the existing debates, applied projects, and governmental programs, the overall situation of the people living in segregated Roma “ghettos” has largely remained unchanged, with people living in poor conditions, being often illiterate, discriminated against, and unemployed. Many of these people, however, got tired of waiting for the support promised by the Romanian state and looked for a better life abroad. In my ethnographic journey into the world of a poor Roma neighborhood, I look at the dimensions of this societal failure—the poverty and discrimination these people experience, but also how migration is becoming the main mechanism for the emancipation of this deprived population forgotten by the institutions of the Romanian state that should have helped them.
Remus Gabriel Anghel
Remus Gabriel Anghel, PhD, is a researcher at the Institute for the Study of the Problems of National Minorities, Cluj Napoca. He obtained his qualification in sociology at Babeș-Bolyai University and his doctorate also in sociology at the University of Bielefeld (Germany). He specializes in the study of migration and ethnicity, being interested in topics such as irregular migration, return migration, migration and development, migration and social change. He carried out research in Romania, Italy and Germany. In the last published books (Transnational Return and Social Change. Identities, Hierarchies and Ideas, Anthem Press 2019, together with Margit Fauser and Paolo Boccagni; Reinventing Germanity. Ethnicization, mobility and cultural borrowing at the edge of Europe, Tritonic 2018, together with Ovidiu Oltean and Christian Schuster) analyzes the effects of transnational return migration on communities of origin.
Well, hello there! I’m a fancy-schmancy illustrator and designer currently rubbing elbows with the artsy crowd at HLabs in London. In addition to my day job, I also run my own small design studio back in my homeland of Romania. What can I say, I’m a multitasking machine! I like to think of my studio as my little side hustle, or as my grandma calls it, my “extracurricular activity.” But that’s not all – I also dabbled in the world of academia as a visiting lecturer at Coventry University. I loved imparting my wisdom on the young and impressionable minds of tomorrow – or at least, that’s what I told myself while grading endless piles of papers. All in all, I’m just a creative soul trying to make my mark on the world – one whimsical design at a time. Who knows, maybe one day my art will be hanging in fancy galleries across the globe, or maybe it’ll just end up on a refrigerator somewhere. Either way, I’m having a blast doing what I love!
Daniel decided to become an actor so that he could experience feelings and events that otherwise won’t fit in one’s lifetime. He collaborated with Bulandra Theatre and the Monday Theatre @ Green Hours and attended many national and international festivals. Since 2013 he plays in projects written, translated, or directed by himself and produced by his Doctor’s Studio Cultural Association which he also founded. Daniel doesn’t know if this is the way to approach new forms of artistic expression, what’s certain is that he distances himself from the old ones.
The Roma neighborhood consists of rundown houses and muddy roads. Strolling through the neighborhood one can smell the heavy smoke everywhere. It comes from the burning of car tires to extract wire, which is later sold, but also of plastic waste, because there is no one collecting their garbage. There are dogs running and playing freely on its streets. I first arrived in the neighborhood seven years ago when I started my fieldwork there. Originally planned as a shorter term research, I kept coming back for several years in my attempt to understand the world of the people there and the role of migration in their lives.
What struck me from the beginning was not only the extreme poverty, but mostly the difference between their neighborhood and the adjacent zones. It was like entering a forbidden zone; the asphalt and sewage stopped, and dirt roads and poverty began. The neighborhood made a strong contrast with the small but rich Transylvanian town. In Romania, the town of Delușor is considered to be a “bonanza” of foreign investments: a series of large investments made it one of the places of high FDI concentration. The city budget has also kept growing, with public investments from both local and European funds—everywhere but in the “Gypsy neighborhood.”
The neighborhood is the quintessence of Romania’s failure as a society, of its inability to provide a better life for fellow citizens despite many promises and funds destined for poverty alleviation. The story of the neighborhood is not only a story of economic non-integration of the poor, but also one of racism and lack of human understanding. In this context, it becomes apparent over the years that migration can become a way of getting rid of poverty and receiving more recognition and understanding.
