Roma in Berlin: Bureaucracy in Lichtenberg

Is a wave of Roma threatening Germany?” was the recent headline of a popular paper, known for its tabloid-esque reporting. In the Eastern district of Lichtenberg, this headline becomes bureaucracy. In reality, it is about parents, children, and families, who happen to be Roma.

Roma Familie_Dokumentationszentrum


For my fieldwork in sociocultural anthropology, I run from one site of so-called immigrant integration to the next in the Berlin districts of Lichtenberg and Marzahn, doing my best to put together a structure that informs a system of practice. Within the waiting rooms and narrow offices of institutions serving immigrants, Roma are present and obvious, sticking out like a sore thumb without the opportunity for dialogue; they are talked about or talked around. And so one cannot talk about migration, diversity, and multicultural inclusion in Berlin without talking about how Lichtenberg talks about Roma.

On the first Tuesday of every month, the Migrantenrat Lichtenberg (immigrants’ plenary) meets to address issues of migration affecting the district and its neighborhoods. Tables are pushed together to frame a discussion, and the renovated walls of the Lichtenberg city hall fill with urgent  deliberation. The gospel of November’s session: The Roma are coming!

At this month’s plenary, approx. 20 Berliners were in attendance. Based on attire and commentary, bureaucrats from the district employment office (Job Center) and volunteer representatives of  ethnic-cultural organizations of immigrant populations mingled with local political officers. The new district commissioner for integration, Bärbel Olhagaray, was presiding – speaking perfect hochdeutsch, pursing her lips after every third word. But I am married to a Chilean, she remarked in her introduction, one among many reasons why she is an advocate for immigrant integration.


Frau Bärbel Olhagaray, Integration Commissioner of Lichtenberg


She offered the opening address, the title of which was ‘Roma in Lichtenberg’. The speech began with numbers.

Roma number about 800 to 900 in Lichtenberg, though many, many more are to be expected. There are three apartment complexes known to house predominately Roma families in our district, characterized by negligent landlords and overpriced rent. We approached these residences as a reaction to complaints in the area. Families of 6 occupy 30 square meters for a price of 600 Euros, sleeping nearly shoulder-to-shoulder. The houses lack consistent ways to dispose of waste. Our priorities are to reinstate order and cleanliness and to visit the families regularly to see what is needed.



But figures and living situations do not matter as much as Euros, at least as policy demonstrates. The economic element of Roma immigration is the primary reason the ‘Roma problem’ has gained attention and notoriety, particularly in districts overwhelmed by rumors that may prove to be true.

Since Bulgaria and Romania’s entrance into the European Union’s economic area, which allows for the transference of work permission and skills from one member state to the next, only partial admission into the German job market has been granted for citizens from these countries. Citing a wave of unqualified workers, often illiterate, into a strong market-driven economy, i.e. a wave of Roma, this act of exclusion became German federal policy. According to the European Union, Germany was acting in violation of economic rules of engagement and must retract its restricted work policy for immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania at the start of 2014. This affects Roma.

Most of the families are registered as self-employed, Mrs. Olhagaray continued, since they do not yet have the full benefits of EU citizenship, which grants them state assistance in many cases of difficulty. They wash windshields at traffic lights, peddle on the U-Bahn, play music in front of the mall entrance and somehow make ends meet. They send most of their kids to school, as far as we are aware, and ensure that they learn German while they are there.

When she and her colleagues go by for a visit, she added, they are greeted with open arms, tea, and cake. They know we are there to help them…and they need our help.

The room became silent, waiting for the evident problem to become clear.

2014 will be a year of change for Roma in Berlin, primarily for those who have come from Bulgaria and Romania. They will have access to the social welfare system, the situation will change dramaticallyfull stop.



Legal change may not change bureaucracy over night. In fact, it may take years until needy families receive any sort of visibility or assistance in the political arena. The Migrantenrat may set the agenda in the community and have an influence on local government, but laws are passed elsewhere.

Part of the problem with assisting Roma in Lichtenberg is the presence of stereotypes, seldom confirmed and often well-spread, evidenced by the contribution of one bureaucrat in employment services. Mrs. Olhagaray listened intently, as the woman – originally from Bulgaria – began to describe the situation of ‘Zigeuner‘ (gypsies), a word that has since become derogatory, particularly in the culinary world. In a slight Slavic accent, she told of these people: stripping their living quarters of metal and valuable materials for money, over populating neighborhoods, lacking hygiene and order. With one finger pointed out the window at the end of the room: the Pentecostal church, poverty, and illiteracy have led to too many children and no way to care for them!

But the cycle is slowly being broken. Many Roma children in Berlin are indeed going to school, and Berlin boasts initiatives which help them excel, as Sophia profiled back in June. In many countries where Roma have lived before immigrating to Germany, school was not compulsory and in many cases was informally forbidden to them.

Roma kids in school


It seemed that our task in the Migrantenrat was simply to absorb the fragments of a crisis: the Roma problem unfolding like a heavy, scarlet rug out onto the plenary floor. Bureaucracy is often about working within the rules set by others, not about solving problems.

But why do they come here? Why do the countries where they come from not intervene?, asked a literacy volunteer in Lichtenberg schools, now working to absorb the newly-arrived children of Roma families, who may have never seen a book in their home but come eagerly to learn, nonetheless, she shared.

Without the story of systemic segregation and discrimination behind the Roma (and Sinti) experience in Europe, answering this question is a difficult task. The situation becomes one of economics and not of humanism or even moral action – something enshrined in Germany’s constitution under its provisions for asylum and human rights.

So, if they can now access social services like any other EU-citizen, how many are expected to come?, asked a representative from the Russian community, his voice lightened by compassion, though cut with a hint of anxiety.

Many, was the message, simply thousands. With some other countries forcefully rejecting Roma and clearing settlements, as in France, Germany, especially Berlin, will become key destinations in the future.

Fortunately, social work agencies for immigrant populations have developed many projects for Roma-related challenges in Berlin, long before the problem was as acute as it is now. Talking to a Caritas social worker from my fieldwork, I was told that it was the NGOs and not the government who pushed for integration courses to contain a path to literacy. How are they meant to learn German and get a job if they do not know the alphabet, we thought, so we asked for 900 hours of instruction instead of just 600, where they at least have a chance, she said, exasperated.  

Another Caritas colleague was present at the Migrantenrat on this November day.  She sat quietly next to me, taking few notes, her arms crossed. As a social worker with more knowledge of German immigration and employment laws than any bureaucrat I have ever met, she looked a bit frustrated at the shock and awe that surrounding the discussion of a so-called impending crisis.

At the end of the plenary, she turned to me: This problem has been here a long time, we have been telling them…they didn’t listen.

I turned off my recorder. After reviewing the sound bites from the evening, one thing was clear: Of course, the Roma are coming. Why wouldn’t they? Everyone is coming to Berlin. This time, however, these people are not starving artists but rather a persecuted minority, seeking everything they have been denied. Even bureaucrats know that.

– By Kelly Miller

There is no single Roma identity or one Roma community, but for starters, some further resources are in order. Roma in Berlin: Landesverband Deutscher Sinti und Roma Berlin-Brandenburg e.V., the German Roma and Sinti documentation and educational center for current debates and cultural awareness in Heidelberg, the European Union’s report on discrimination against Roma. Finally, the Migrantenrat Lichtenberg is open to the public, if further discussions involving Roma and district politics happen to be of interest.

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