On a recent blazing-hot June day in Romania, down a nondescript, potholed dirt road, a stream of men walked or stepped out of expensive cars. They were going to see the king.
Dorin Cioaba had just been elected president of the International Romani Union, one of the oldest Roma organizations in the world, after vowing to take his people’s cause to the United Nations. Following the election, Cioaba had proclaimed himself “King of Gypsies All Over the World.”
On the day VICE News arrived, Cioaba had just dashed from an appearance at a television studio to receive international delegates at his offices opposite his mansion in the Transylvanian city of Sibiu. Thanks to his recent election, he was in a celebratory mood.
Nevertheless, his reign commenced as tensions over Europe’s largest ethnic minority — up to 12 million people — reached a fever pitch. The fear among many was that the lifting this year of European Union work restrictions on citizens from its new member states of Romania and Bulgaria would unleash a flood of migrants, and an accompanying crime wave, on the continent’s wealthier countries.
Headlines whipped up anti-Roma feeling: “Roma already in Britain ‘are defecating on people's doorsteps’” screamed Britain’s Daily Mail, while Swiss magazine Die Weltwoche ran a cover photo of a little boy pointing a gun next to the headline, “The Roma are coming: They come, they steal and they go.”
The “Roma issue” fed into simmering anxieties about migration; in May’s European elections, voters swung toward far-right and anti-immigration parties.
Last month, a vigilante gang in Paris beat a 16-year-old Roma boy they suspected of burglary into a coma, dumping him with multiple skull fractures into a grocery cart by the side of the road. Norway, meanwhile, is on track to implement a ban on begging, a move critics say is specifically designed to drive out Roma.
And so Cioaba’s job — to represent “Europe’s unwanted people,” long vilified as beggars, thieves, and worse — won’t be easy.
Cioaba said that while the EU has doled out billions to countries to help them foster integration, the money has made virtually no difference to the Roma.
At his mansion, a minder dressed in black came to the gate and led the way past a pool and a guest house. Two white Chihuahuas, Ronnie and Ronna, frolicked at our heels as we made our way into a large marble-floored lounge with white leather sofas, a treadmill in the corner, and lots of gold. A gold cheetah and hare kept watch, and a fish tank topped with a massive golden crown gleamed next to family photos.
Cioaba has a gold crown of his own, but that was being stored safely in a bank.
A lawyer by trade, Cioaba and his family have often made local headlines. He beat out his brother to take the title of king after his father, Florin, died of a heart attack last year. (Meanwhile, another relative declared himself emperor of all gypsies.) Years ago, Cioaba’s father married his 12-year-old daughter — Cioaba’s sister — to a 15-year-old boy. Cioaba’s grandfather, Ion, was known for helping Roma win back gold taken by the country’s communist regime, but many Roma say the Cioaba family’s wealth was built by taking a cut of the recovered gold.
Sitting at a long conference table during his first full interview with English-language media, the 44-year-old Cioaba said neither the EU nor the Roma were ready for Roma migration. “But the [Roma] emigrated anyway."
Cioaba added that while the EU has doled out billions to countries to help them foster integration — some $36 billion for social inclusion projects as a whole from 2007-2013 — the money has made virtually no difference to the Roma.
“The authorities in the countries where they went didn’t help them,” he said. “They were left to sleep by roadsides, in inhumane conditions, living with rats, and were forced by their situation into begging. I don’t agree with or defend [the Roma] creating problems, but most Roma are not beggars and thieves.
“[These countries] took the money. I don’t know what happened to it and I would like to know.”
Germany alone, said Cioaba, deserves praise. The country has helped Roma migrants with welfare and gotten Roma children into schools.
The question of how the EU’s money has been used is one that “haunts many decision makers, both in Brussels and in other EU capitals,” according to a 2012 United Nations report.
“It’s not fair to say nothing is happening,” EU spokeswoman Mina Andreeva told VICE News. “We have evidence of good programs.” However, she admitted progress is slow: “It will take decades to integrate all these people properly.”
The EU reportedly plans to begin earmarking money to specifically help Roma. But Cioaba claims very few Roma have actually left Romania since work restrictions were lifted January 1 — he estimated several dozen families have emigrated, as opposed to the tens of thousands or even millions some had warned of. And Roma rights advocates in large part believe most Roma who have emigrated will return after being ostracized abroad.
For Cioaba, the pathway to securing Roma rights runs through the UN. He plans to travel to the US this month to meet Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to discuss the possibility — derided by many, including other Roma activists — of Roma being recognized as a nation of people without a territory.
“Every minority is a majority somewhere in the world,” Cioaba said. “But we don’t have anything. If we obtain this statehood, we will have more chances to help the Roma community.”