Berlin's Roma Conundrum German Officials Perplexed about New Gypsy Arrivals

Berlin authorities are puzzled. A group of Roma families from Romania have arrived and appear intent on staying, despite only having limited tourist visas. The conundrum could be a foretaste of immigration riddles to come.

"It's going good here," said a young Roma woman to SPIEGEL ONLINE earlier this week, pushing a stroller through Spandau. She wore an ankle-length dress, a faded sports jacket, slippers and a black headscarf.

How long might she stay? She shrugged her shoulders. Why did she come to Germany? She moved her hand to her mouth to indicate hunger. Then she asked for money, and pushed her stroller, containing a small boy, in the direction of a subway station.

For over two weeks a group of some 80 Roma has befuddled Berlin authorities by settling in a park, an artists' squat, a Catholic church and now public housing in Spandau. The Romanian gypsies have asked for jobs and asylum. But no city department so far has taken responsibility for them, and one Green politician in Berlin, Volker Ratzmann, has called the official confusion "an embarrassing ping-pong game between the (Berlin) Senate and local districts."

The Romas' public housing home in Spandau is little more than a stop-gap measure. Because Romania is part of the European Union, the immigrants have little chance of winning asylum. But because Germany has not yet completely opened its borders to all EU members, the Roma are in Germany on 90-day tourist visas and cannot stay indefinitely. Borderless travel, though, also means that it isn't entirely clear when they entered the country.

"They would be happy to stay here and receive services from the state," said Anja Wollny, spokeswoman for the Berlin Senate's Integration, Labor and Social Administration. "For instance, a home."

The Berlin Senate is the city's executive body -- essentially a city council. Other local bodies in Spandau and the Berlin district of Kreuzberg have not committed to dealing with the legal problems involved. "We're keeping our hands off for now," said Martin Matz, a councillor for health and social issues in Spandau. "We haven't found any firm foundation for our competency in this case yet."

The Roma first tried to camp in a park in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin. Authorities moved them, out of what they said was concern for the Roma children living in sub-standard conditions. The immigrants refused an initial offer of public housing, in part because officials wanted to scatter them around the city. About 50 members of the group then moved into an artists' squat in Kreuzberg called Bethanien Haus, a converted hospital where they found support from Kreuzberg's local left-wing scene. After they overstayed an intial welcome of "two or three days," according to one tenant, leaders at Bethanien Haus accused the Roma of disturbing the peace.

So with help from local supporters they moved to a local church. Kreuzberg authorities managed to separate the Roma -- who speak no German -- from their local supporters, and convince most of them to move to the asylum housing in Spandau. But the housing isn't free, and just who might pay for it is an open question. Everyone from the city of Spandau to the Romanian consulate has refused to pay. Since they're in Berlin as tourists, the Roma have no legal right to welfare.

Remus Marasescu, Romania's consul to Germany, spent two hours talking to the Roma on Wednesday morning. "These people would like to work in Germany," he said. "We're trying to find a solution agreeable to all the local agencies."

But the problems the Roma pose to local officials may be a foretaste of immigration trouble to come. Germany and other older members of the EU still haven't completely opened their doors to cheap labor from new EU member states -- in particular those Eastern European countries that joined in 2004 and 2007, including Romania. EU citizens can move freely within the bloc, but pre-2004 EU member states were allowed seven years to completely open up their labor markets.

The German federal government had promised to liberalize the hiring of new workers from Romania and several other Eastern European member-states by May 1, 2009 -- but in April, Berlin decided to extend restrictions until 2011. Marasescu had to explain to the Roma in Berlin that finding a job might be difficult for at least another two years.

A Special Responsibility?

Romani Rose, an activist who heads the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma in Berlin, called on the Berlin Senate to provide "humane accommodation for the Roma families." She said Germany and other democratic states had a special responsibility to minorities like the Roma because of Hitler's efforts to exterminate them.

If they remain in Berlin, there could be laws requiring the immigrants' children to attend public schools -- but these laws tend to apply to asylum-seekers, and so far the Roma have status only as tourists.

Many of the estimated 3 million Roma living in Europe still suffer from extreme poverty and discrimination. In Hungary and Slovakia, gypsies are a favorite target for far-right parties while racially-motivated attacks against them are on the rise in Bulgaria.

"We see a desolate situation (for Roma), above all in Romania," says Tilman Zülch, secretary general of the Society for Threatened Peoples. After liberalization of labor laws in 2011, he predicted, there could be "a flood of immigration to Germany."

msm -- with reporting by Zacharias Zacharakis
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