The number of Roma in Switzerland has increased significantly since the 2004 adoption of the EU’s right of the free movement of persons.
As in other European countries, the result has been a hostile reaction from local inhabitants disturbed by the uncommon sight of beggars on their streets. A study by the University of Zurich, published by the Federal Commission against Racism (FCR) in late December, warns that the negative stereotypes commonly seen in the Swiss media tend to exacerbate, rather than ameliorate, the problem. Too often, the study noted, media reports focus on generalisations about Roma begging, crime, asylum seekers and prostitution.
Journalists were also criticised for not making greater efforts to go beyond stereotyping by speaking directly with the Roma or organisations representing them as part of their reporting rather than relying solely on police statements. Therein lies the problem. There are few organisations in Switzerland defending Roma rights and even fewer Roma who speak French or other languages.
One attorney who has adopted their cause, Dina Bazarbachi of the Roma rights NGO Mesemrom in Geneva, is particularly outraged by the criminalisation of begging in Geneva and Lausanne. “Begging is not a crime. It is not even a misdemeanour. It is not against the law to ask for alms. This is something that has been accepted throughout the centuries. One can always refuse to give alms.”
Bazarbachi denies that the Roma are aggressive beggars or are involved in gangs. “There is no mafia; that is one of the canards we object to! There is more money in prostitution. That’s what interests mafias and there is no evidence the Roma we see on our streets are involved in that.”
Police authorities acknowledge that the 2008 ban on begging has been difficult and costly to enforce and has done little to deter the Roma from coming to Geneva. Last March Mesemrom gathered 3,300 signatures for a petition calling for an end to the ban, which will be presented to Geneva’s Conseil général this year.
Mesemrom’s passionate defence notwithstanding, there is a widespread perception in Switzerland that Roma are behind the rise in pickpocket incidents and snatch-and-grab thefts by their children. “Of course one can refuse to give them money,” said one victim of such an incident, “but how do we defend ourselves when surrounded by a gang of children distracting you until they get your wallet?” Asking to remain anonymous, he admitted he could not prove his attackers were Roma. “But who else uses their children that way?” he asked.
Thus the enduring question remains: whether this migrant people who have lived in Europe since the 12th century have not been allowed to assimilate into European culture, or whether they simply don’t want to.