“The first thing to do to fight against the discrimination Roma people suffer is to stop the association with Travelers”, said Ahmed Ahkim on Tuesday. He is the Director of the Walloon Mediation Centre for Roma and Travelers. The day before International Roma Day (8th of April), he pointed out that migrant Roma are above all “looking for work and a better life for their children, like all other immigrants”.
“The term Roma used by institutions generally means Roma, an ethnic minority from Central and Eastern Europe, and Travelers, a minority that uses mobile housing. Travelers are mainly from Western Europe (Belgium, France…)”, explains Ahmed Ahkim.
According to the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency, there are around 30,000 Roma in Belgium, and 9,000 of them live in mobile housing. The Mediation Centre for Roma and Travelers says the Traveler community is made up of around 20,000 people. There are no official figures, and deciding who goes in which category is very subjective.
Although some Travelers share distant ancestors with the Roma, the current situation is not comparable. Manouches and other Tsiganes have been living in Belgium since the 15th century. The majority are Belgian nationals, and live as nomads for part of the year. “I have never yet met a Roma family from Central or Eastern Europe that travels in a caravan in Belgium”, says Mr Ahkim.
These migrant Roma arrive from Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Bulgaria hoping to find a better life. They come from countries where the average income is 4 times lower. “And this catastrophic socio-economic situation is made worse by the fact that Roma are left to fend for themselves in many of these countries. They are therefore hit hard by the economic crisis”, says the head of the Walloon association.
As European citizens, the majority benefit from free movement for workers. But looking for a job and integrating in Belgium remains difficult, mainly due to the “disastrous image” people have of them and stereotypes.