Spain's Tolerance of Gypsies: A Model for Europe?

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Jon Nazca / Reuters

Gypsies dance in a procession of the Gitanos brotherhood during Holy Week in Málaga, Spain

Antonio Moreno lives on what is reputedly Madrid's most dangerous street, where dealers openly offer any type of drug around the clock. He owns a four-bedroom house with a pool; he works out of his own photo and video studio — and he's a Gypsy, one of the 40,000 inhabitants of an illegal settlement on the outskirts of the Spanish capital. If they lived in just about any other European country, Moreno and his neighbors would be the source of tension and controversy: on Tuesday, the European Union called France's continued deportation of its Gypsies a "disgrace" and threatened disciplinary action against the country. Suddenly, all across Europe, a community that is used to living on the fringes is now in the spotlight — and in some cases, suffering heightened prejudice as a result. But Moreno isn't worried. Because when it comes to dealing with Gypsies — also known as Roma — Spain is different.

"[The deportations] will never happen here," says Moreno. "We are integrated. I'm first Spanish, then Gypsy, and I'm proud to be both." While many European countries see their Roma communities as problems to be tackled, Spain has embraced its Gypsies, giving them rights, celebrating their history and making them feel at home. "Of course there is racism, but it's better here than anywhere else I've seen," Moreno says, referring to his trips to Italy, France, Germany and the Czech Republic. "Spain has helped Gypsies a lot."

Indeed, 35 years after the death of dictator Francisco Franco, the lives of the Roma have improved dramatically. "We weren't even human before. We were animals," says Moreno of the time when authorities prevented Gypsies from working, studying or even gathering in groups bigger than four. Today the European Commission, E.U. member countries and the Roma themselves all agree that Spain has become the model for integrating Gypsies, with some citing it as a case of good practices. Now the governments of Bulgaria, Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and even Romania — where many Roma come from — are looking to Spain for ideas to apply themselves.

Of the 10-12 million Roma living in Europe, Spain has the second biggest community, estimated at 970,000, or about 2% of the total population. And the country spends almost €36 million annually bringing them into the fold. In Spain, only 5% of gypsies live in makeshift camps, and about half of Roma are homeowners. Just about all Gypsies in Spain have access to health care, and while no recent figures exist, at least 75% are believed to have some sort of steady income.

Spain is also investing in an area that many experts believe is the key to keeping Roma out of poverty: education. Almost all Gypsy children start elementary school (although only about 30% compete it), and more than 85% of the country's Gypsies are literate. "Spain's use of European social funds is a good example for other member states," said E.U. Commission Vice President and Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding in an e-mail to TIME. "The Spanish government has shown that it is working on integrating the Roma population, and we've seen some positive results."

Spain's two-pronged integration approach has been instrumental in those results, pairing access to mainstream social services with targeted inclusion programs. For example, Roma can have access to public housing and financial aid on the condition that they send their children to schools and health care facilities. Then there's the Gypsy Secretariat Foundation Acceder program, which experts say is one of the best integration initiatives in Europe. The program takes young, unemployed Gypsies and teaches them technical skills and helps them earn the equivalent of a high school degree. At the end, they are placed in jobs through a series of agreements with private companies. The program has been such a success that Romania's National Agency for Roma is trying to implement its own version.

But can the rest of Europe replicate Spain's success? Much of the country's good work in integrating Roma is thanks to its specific history with the community. In order to guarantee stability in a country split along nationalist lines, the constitution written after Franco's death was inclusive of all ethnic groups and cultures, thus shielding Roma from institutional exclusion. And because Gypsies were the single most impoverished population in the 1980s, they attracted the most development efforts.

Despite centuries of victimization, Gypsies have melded into Spanish mainstream culture — flamenco dancing and traditional Spanish dress are both borrowed from the community. "Spanish Gypsies also resisted integration efforts less than in other countries because they have been sedentary for centuries," says José Manuel Fresno, an adviser to the E.U. commission on Roma issues and head of the Spanish government's anti-racism commission.

Even if other E.U. countries followed in Spain's footsteps and learned to love their Roma, that would solve only half the problem. The best way to stop countries such as France and Italy from deporting Gypsies is to ensure that Gypsies are happy enough at home that they don't need to migrate to France or Italy in the first place. "Spain has done much more than other member states [to integrate Roma], but now we have to make sure that success transfers to new member states," says Ivan Ivanov, executive director of the Brussels-based European Roma Information Office. "Then Roma migrations might stop." Deportations are futile, he says: "The Gypsies will just come back in a few months. Policies need to be adopted now, or in five years the very same countries will complain of migrations from other countries."

Antonio Moreno would agree. A Spanish Gypsy as far back as he can trace his roots, he can't imagine his family living anywhere else. And while he appreciates that his children get financial aid and that the state pays for his grandchildren to attend school, he believes that Gypsies have a responsibility to integrate. "Most Gypsies are good people and want to coexist with others," Moreno says. "There are some who exclude themselves, but not us. We're staying in Spain because this is our home."