A segregated neighborhood
The story of the neighborhood began during the communist era when the Roma started to build their poor houses on plots with no clear ownership, on the outskirts of the town of Delușor. At the time, the attempts of the Communist Party to integrate these poor people economically and offer them some stability were relatively successful. Many from the neighborhood worked at the local leather factory—famous throughout the country, others at local textile or wood factories. As the old people remember, “There was no such thing as not finding work … you were picked up from the street and taken to work.” In the factory, many had the most difficult and dirty jobs—especially in the tannery section of the leather factory—where “there were only gypsies,” as Maria, our friend from the neighborhood, recalled. The Roma also worked for the local municipality as street cleaners. Although poor, the children went to school and the wages, although small, came in every month. After 1990, despite the general enthusiasm running through Romanian society, jobs started to disappear quickly. Even if business at the hosiery factory went on for a while, things were deteriorating and, at one point, due to lack of money, people received stockings instead of wages, and jobs were significantly cut. The wood processing plant almost closed as well, and part of it was taken over by an international company that, after privatizing it, made many jobs redundant. Likewise, the leather factory, once the pride of the town, closed after the 2000s. In this interval, the Roma lost their jobs quickly. The semblance of support that the communist state had provided was gone. But the neighborhood kept growing as time went by. Poor people came in both from the neighboring areas and from the town—the last ones being the Roma from Delușor who had to build makeshift homes after selling their apartments very cheap due to financial difficulties. The life of the people in the neighborhood is hard. Without steady and rewarding jobs, working occasionally in construction, collecting plastic bottles or scrap metal from the villages, or working for minimum wage in local textile factories, people cannot provide a decent life for their families, let alone improve their living conditions which are, in most cases, unsanitary. They often do informal jobs for Romanians for little pay, a form of work that is not regulated and seen as socially degrading. Children start dropping out of school at an early age and illiteracy is high. The younger population is deprived, as the investments that the town attracts massively change the local economy—but not their lives. However, many people’s lives are starting to change with Romania’s accession to the European Union. Although the Romanian state didn’t want to, couldn’t, or didn’t know what to do with Romania’s poor, joining the EU made migration accessible to everyone. And people’s lives are improving not because of better conditions in the town or because of the arrival of multinationals, the hobbyhorses that Romanian politicians have been riding for the past thirty years, but because of the remittances brought in from abroad.
Migration, a leap into the unknown
Migration from Delușor did not start with the Roma. The first were the Transylvanian Saxons, who emigrated to Germany in large numbers during the communist period. Of the 4,000 Saxons that lived in Delușor before 1990, only about 400 have remained, many of them coming from mixed families. The Germans’ migration was followed by the migration of Romanians who moved especially to Spain starting with 2000. Romania’s 2007 accession to the EU meant visa-free traveling, and mobility increased. It was in that context that many people from Delusor went to Spain and migration became a solution to escape poverty and the uncertainties that accompanied the first decade of the postcommunist period. Migration attracted a large number of people who did not have jobs, or who considered that wages were too low. It was a migration largely organized through networks, where those who had already migrated helped their friends and relatives “back home” to leave and find work “abroad.” The Roma left later, after 2010. It was a much more diversified and “disorganized” migration compared to the previous ones that were based on social networks. Different from previous flows mainly to Germany and Spain, the Roma migration targeted multiple countries: France, Italy, Greece, Germany, Belgium, and the UK. Many Roma did street jobs and often lived precariously. They did not migrate using migration networks extensively, nor did they “capitalized on” the favorable context in Spain, rich in job offers. Even if some did find work in Germany or Spain, sometimes well-paid, these were rather singular cases. For a few years, this rather precarious migration generated much-needed financial resources for the segregated neighborhood. Many “at home” started renovating or repairing their houses, building bathrooms, buying appliances. The neighborhood changed as houses started to look better—but otherwise everything remained the same, the dirt roads, the lack of essential public utilities, and the poverty of those who did not manage to migrate.
Migration also brought something more important than money. It created higher expectations. Whenever I talked to the people who had been abroad, you could feel a change in tone. “The Greeks are such good people!” said a Roma woman who had been in Greece the summer before. Another woman proudly said recently: “My child was considered a role-model among pupils at the school in England! He learned English quickly, with nobody helping him!” And the examples could go on—from the social benefits received in France and the support of the local authorities to find employment. “You are treated like a human being there,” migrants would often say. Not coincidentally, they discuss these personal experiences comparing them constantly with how they were and still are treated in Romania. One last example, during the pandemic, is illustrative of Romanian attitudes. Mihaela remembered how her boy had received a tablet from school. “But it wasn’t working,” she said. When she told the teacher that the tablet was broken, the teacher replied: “I know very well the likes of you [the Roma].” And sometime later, the police knocked on their door to check if they still had the tablet, or had sold it. Her outrage contrasted starkly with the positive experiences that migrants recalled having had “abroad,” of having been treated “like people.”
