Guest post by Dr Julija Sardelić. Julija is Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at LINES – Leuven Institute for International and European Studies, University of Leuven, Belgium. 

‘We did not cross borders, borders crossed us!’ is a popular slogan used by civil society movements for migrant rights. The slogan captures the geopolitical paradoxes and legal hurdles people with a non-citizenship status face. In their everyday lives, and with limited access to many of the rights citizens take for granted, such people experience what Balibar calls the ‘ubiquity of borders.’ In my research on the ‘invisible edges of citizenship’, I explore how individuals belonging to marginalized minorities are affected by such matters. Specifically, I explore the ubiquity of borders for Europe’s largest minority, Roma, most of whom are EU citizens, or are at least entitled to citizenship status in Europe.

Different estimates suggest there are around 12 to 15 million Roma on the European continent. Present in virtually every country in Europe (except Malta), they were dubbed as Europeans par excellence by the Council of Europe in the early 1990s. In political science, some scholars have referred to Roma as a trans-border nation.

Wherever they live, Roma are usually a small territorially dispersed minority (between 1 and 5%) within the wider population.  Many different studies have shown that they are the most marginalized minority in Europe. They face discrimination on an everyday basis, as well socio-economic hardship with reports indicating that up to 80% of Roma live below their country-specific poverty line.

One of the clearest and most widely discussed examples of how Roma are confronted with the ubiquity of borders was raised in the debate on the EU freedom of movement. The EU Directive 2004/38/EC states that all citizens of EU Member States should have the right to move and reside freely in another EU Member State. However, this right has a key caveat:  host states do not have to take responsibility for those mobile EU citizens who are economically inactive. For these ‘inactive, intra-EU migrants, rather than labour market integration, states offer ‘voluntary return’ programs. Notwithstanding their desire to work, Roma have been some of the main ‘beneficiaries’.  

Much academic literature, like public discourse, gives an impression that Roma are a highly mobile population due to their ‘nomadic culture’. On the one hand, historically Roma have often not been allowed to settle. On the other hand, today’s states invent new ways to limit their freedom of movement contributing to their forced mobility. Indeed the available data show that there is only a small percentage of Roma who are actually mobile, especially beyond the borders of their own states.

In socialist Czechoslovakia many Roma were relocated by the state from the Slovak to the Czech part so that they would be ‘evenly redistributed’. In former Yugoslavia many had to flee their homes during the Kosovo conflict and ended up in Serbia and Montenegro. While at the time they did not cross any internationally recognized borders, as I have argued in my previous work, during the establishment of new states, borders crossed them; rendering them vulnerable to statelessness. Hence, they had no formal access to the labour market, health care or education in the newly formed countries. Many, especially in the post-Yugoslav space, are still fighting to regain their citizenship.

After the EU visa restrictions had been lifted, an increased number of Macedonian citizens identifying as Roma sought asylum in different EU Member States. In response, the EU Parliament voted on the visa-free suspension mechanism, which would be triggered if more Romani asylum seekers came to the EU. As a result, many Roma were stopped at the Macedonian border, by border guards who would not allow them to leave the country. Although Article 13 of the Universal Human Rights Declaration states that everyone has the right to leave their own country, some Roma who were citizens of Macedonia could not practice this right.

Anthropologist Nicholas De Genova has stated that ‘if there were no borders there would be no migrants – only mobility’. While Roma, as trans-border citizens of Europe, could be the first flagbearers of borderless Europe, instead, as the cases described above illustrate, they embody the ubiquity of borders. Borders cross them even before they become mobile. As such, they offer a new perspective about the ‘borders of citizenship’, which need to be discussed further. In future research, we need to reconceptualize the invisible, those omnipresent borders that exist within citizenship itself and impede access to rights for the most marginalized populations.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Sardelić, J. (2018) How Do Borders ‘Cross’ Roma?. Available at: (Accessed [date]).