How much do Roma Lives Matter?

By Mara Ciu

Oh, Romania! Dracula and vampires and werewolves, right? And gy—No, actually never mind, that’s all I know about your country.

Gypsies, you mean?

Yes, they come from Romania, right?

And this is when I would try to laugh misinformation off because one cannot afford to dwell on it too much. An against-the-clock battle begins in the name of making the correct information resurface, even in a casual conversation. People’s attention spans have been proven to be so severely limited that I need to take advantage of the momentum I gain by saying: No. They actually don’t.

So who are “the Gypsies”? Why do we hate them so much, and why don’t we call ourselves out for that? Why is it so difficult to integrate them? Why does the West look down upon them? Who is to blame for the marginalization of this particular ethnic group without a national identity? What can we do to change the persistently racist treatments that the media fails to portray objectively?

Stereotyping leading to exclusion

         At an international level, the thick cloud of social stigma around Europe’s greatest ethnic transnational minority, the Roma people- but commonly and pejoratively referred to as Gypsies, Tsigani, Bohemians, Gens de voyage or Zigeuners– derives from a coincidental name association coupled with ignorance. One of the most widespread stereotypes among non-Eastern Europeans is that all Roma people are Romanians. While the largest concentration of the Roma ethnic group is indeed presently found in Romania, other Central European and Balkan countries such as Bulgaria, Hungary, Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Czech and Slovak Republics register high numbers of the minority within their populations as well. In terms of their origins, the Roma people can be traced back to the Punjab region in northern India and, as nomads, they entered Europe in the 8th and 9th centuries. So, no, not all Roma people are Romanians.

         The second-most widespread stereotype is that the Roma people are nomads due to their own customs. Before the 15th century, this fact would have been more valid since their migration used to be prompted by rituals, following kin or tribes, irrespective of national boundaries. Nowadays, their tendency of frequent relocation is related to economic migration or, historically, to persecution, racism, exile, and governmental hostility. For example, during World War II, the Roma people represented one of the largest groups targeted by Nazi Germany’s ethnic-cleansing policies after the Jews. In another instance of openly racist treatment, as early as the 1370s, the Roma, on the territories of Moldova and Wallachia (modern-day Romania), used to be enslaved by the Crown, the Orthodox Church and the nobility. Upon the abolition of slavery in 1855-1856, the Roma population that became free were never compensated for the abuses waged towards them. 

For generations thereafter, the former Roma slaves continued to be referred to as “emancipated Romanians” in any legal document, thus forging the underlying perception of inferiority to the major class of Romanians. If anything, this can be interpreted as one of the many precedents in the collective memory which perpetuate the endemic racism, persistent hate speech, and wannabe-joking remarks that segregate the Roma from the majority. Governments often attempted to evoke the fact that it is ultimately the Roma’s vehement refusal of self-association with a national identity rather than policies and popular opinion that hinders integration. This practice further marginalizes them as illegitimate citizens of a given country.  It is also presently considered to impede their harmonious assimilation into a territory and equal access to resources and opportunities.

Understanding the Roma

Many Romani “tribes” refer to themselves by different names, such as Sinti, Kalderashi, or Laller, and it is less common for them to self-identify as citizens of a country due to their strong sense of ethnic rather than national belonging.In the 1990s, the Roma representatives managed to gain the support of the Council of Europe and the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, and were consequently recognized as a “transnational minority without a motherland facing different problems than normal national minorities”. In achieving this, the main and most de facto argument concerned the Roma’s lack of concentration in a specific territory. Seems obvious, right? On the same note, in 1992, the language of the Roma people, Romani, was recognized as a “non-territorial minority language” by the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages.

Based on their ethnic subdivisions, they adhere to very different cultural norms. For instance, some still practice child marriage (another remnant of their Indian roots), while others do not. The states with larger Roma populations have often tried to regulate this practice, which violates human rights, in an attempt to foster cohesion. Some speak only the Romani language (linguistically developed from Sanskrit) within their home, while others have renounced this aspect of their heritage and have adopted the language of the country of residence to achieve higher social status. What one Romani group regards as “the Roma way” can mean nothing to another group. These ethnic peculiarities within the Roma community intensify the integration “problem”: society views them as “different”, from their darker skin tone to their funeral ceremonies (when someone dies, the Roma gather in the cemetery wearing their most colorful clothes, play music, dance, dine together, celebrating the deceased instead of mourning them as customary). However, “different” has an inextricably negative undertone: one of profound savagery, sub-human condition, and default malice.

Why do we “hate” the Roma?