Returning or staying mobile?
These new experiences and the prospect of a life abroad gave a new meaning to the lives of many Roma. Even if migration is often a difficult experience, the Roma in the neighborhood have a choice between a hard life abroad and a segregated life in Romania, where job offers are poor and living conditions dire. These contrasting living conditions—“at home” and “abroad”—have led more and more to prefer to stay in France. The term “anchoring” refers to those situations in which migrants manage to obtain support in certain localities from institutions or individuals. For many migrants from the neighborhood, their “anchor” was a Frenchman who made it his spiritual salvation mission to help poor Roma to settle in France—enrolling children in schools, applying for social benefits, and finding work. He was a godsend for many families in the neighborhood, as he filled out their applications and other paperwork for the authorities. Consequently, in recent years, more and more Roma have come to settle “abroad” successfully with this person’s help. Other Roma migrants have managed to find long-term work in the UK, Germany, Spain, or Italy, taking their families with them most of the times. Return migration, at least in the medium term, is not a very likely prospect for many of them; but those who are engaged in temporary migration projects will most likely return or stay for longer periods in Deluşor. On the other hand, the jobs the Roma have access to are poorly paid, while migration is rewarding, therefore migration seems to remain the most likely income-generating strategy for the time to come.
Afterword: Debunking myths
The literature on migration in recent years has analysed critically if and how migration is becoming a driver of development in poorer countries, the migrants’ home communities, and a needed support for migrant families. The fact that the level of remittances grew at the global level is not always seen as a sign of development though. From this point of view, the case of Roma from Deluşor is telling. Their migration does not lead to the town’s development but rather to investment in their own houses, and generally a different attitude towards their social position, as in reacting vocally to the way they have been treated. Also, the increased school attendance rate among children seems to have been influenced by migration and the new opportunities opened up for children abroad, in comparison to the experience of Roma children who do not migrate. An underlying argument is that educational achievements among the Roma are influenced by the conditions they are provided, and the poor results are not related to “a Roma problem” properly but to a poorly designed educational system.
Moreover, public discourses continue to be essentialist when they refer to poor Roma. Perhaps the most common trope is that the Roma do not work. This type of discourse overlooks that poor Roma, or most of them, do indeed work. From here, yet another sensitive topic ensues, namely that their informal work—be it collecting scrap metal, street cleaning, informal work for Romanians—should be recognized as work.
Secondly, public discourses stress that poor Roma are not educated, and their poor education is a major obstacle to their economic integration. On the other hand, several Roma in the locality reported how they tried unsuccessfully to employ relatives or friends to the factories where they worked and were refused by the management. In such a case, a young woman who was looking for work was refused by all clothing manufacturing companies operating locally. When she was finally employed, not only was she not a burden to the firm, but she became a model worker. In a few months she had been promoted to the quality assurance section, performing the final checks before delivery. Besides, if the Roma do not work in Romania why do they work abroad? In raising such questions, one should emphasize the role of misjudgments and errors in the ways in which “the Roma” are regarded and discussed in the broader Romanian society, including the principles upon which public policies on “the Roma” are based.
Finally, a last observation still on education, which is seen as a panacea for Roma poverty and segregation. Once more the Roma are blamed for allegedly refusing to attend school; we are repeatedly told in the public space that they “don’t want to learn.” One would wonder then why do Roma children go to school abroad? Why does everyone come “from abroad” with the desire to be more respected “at home”? Perhaps the reform in the field of the integration of poor Roma should not start with poor Roma in the first place, but with a completely different view of the Roma. It is likely possible that the main problem is not so much about the poor Roma as about the majority and their inability to build a fair and equal society. More often than not, the locus of policy-making is not the poor neighborhood but the offices of the local administration and the minds of those who develop social inclusion policies in Romania.
We would like to thank Ioana Miruna Voiculescu for her useful proofreading and suggestions to ensure style consistency and improve readability across the texts published in English.
 The name of the town is fictional.
 Aleksandra Grzymala-Kazlowska, “From Connecting to Social Anchoring: Adaptation and ‘Settlement’ of Polish Migrants in the UK,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 44(2) (2018): 252–269.
 Alejandro Portes, “Migration and Development. Reconciling Opposite Views,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 32(1) (2010): 5–22.