An European Minority

Roma migration to Europe from India via the Middle East and Eastern Europe started in the 13th century. Today Roma minorities made up of mainly settled communities are to be found in varying numbers in every European country. Estimates of the total number of Roma in Europe vary between 10 and 15 million. The precarious situation of the Roma in economic, social and cultural terms is still linked to the many prejudices faced by a minority that has been a target of discrimination for centuries (→ Discrimination). Their apparent lack of willingness to integrate, which is still criticised today, is due to the fact that they were denied rights of residence and work in the past. As a nomadic people with no rights, they were subject to massive pressures of assimilation. The marginalisation of the Roma practised since the Middle Ages brought about a degree of social exclusion and prejudice that culminated in the genocide of at least 250,000 Roma under the Nazi regime.


Special status: Prejudice past and present

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The name Roma derives from the word “rom” meaning “man”. Their language, Romanes, is an Indo-European language and is related to Sanskrit. The Roma, who came from northern India, never lived in a state of their own; they were enslaved by the Seljuks, a Muslim Turkish people who ruled over Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia and Asia Minor for three centuries. With the incorporation of the region in the Ottoman Empire and the growing influence of the latter in Central Europe, the first Roma appeared in the Balkans. The Roma, who were still partly enslaved in the Ottoman Empire, spread through southeast Europe and at the beginning of the 15th century arrived as refugees in Central Europe. During the Turkish invasions the Roma, some of whom were Muslim, were wrongly suspected of being Turkish soldiers or spies. Another myth relating to this enigmatic people is reflected in the word “gypsy”, which derives from “Egyptians” and was intended to indicate Egyptian origins. In much of continental Europe, Roma have been known by – no longer politically correct – names cognate to the Greek τσιγγάνοι (tsigani), which relates to the Old Turkish word “tschigan” meaning “poor people”. Over the centuries, the Roma living in northwestern Europe introduced many German loan words into their language, while the Roma dialects employed in southeast Europe and the Balkans contain many words from Armenian, Persian or Greek. The traditional clan structures of the Roma, which still survive in some places today, are reflected in old clan names, some of which reflect their traditional occupations. The Kalderash, for example, were smiths and metal workers, the Churari grinders and the Lovara horse drivers. These names come from southeast Europe, where three quarters of the Roma live today.

At all events, the foreign element reinforced the prejudices of the local populations, and the immigrant minority of the Roma had no choice but to remain on the move (→ Kaleidoscope of Demographic Change). At the same time their nomadic way of life attracted criticism, too, and in the 18th century especially, under Empress Maria Theresia and Joseph II, they were subjected to a rigid programme of assimilation. The instruments of forced settlement included a ban on their language, adoption of their children and obligatory mixed marriage. On the territories of today’s Bulgaria and Romania, thousands of Roma were not finally liberated from slavery until 1864. In response to these coercive measures and general discrimination and marginalisation, the Roma moved on, finding casual work as basket weavers, grinders, broom makers, itinerant musicians or seasonal farm workers.


Behaviour of public authorities: Between support and repression

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After 1900 the Roma were systematically persecuted at the national and international level as the pariah of Europe. The powers of Central Europe signed bilateral treaties providing for information sharing and the creation of Roma files complete with personal data, photographs and fingerprints in an attempt to solve their Roma problem. The measures have striking parallels with the Roma and migration policies practised against a background of cultural prejudice in most majority societies in Europe today (→ Xenophobia). As a result of this widespread rejection, the accession of Central and Eastern European countries to the EU in 2004 had to be accompanied by measures to protect the Roma, who mainly live there. The main legislative measures relate to improvements in healthcare, integration in the labour market, training for teachers of the Roma language, help for Roma children attending normal schools and the involvement of representatives of the Roma in matters of local interest and additional political participation. The Roma are now a recognised minority in most countries of Europe, although there are still grave shortcomings in the implementation of the legal provisions and prosecution of offenders.

At the local level especially, politicians and officials often seek to instrumentalise the tensions that exist between the Roma and the majority population (→ Media). In 1999, for example, the mayor of a Czech town decided to build a four-metre-high fence around a Roma settlement. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found Romania and Bulgaria guilty of omission, in 2007 and 2004 respectively, in cases where Roma had not had their rights upheld (Gergely v. Romania; Kalanyos and Others v. Romania and Nachova v. Bulgaria). According to a ruling of the ECtHR in a case in the Czech Republic (D.H. and Others v. the Czech Republic, 2007), a policy of relegating Roma children to special schools is a violation of their right to education and of the ban on discrimination (→ Judiciary). The summer 2010 was dominated by what has become known as “l’affaire des Roms”, in which the French government expelled almost 1000 Romanian and Bulgarian nationals of Roma origin living in France. This decision provoked massive protest at EU level and raised doubts as to its compatibility with EU law. Roma in many other countries, including Croatia, were also found to be victims of segregation in the education system, and of discrimination on the employment and housing markets. Such discriminatory or simply tardy measures taken by the authorities frequently create situations in which the local people seek to take the law into their own hands and attack members of the Roma community. The following is just a selection of attacks and wrongs inflicted on Roma in recent years: bomb attack in Oberwart, Austria, in 1995, causing the death of four Roma; sterilisation of Roma women in Slovakia in 2003; stigmatisation and wholesale condemnation of Roma by Italian politicians followed by attacks on Roma settlements in autumn 2008; arson attack combined with the murder of father and son in Hungary in spring 2009. In 2011 the European Roma Rights Centre (→ NGOs) published a report that looked into the State response to 44 selected cases of anti-Roma violence in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia showing that many Romani victims of violent crimes do not secure justice. This might have negative impacts on the will of Romani individuals to report crimes committed against them to law enforcement authorities. In fact, a major survey carried out by the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) showed that Roma hardly ever report discrimination and assaults committed against them.


