Insecure housing situation drives Roma migration

21 January 2021

Building or improving one’s own home is a strong motive for Roma who migrate from one European country to another. Their everyday life is marked by extremely precarious housing conditions, racism and forced nomadism. These findings have emerged in a new study based on interviews and fieldwork in Sweden and Romania.

The researchers followed Roma street workers who came to Sweden to earn money for the purpose of improving their homes in Romania. Once in Sweden, they have found themselves subject to homelessness, harsh weather conditions, racism and discrimination.

Irene Molina, Professor of Human Geography.
Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

The study was based on data collected between 2016 and 2018 by means of interviews with 15 Roma street-workers in Uppsala and field observations in the migrants’ villages of origin in Romania.

“We found that the most common motive for coming to Sweden, and collecting money from small jobs or begging, was to improve their housing conditions in Romania, in the communities they live in. They wanted to help their families but also complete the building of a house, adding an extra room or other small but important improvements,” says Irene Molina, Professor of Human Geography at the Institute for Housing and Urban Research (IBF) and Director of Research at the Centre for Multidisciplinary Studies on Racism (CEMFOR).

Extreme insecurity

Most of the interviewees were homeowners but, since this ownership was undocumented, their housing situation was ultra-precarious. They were therefore at risk of being forced to move out of their homes, which they nevertheless wanted to invest in.

“Maybe they wanted to extend a house of perhaps 20 square metres to 35 or 40 square metres, given that the household size was 5–10 people. So you can imagine how vital these investments are,” says Dominic Teodorescu, PhD (Human Geography).

Dominic Teodorescu, PhD (Human Geography).

The researchers gained an understanding of the extremely insecure circumstances in which Roma street workers live, both in Romania and in Sweden. Having migrated to earn money for their homes in Romania, they are unable to spend money on housing while they are in Sweden. They live in cars or caravans, in the forest or under bridges, and are often forced to move on. It is a vicious circle, in Teodorescu’s view.

“In Romania they live in extreme marginalisation and the state takes no responsibility for the situation. One way to handle this is to move far away to find a source of income. In Sweden, on the other hand, Roma EU migrants are rejected or pushed back.”

Quest for improved housing conditions

The situation has led to a notion that Roma are deviant and that they themselves want to keep moving around and stay poor. In fact, according to the researchers, it is the other way round.

“They want to improve their housing conditions in their home country. They want to stay there and have a decent life, with their family and children, but they´re not allowed to do that,” Irene Molina says.

The Roma are among the groups with the most precarious living and housing conditions in Europe, and they have been throughout history. They also suffer badly from racism, which also emerged in the study. In Romania, even civil servants refer to Roma as “parasites”; and in Sweden the Roma come in for abuse, insults and also physical violence.

“Experience of racism is part of their everyday life, undoubtedly, and we should talk more about that. The discussion about the Roma people on the street in Uppsala and Stockholm is very much about whether we should prohibit begging or not. But I very seldom hear the public debate addressing the issue of anti-Roma racism,” Molina says.

What can be done about the situation in Sweden?
“Try to help at a local level, giving them the chance of more decent accommodation while they’re here. They can’t stay anyway. Instead of making them pay for accommodation they can’t afford, the municipality can help them. It’s a matter of human rights,” Molina says.

Non-participants in the debate

During his interviews with the Roma in Uppsala, it struck Dominic Teodorescu that while an intensive national debate about the Roma was in progress, they themselves took no part in it. They just noticed that people seemed angry with them and said incomprehensible things.

In this study, the Roma had a chance to speak in person. The researchers have tried to avoid two pitfalls that are common conceptions of the Roma. One is that they are to be pitied; the other is that they are different from other groups in society.

“What we actually highlight is their self-initiative, while having to deal with poverty, marginalisation and racism. Their aspirations aren’t in fact that different from ours; they want to have a roof over their head and a decent life. And that’s what brings them to these street work activities that we followed,” Teodorescu says.