Officials in some European Union countries have voiced discontent over the growing number of human-trafficking gangs that have flooded Western cities from Romania since the EU lifted its visa regime for that country in January. Such gangs -- including Romany networks -- smuggle handicapped children into the EU, where they force them to beg. Romanian authorities have vowed to improve cooperation with EU law enforcement officials to break up the trafficking rings. But EU officials and Romany minority leaders say Bucharest must also do more to improve the situation of its Roma at home in order to provide them with alternatives to crime.
Prague, 26 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Several European Union countries have noted a rise over the past several months in crimes perpetrated on their territory by Romanian nationals, many of whom belong to the Roma.
Criminal networks -- including Romany gangs -- that smuggle prostitutes, beggars, and sometimes handicapped children out of Romania have in recent months been active in Spain, Italy, and especially France.
French police recently cracked down on a gang trafficking handicapped Romany children from Romania and forcing the children to beg in French towns. France subsequently expelled 10 ethnic Roma back to Romania for their involvement in trafficking.
The mostly-EU Schengen group of states dropped visa requirements for Romanians in January, after the Romanian government took decisive steps to control illegal migration.
Bucharest also imposed strict measures for its citizens who want to travel to Schengen states.
Such measures include proof of funds of up to almost $100 per person for each day of the trip. Health insurance, return tickets to travel by plane or train, or international car insurance for the duration of the trip are also compulsory.
But Romania, a country of 22 million, is one of Europe's poorest states, with an average monthly income of some $100. Between the new travel restrictions and growing economic hardship at home, the number of Romanians venturing to the EU has dropped by almost 20 percent this year. However, Romanian officials say measures are easy to meet for well-organized and well-funded criminal gangs, which cannot be prevented from entering the EU as long as they have not been caught violating the law.
Romanian Deputy Interior Minister Alexandru Farcas says that crimes perpetrated by Romanians abroad are less serious and less frequent than those committed by nationals of other countries.
But Farcas tells RFE/RL that the types of crimes Romanians are involved in are more visible and irritating for the Western public.
"Altogether, Romanian criminality abroad -- especially in Western Europe -- has modest proportions. Romanians are ranked below the first 10 countries of origin for foreign criminals in EU countries. But unfortunately, petty crime is very visible, as is aggressive begging and so on."
In response to a wave of criticism in the French media, the Romanian government vowed to step up measures against human traffickers as well as increase cooperation with police in EU countries.
Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, in a letter sent this month to his French counterpart, Jean Pierre-Raffarin, stressed the Romanian government's determination to curb trafficking.
Farcas says Romanian authorities are already stepping up collaboration with French police. He says a team of Romanian police officers is due to travel to France, where they will act as liaison officers.
Furthermore, next week (29 July), Romanian Interior Minister Ioan Rus is due in Paris for talks with French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.
Farcas says the Romanian Interior Ministry is also holding "an ongoing dialogue" with Romany community leaders at national and regional levels to prevent the spread of criminal behavior among ethnic Roma. But Farcas also points out that Romanian crime abroad is not committed exclusively by ethnic Roma.
Romanian media meanwhile warned that the current wave of criminality could prompt the EU to reintroduce the visa regime. But Leonello Gabrici, a spokesman for European Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs Antonio Vitorino, told RFE/RL that no such request from any of the Schengen states has so far been registered.
Analysts, however, say that neither diplomatic pledges nor police crackdowns will help root out the explanations for why many ethnic Roma engage in criminal behavior.
Romanian political analyst Dan Pavel also heads the Romanian branch of the U.S.-funded Project on Ethnic Relations (PER), a group dedicated to preventing ethnic conflicts in Central and Eastern Europe.
Pavel told RFE/RL that poverty, discrimination, and lack of social integration are the major reasons why young Roma turn to crime.
"The main causes are well known: poverty, a reduced degree of education, denied access to normal jobs, as well as the existence of strong models of criminal life -- which makes a significant part of the Roma minority, and especially the younger generation, turn to such [criminal] activities."
Roma make up Romania's second-strongest minority, after ethnic Hungarians. Preliminary data from this year's census put the number of Roma at some 600,000, some 30 percent more than during the previous census 10 years ago.
But analysts say the actual number could be considerably higher, since many Roma avoid declaring their ethnic origins for fear of discrimination by the Romanian majority.
In a country already hobbled by endemic poverty, the Roma are among Romania's poorest residents. There are, however, some exceptions -- a tiny fraction of Roma, primarily involved in crime, who are enjoying opulent lifestyles.
Nastase's Social Democrat government last year adopted a much-publicized national strategy to integrate the Roma into society and fight discrimination.
But Romany community leaders say little has been done so far to implement the goals of the strategy.
Costel Bercus, president of the civic Roma group Romani Criss, says more efforts are needed on the part of authorities.
"The Roma [continue to] have the same [low] standard of living. They have social and economic problems such as a lack of jobs, a lack of social care, lack of initiatives to attract a part of the Roma to economic and social life. They continue to be marginalized. We cannot say officials don't pay attention to these problems. The government, the ministries do have a strategy [for the Roma], which has been appreciated by the EU and NGOs. But more efforts are needed to see the effects of this strategy."
Bercus says that despite emergency legislation passed by the government to ban discrimination, many employers still refuse to hire Roma. But no court, he says, has so far punished anybody for discriminating against the Roma.
The EU has launched a series of projects to help Romania speed up the integration of its Romany minority and improve its living conditions.
Jonathan Scheele, the top EU representative in Romania, yesterday (25 July) announced European funding for several projects to help integrate the Roma.
Scheele told RFE/RL, "We've just announced the 29 winning projects which will receive support totaling just under a million -- 927,500 -- euros. And these are for partnerships between local governments and civil society designed to develop projects to promote social insertion of Roma and their active participation in the economic, social, educational, cultural, and political life of Romania, and they are intended to establish sort of best-practice [standards] which can then be expanded countrywide."
Scheele said the EU fully supports the Romanian government's strategy to integrate the Roma. But he also agreed that the strategy was not being implemented as fast as the EU was expecting.