about the Roma

Photo credits on this page: Mona Nicoara (c)Sat Mic Film,LLC
Roma (also derogatorily known as “Gypsies”) are Europe!s largest and most oppressed ethnic minority. Since migrating to Europe from Northern India in the 11th century, they have been relentlessly persecuted: In 16th century England they were criminalized as vagrants. In Romania they were enslaved until the end of the 19th century. In Nazi Germany they were exterminated in concentration camps. In post-communist Eastern Europe they fell victim to skinheads and mob violence. And as recently as 2010, in France, Germany, Italy, or Denmark, they were violently evicted from their homes and deported in large numbers.

Far from romantic Western notions of free, mysterious and wise “Gypsies” or “Nomads,” prevailing stereotypes in Europe hold that Roma are not interested in education; that they are lazy, unable to hold a job or to make a living other than by stealing or begging; that they are dirty and can spread disease on contact; and that they are inherently violent and infectiously barbarous. They are seen as a threat to the very fabric of the family: Majority parents tell their children that “Gypsies” will come to steal them if they stray away from home, or that they will be given away to “Gypsies” if they misbehave.

Roma themselves paint a different picture. They want to receive a good education and to escape the cycle of extreme poverty and discrimination. Burdened by stigma, they lack opportunities and experience hostility from educators, employers and the general population. Aware of a recent history of racial violence, they perceive outsiders as potential threats and often fear for their children!s safety among non- Roma. They often see the majority populations as hostile to Roma identity and culture and unwilling to differentiate between assimilation and integration.

There are no reliable estimates of the Roma population in Europe, primarily because many Roma refuse to identify themselves to census-takers for fear of discrimination. The Council of Europe places its estimate at between 10 and 12 million. Roma groups have suggested that the numbers may be closer to 14 million. In the US, where Roma arrived in starting with the early nineteenth century, unofficial estimates hover around the 1 million mark. Most Roma today are not nomadic. Roma groups estimate that no more than 20 per cent of the total Roma population still maintains a nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle.


The old segregated school near Targu Lapus in 2006

Throughout Europe, large numbers of Roma children are segregated in separate classes, in ghetto schools, and even in special schools for students with intellectual disabilities. These schools offer very poor quality education in appalling conditions: Windows and basic furniture are often broken, and even the most elementary teaching materials, such as handbooks or chalk, are nowhere to be found. The curricula for these schools are often modified or “slowed down” to the point where they make it impossible for students to ever catch up with their non-Roma peers. The few teachers there are ill prepared and unmotivated to deal with their students. While the immediate justifications for segregation may range from the combination of residential segregation with faulty school districting, through abusive implementation of educational reforms for minorities, to white flight towards private schools or middle-class suburbs, the ultimate cause for separate education can always be traced back to deeply-rooted racism against Roma.

In recent years, human rights activists and Roma groups have mobilized to address the issue by pressing international bodies and development agencies to take action against segregation and litigating strategic cases. In 2007, Europe's highest human rights court, the European Court of Human Rights, issued the first judgment on the matter, condemning the Czech Republic for systematically segregating Roma children in special schools for children with intellectual disabilities. Two similar judgments, one involving Greece and the other involving Croatia, have been issued since.

Despite these landmark cases, real change on the ground has been slow to come. Several initiatives to improve the situation of Roma have included education as a major priority: The Decade of Roma Inclusion, a commitment by 12 European governments modeled largely on the UN Millennium Development Goals, and a new pan-European strategy for Roma inclusion promised by the European Union for Spring 2011, in the aftermath of the recent expulsions of Roma from France. But estimating the impact or even promise of these initiatives would be premature at this point in time.

Roma in Romania

"Gypsy Slaves" auction poster
The descendants of slaves freed in late 19th century, Romanian Roma have been subjected to racial violence and discrimination for centuries. Before being liberated on February 20, 1856, most Roma in Romania were the property of the feudal aristocracy or Christian Orthodox monasteries, being traded at fairs - as indicated in the auction poster here.

Once liberated, Roma were not given any compensation or property; most ended up settling in informal hamlets on commons at the edges of small towns, where illegal settlements with virtually no infrastructure can still be found today.

During World War II, the German-allied government in Romania deported approximately 25,000 Roma to uninhabited areas of Transnistria; about 11,000 Roma died either during transport or because of the harsh conditions in Transnistria.

The Communist regime installed after the end of World War II pursued a policy of forced assimilation against Roma, forcing the few Roma who still maintained a nomadic lifestyle to settle, and eliding the existence of Roma as a minority in official documents.

Shortly after the fall of the Ceausescu regime in 1989, Roma became the target of mob violence and newly revived nationalistic discourse. Human Rights Watch documented over 30 such cases of mob violence between 1990 and 1995. While physical violence has decreased in recent years, the attacks on Roma identity have not: As recently as January 2011, the Romanian Parliament was presented with a bill which proposed banning the term “Roma” and replacing it with “Gypsy” in official documents and discourse - ostensibly in order to help foreigners distinguish between the Romanian majority and the Roma ethnic minority.

The number of Roma in Romania is estimated to be between 1.5 and 2.5 million, making Roma the largest ethnic minority in Romania, hovering between 8-11 per cent of the total population. Most of Romania!s Roma population live below the poverty line; according to recent World Bank estimates, over 70 per cent of Roma in Romania live in poverty.