European measures for a European minority

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The frequent phenomenon of social marginalisation of Roma in the fields of education, employment, health and housing falls within the wide-ranging scope of the EU Racial Equality Directive, although implementation in national law by the Member States is a slow process. Various measures taken by the Council of Europe and the EU, including the 1997 European Year against Racism and the 2007 European Year of Equal Opportunities for All, are also designed to demonstrate to members of the Roma communities that they can respond to discrimination and demand their rights (→ Xenophobia). In addition to the monitoring instruments of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) conducts visits to Member States of the Council of Europe and makes recommendations on the situation of the Roma there. In addition, the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) has an agency in Warsaw (ODIHR – Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights) with a Roma contact office, which supports governments in the field of Roma policy and operates a conflict prevention programme. Good progress has been made with regard to collaboration between these bodies of the Council of Europe, the OSCE and the EU, especially in the fields of human and minority rights and reconstruction in the former Yugoslavia (→ Organisations).

In addition to this legal anti-discrimination work (→ Discrimination), the EU has also adopted structural measures in support of better integration of the Roma in economic and social life. Such initiatives are taken in the framework of the European Structural Fund and Social Fund, in which € 275 million were allocated to Roma projects in the 2000-2006 Financial Perspective, with a main focus on employment, education, healthcare, housing, access to public services, and gender equality. Under the aegis of the Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, an interservice group was established in 2004 to coordinate these matters as a cross-sectional strategy within the Commission. In the current Financial Perspective for 2007-2013 funding has been made available for the first time for social housing through the European Regional Development Fund, and increased participation in the creation and implementation of the operative programmes is provided for the Roma themselves, along with non-governmental organisations, local authorities and the social partners (→ NGOs).

In April 2005, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the situation of the Roma setting out clear guidelines against discrimination for member and candidate states and for special measures to improve the situation of the Roma in Europe. Many other EU initiatives and documents followed. Not all of the calls – like the proposal to nominate a dedicated Commissioner for the Roma as suggested by MEP Hannes Swoboda (SPÖ) – were successful. However, in 2011 a new EU policy document signalled a major breakthrough at least at the level of policies: On 5 April 2011, the European Commission issued a Communication on an EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies up to 2020. This policy document links the need to tackle poverty and exclusion, while protecting and promoting fundamental rights. The fact that in June 2011 the Council of the European Union endorsed this new EU Framework for coordinating national Roma strategies shows that there is a shared concern amongst the EU Member States, and that it is high time to finally let words be followed by deeds. The new EU framework sets EU-wide goals for the integration of Roma across the EU, focusing particularly on improving their situation in healthcare, education, employment and housing at the local, regional and national levels. Even if there is now a strong will to coordinate Roma policies at the EU level, the major responsibility for the destiny of the Roma remains at the national level.

Already at the beginning of 2005 nine European countries committed themselves at the bilateral level to fight discrimination against the Roma in their respective countries (→ Transnational Cooperation). This Decade of Roma Inclusion initiative (2005-2015) was launched by the governments of Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Hungary and is supported by the European Commission, the World Bank, the UN, the Council of Europe, the OSCE and the Open Society Institute. Given the unique history of the Roma in Europe, going back over more than 700 years, however, there is room for doubt whether a ten-year programme can be enough to bring significant change to the lives of the Roma and reduce the current level of prejudice.

Two take aways: 

  1. In the official terminology, the word “gypsy” has been replaced by “Roma” and “Sinti”, although the latter are actually a subgroup of the former. Eighty percent of the Roma live in countries of the EU including the new Member States on the Balkans. Their standard of living is often compared with the Third World. In 1993 the Council of Europe established a commission (ECRI) to address the subject of racism and intolerance. Furthermore, the EU has increased its activities in support of Roma in various ways.
  1. The most recent developments set the EU and its Member States in a shared framework aimed at coordinating the national integration strategies. In the last few years, however, in spite of a massive awareness-building effort and numerous projects designed to improve the situation of the Roma, the socio-economic situation of the Roma has not substantially improved. Moreover, there has been a pronounced increase in the number of attacks on Roma in the old and new Member States of the EU.