By Naftali Bendavid

Updated April 23, 2014 6:44 p.m. ET

Eforie, Romania

Three bulldozers, backed by teams of police, arrived at dawn to demolish 20 houses belonging to this town’s Roma, or Gypsies, leaving them to pick through debris for their belongings and brave several days of storms.

“Is this a jungle? Are we animals? Where do they want us to live?” said Bairam Memet, a 41-year-old resident in a gray hat and black jacket.

Eforie city officials say the 105 Roma in the now-razed enclave—some of whom had lived for decades in concrete houses—were terrorizing the area by piling up garbage and stealing. Many neighbors dispute the terror charge, but some support the eviction nonetheless, saying the Roma spread trash and committed petty crimes.

“In my opinion, they shouldn’t live separately but integrated into the community,” said Ioan Albescu, 55, who lives nearby. “It’s like dogs—if they are in a pack, they will bite you, but not if they are separate. When there are a lot of Roma together, they can be aggressive.”

The Eforie demolition and dozens of such events around Europe show the emotional resistance facing the European Union as it struggles to help the Roma, the continent’s biggest minority with 11 million people.

The EU is working to overcome centuries of discrimination that have kept the Roma disproportionately uneducated, jobless and poor, culminating in World War II when the Nazis sought to exterminate them. One-third of Roma are unemployed, 20% have no health insurance and 80% live below the poverty line, according to the EU Fundamental Rights Agency.

Now, a decade after countries with large Roma populations started joining the EU, the bloc is aiming to raise that standard of living. The new focus comes with the end in January of travel restrictions on Romania and Bulgaria, both with big Roma populations, which joined the EU in 2007. The opening of borders had prompted fears in older EU countries of a Roma “invasion”—so far largely unfounded—of poor immigrants that could tax welfare systems and public order.

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