         As aforementioned, the deeply rooted social stigma against the Roma lies with their past enslavement by the Church. However, this is only the case of the Roma in Romania. Considering the blurry situation and the nomadic status of the minority in question, it might be more fruitful to look at the situation today in order to accurately understand the hostility towards them.

         First, we need to turn to something as basic as education. Due to not speaking the country’s official language, hence being unable to understand anything in class, most Roma parents do not even consider sending their children to school. With virtually no schools that teach subjects in Romani (which remains solely a spoken language, with 54% of Roma still using it at home), this is one of the main causes for which Roma children never step into a classroom during their lifetime. Other factors that halt their learning journey involve marriage and child-rearing practices at a young age. Studies conducted in Bulgaria show that in 1994, 40% of the Roma had married before the age of 16 and 80% before the age of 18. However, education provision remains a task of the states. Mediocre efforts are made to create teaching materials in Romani due to lack of investment. The Roma children are thus assimilated into the regular school system. Be it their non-Roma teachers or their peers, they are often discriminated against due to their presumed laziness and reduced ability to keep up with the workload in a language which is not their first. Oftentimes, Roma children are distributed into schools for children with disabilities or special needs when, of course, these children do not have any disabilities or mental conditions that need to be addressed. In Hungary, 90% of the pupils attending such schools are Roma. Furthermore, spatial segregation adds to the poor education of Roma children. For example, in Bulgaria, the districts and ghettos where the Roma live in have a lower standard of education compared to other schools

         Second, the economic status of the Roma is strongly correlated with the opportunities they have access to. Without proper education, in the fast-developing countries of Eastern Europe, the Roma remain highly unlikely to secure themselves a position that will include them in the country’s formal economy. Bearing in mind the widespread hate speech promoted by the mass media since the fall of the Iron Curtain, they are, at best, going to engage in what are perceived as “lower class jobs” such as janitors or construction workers. Consequently, many Roma resort to informal economic activities such as street commerce, cleaning car windows at traffic lights in the hopes of receiving a few coins from a merciful driver, begging, or, worse- and increasingly common- stealing. In accordance with their historically nomadic customs, the Roma of today often emigrate to Western countries such as Germany, France, and the UK. This particular emigration started in the 1960s, when there was an increase in the demand for cheap foreign workforce. Initially regarded as economic refugees or “poverty asylum seekers” after the fall of the Soviet Bloc, the Roma from the (indeed poor, post-communist) Eastern European countries later came to be seen as invaders, as immigrants “flooding” and de-purifying the races, stealing the rightful jobs of the citizens, threatening the very much consolidated national identities.

         In this context, the 2010s’ Western media was especially dedicated to hate speech and the spread of stereotypes. The European Union’s inability to address the needs of its largest ethnic minority continuously led to the further vilification of this group and generalizations concerning their behaviors. In the quest of building a shiny, picture-perfect image, the leaders of countries like France and the UK took, in some instances, brutal action in an attempt to maintain supposed harmony. For example, in 2010, Nikolas Sarkozy ordered the bulldozing of at least 50 Roma camps and the deportation of thousands from the edge of French cities. The UN and the Pope looked down on the French president’s decision at the time, as it violates fundamental human rights. Nonetheless, this kind of decision sends a very clear message to both the minority and the majority: the Roma are not welcome here. But where are they welcome? There is no home: just places to make do.

All things considered, the recurrent argument that many of the Roma come to the West for petty jobs, often getting involved with local criminal organizations, drug dealing, looting and stealing, is not entirely false. Indeed, some Roma are not as well-intentioned as others, but this applies to humans in general, and the fact that society seems to be so blatantly racist is, to say the least, discouraging. The aforementioned disruptive actions that some Roma seem to be engaged in originate, in fact, from the two significant problems previously discussed rather than their ethnicity: lack of education and scarcity of opportunities resulting from racism. Ultimately, who is left to take responsibility for the situation? Their special status as a trans-national minority seems to deepen the chasm between the necessity to belong and the desire to preserve a unique lifestyle, language, and culture, which are consistently misunderstood by those in power. Is it individual governments’ responsibility to handle Europe’s largest ethnic minority? Would it not make more sense for this matter to be addressed at the EU-level? We have, thus far, witnessed limited involvement from the union, leaving each government to find solutions on its own. One thing remains certain: international cohesion is necessary in order to provide for this migrant, trans-national minority,

Therefore, the question remains; do Roma Lives Matter less to the European Union?

Edited by Indra Schieferbein, image from Mihai Surdu from