They are pursued, marginalized and discriminated against in many countries. And many Roma end up in Germany - but few are allowed to remain.
They don't want to stay in their home countries. In August this year, around 930 Serbs and more than 1,000 Macedonians applied for asylum in Germany. That was nearly four times as many as the month before, according to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF). Almost all of them are Roma and Sinti, minorities that are discriminated against and marginalized, sometimes even hunted down, in their home countries.
BAMF President Manfred Schmidt believes they're attracted by the superior health service and the prospect of social benefits. "They make no bones about it in the consultations we carry out," he told Deutsche Welle. To him, the reason for the sudden rise in applications is perfectly clear - in July, the German Constitutional Court ruled that the standard benefits for asylum seekers must be raised significantly, in line with standard unemployment benefits. "The number of new arrivals has risen dramatically since then, much more dramatically than in any years before," said Schmidt.
But the applications do not necessarily have much chance. "They live in precarious conditions, we shouldn't kid ourselves," admits Schmidt. But since they are not being pursued politically, their situation does not meet the conditions of the Geneva convention for refugees or German laws governing residency. Consequently less than 0.1 percent of applications are successful.
EU citizenship is no guarantee
Roma from Romania and Bulgaria can live in Germany without any need to make an application. Ever since those countries joined the European Union in 2007, their people can move wherever they like within the bloc. More than 5,000 Bulgarians and Romanians have moved to the small western town of Duisburg alone since that last EU expansion, attracted by cheap accommodation in several suburban districts.
"People come to us who live in poverty in their country of origin," explains Leyla Özmal, the city's commissioner for integration. "With the Roma and Sinti, we also know that they are more likely to be fleeing discrimination."
But they face the same problems in Germany. Because of labor limitations for eastern European EU citizens, they are not allowed to work in Germany. Instead they can either work illegally - often for around three euros ($3.90) an hour - or become criminals. A lot of the children don't go to school, and very few adults have health insurance, and because they have no money they live in dilapidated houses.
The German population often feels disturbed by the newcomers. Complaints about garbage and noise are common. The sight of young men hanging round on the streets looking for work often causes resentment. And sometimes local communities are themselves already overburdened. In Duisburg, the decline of the mining and steel industries has driven many into unemployment, and the public coffers have been empty for decades.
But the situation of the Roma from Romania and Bulgaria could soon improve. On January 1, 2014, the labour restrictions for eastern Europeans will be lifted. "We have to use the time to prepare people for the job market," says Özmal.
The integration of a new immigrant community costs money. Özmal says German courses and opportunities to get qualifications are only possible if additional cash is made available for programs. The EU funds set aside for the integration of Roma are not enough, she believes.
Another problem is that this money is specifically meant for Roma, but many Roma deny their heritage because of the discrimination they encounter. That's why Özmal thinks it would be best to categorize people as Europeans, rather than a certain ethnic group. "It would be good for all the countries, and Europe itself, to say, 'we are going to set minimum standards for all Europeans.'"