A 17-year-old Roma boy was horrifically beaten outside of Paris last week after being abducted by a rowdy gang of French youth who claimed he was responsible for a series of thefts in the neighborhood.
When they’d finished with him, they dropped the boy, known by the first name “Gheorghe,” in an abandoned shopping cart, leaving him for dead or close to it — he’s remained in a coma since, and the outcome in his case isn’t certain. Should he survive, he could be facing lifelong disability, including brain injuries as a result of repeated blows to the head.
The incident, and photographs of the young man lying in a shopping cart like so much garbage, has shocked France, but it may just be the inevitable outcome of the rise of xenophobia and right-wing extremism that’s sweeping across Europe. France in particular has played a significant role in European political shifts. The far right National Front has performed well in French elections and while the nation’s President, Francois Hollande, has issued a statement condemning the attack, critics argue that his administration has been involved in the stigmatization and marginalization of the French Roma community.
Originally called “Gypsies” because they were mistaken for Egyptians when they began migrating to Europe in the Middle Ages, the Roma have been part of European society for a very long time. They’ve also lived on the fringe of European society and culture, marginalized because of their traditions, cultural practices, dark skin and other traits that set them apart from much of Western Europe. Throughout their time in Europe, the Roma have been hounded from place to place, with European communities breaking up their camps and forcibly removing them, accusing them of being criminals who endanger the communities they visit.
In France as in many other European nations, Roma communities have popped up on the fringes of cities or in abandoned areas. Families shelter together in structures cobbled together from available materials and attempt to make a living for themselves until their camps are broken up by riot police. Police often destroy belongings along with the camps, sending communities out on their own with nothing, and while cities are supposed to help the Roma resettle into public housing, most do not.
Gheorghe and his family come from Romania, and may be forced to return there. The French government has been involved in the deportation of thousands of Roma back to their countries of origin, despite the fact that Eastern European nations aren’t equipped to handle sudden influxes of deportees — in France, officials claim that Roma “can’t integrate” and their lack of ability to assimilate makes them poor candidates for citizenship. The family may also voluntarily move; currently, media report that they are in hiding, concerned they may become targets as well.
For Gheorghe and so many other Roma teens, life offers few opportunities. Access to schools, employment and social benefits are limited for children who are forced to move frequently and who are viewed as suspect and criminal by the society around them. The situation for the Roma in Europe is dire, and a solution requires a fundamental rethinking of how this marginalized community is approached — starting with recognizing them as marginalized and treating them as a group in need of protection. Too late for Gheorge, but perhaps not for other vulnerable Roma youth.
As it stands, no arrests have been made in this terrible case.