Within and beyond citizenship: Romani minorities at the margins of the European project

Over 11-12 April, Oxford hosted an extremely rich international symposium  entitled Within and beyond citizenship: Lived experiences of contemporary membership, organised by COMPAS, the Refugee Studies Centre, the Oxford Institute of Social Policy and the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, and in particular by my colleague Nando Sigona, working with Jenny Allsopp and Vanessa Hughes. If you are interested, Nando has Storified the rich Twitter discussion that took place in the conference.

I chaired and was discussant to a really interesting panel entitled The Roma at the margins of EU citizenship. There were three very good papers: Rachel Humphris, of the Insitutte of social and Cultural Anthropology at Oxford, with “Waiting room: Romanian Roma migrants’ negotiations of transitional controls in UK bureaucracy”, Julija Sardelic, of the CITSEE project at the University of Edinburgh, on “Romani minorities on the margins of post-Yugoslav citizenship regimes”, and Huub van Baar, of the University of Amsterdam, on “Boundary practices of citizenship: Europe’s Roma at the nexus of securitization and citizenship”. I have converted my discussant comments into a short report on those papers for this blogpost.

At first glance, I was worried that the only thing the three papers shared was a common focus on Romani minorities in Europe, specifically those from southeastern Europe. Rachel’s deals with Romanian migrants in the UK awaiting the end of A8 transitional arrangements, Julia’s with Romani minorities in the former Yugoslavia caught in the cracks between post-Yugoslav statehoods, Huub’s with Kosovans facing deportation from Germany; all draw on very different bodies of theory to address very different questions. However, happily there are a couple of important areas of commonality.

First, all three papers raise questions about the different scales of citizenship and its constellations and regimes, including the neighbourhood and municipal, the infra-national and national, and the space of Europe: scales which operate not as a nested hierarchy but in complex, contradictory ways, as palimpsest, with the residue of older citizenship regimes sedimented in the new (as with the legacy of Yugoslav federal and republican constitutions in the post-Yugoslav period). The space of Europe, with its shifting internal and external borders, is especially highlighted in all three papers, in a context in which, as Huub argues, the Roma have been discursively “Europeanised” as both icon or mascot and internal other of the European project.

Second, all three papers deal with “in-betweenness” of various sorts. Julija takes Bhabha’s notion of in-betweenness as central to understanding the positioning of Romani minorities in central and eastern Europe, an in-betweenness systematically produced by the proliferation of national citizenship regimes which has rendered many within Romani minorities as de facto stateless or legally invisible. Similarly, Huub uses Nyers’ term, “the mezzanine spaces of sovereignty, that is, those spaces which are in-between the inside and the outside of the state” (2003: 1080). He also proposes the fruitful term “boundary practices of citizenship”.

And in Rachel’s paper, we have a temporal in-betweenness: the state of being in waiting. This temporal in-betweenness is perhaps also present for the internally displaced in Montenegro, trapped in a recurrently extended formal transitional period, unable to provide the evidence that will give them permanent status (described in Julija’s paper), or for the German holders of the Duldung, a short-term reprieve repeatedly renewed (described in Huub’s).

All three papers address, too, the vexed question of the agency of those with precarious relationships to citizenship, and in particular how we can talk about agency in the context of in-between spaces characterised by waiting, lack and dependency. Huub argues that a focus on spectacular “acts” of insurgent citizenship on one hand or exceptionalist security panics on the other leads us to neglect the importance of everyday, mundane, normal practices of citizenship and security. Huub gives us some cause for optimism by revealing the power of resistance, solidarity, innovation and knowledge-production in the most mundane contexts.

Rachel similarly notes the development of “strategies of waiting” developed by Romanian Roma in precarious situations, and how they artfully navigate and even turn to their advantage the indeterminacy inherent in bureaucracy. But she also suggests a hinterland in which the most precarious and excluded have no room in which to wait, no space for hope. In Julija’s paper, agency is even more constrained: apart from an activist elite, subaltern Romani minorities are spoken for by others or, when they do speak, have their voices “transformed and interpreted [in] such a way that it only confirms the hegemonic ideology”.

Central to the space of the normal is the banal figure of the street level bureaucrat, the low-level professional – the border official, gendarme, tax inspector, employment advisor. In contrast to the high visibility rhetoric of security and emergency most often invoked in the academic and activist literature, the street level bureaucrat often operates in a low visibility way. For example, Huub highlights how German and EU officials have sought to render more opaque “the most delicate trajectories of the physical procedure of deportation”, while Rachel talks of a bureaucratic regime increasingly physically removed from physical contact with “clients”, hidden on the other side of the screen or telephone.

Also central to this space of the normal, in relation to practices of bordering and citizenship, are papers or documents, and the banal practices surrounding them – the birth not registered leading to a life of legal invisibility (as in Julija’s paper), the Duldung which grants temporary residence in the shadow of deportability (in Huub’s), or the compulsive collection of as many different types of document so as to strengthen a case against future deportation (in Rachel’s).

The contribution of these papers is to show that examining these quotidian and material dimensions is crucial in pushing forward a critical account of citizenship, which requires a much more granular exploration of the texture of such below-the-radar mundane practices, a task which demands the development of more attentive (and especially ethnographic) methodologies.

About bengidley

Senior Lecturer at the School of Social Science, History and Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London. View all posts by bengidley

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