Outsiders in London


Vilification of an ethnic group - the romani people

Important Note: This article concerns the vilification of an ethnic group and deals specifically with the Romani (sometimes ‘Romany’ or ‘Roma’) an ancient diasporic people of ethnic Indian origin - this is not to be confused with the vilification of a particular nationality (citizenship) which will be dealt with under another heading.  Nor does the article seek to address issues affecting Irish Travellers or English Romanichal Gypsies but recognises that there are many parallels between them and European Romani, especially with regard to how they have been treated by host communities, both now and in the past.

The Romani are a widely-dispersed, nomadic people with their largest populations in Europe.   It is thought that they started their migration form Northern India towards the end of the first millennium, thus arriving in Europe at least 1000 years ago.   Following the discovery of the New World, some continued their migration to the Americas - the USA currently has a population of almost a million strong and, in Latin America, Brazil is home to 800,000 Romani.

It is widely accepted that the Romani language is Indo-Aryan, with its roots in Sanskrit (it shares a basic lexicon with Punjabi and Hindi, with a grammar closely related to Bengali) but several distinct dialects developed over the centuries and some of these, like ‘Vlax Romani’ and ‘Balkan Romani’, are considered sufficiently divergent to be considered languages in their own right - they may be likened to the different languages of the Slav peoples.   Some Romani communities speak mixed or hybrid languages based on the grammar of the ambient ‘host language’ while retaining Romani-derived vocabulary – these are known by linguists as ‘Para-Romani’ varieties.   Many Romani simply became bi-lingual. 

While the earliest written records indicate the presence of Romani people in south-eastern Europe in 1322, it is clear that they must have reached the Balkans considerably earlier.   By that time, the vast majority of European peoples had opted for a settled, mostly agricultural existence, so the principally nomadic Romani, with their different culture, language and lifestyle, stood out;  as might perhaps have been expected, they therefore faced considerable discrimination from the very start.   While records are poor or still scattered, it is known that though the Romani were issued safe conduct in the Holy Roman Empire in 1477, they had been expelled from Germany in 1416, from Lucern in 1471, and from Northern Italy and France a few years later.   By 1536, they had also been expelled from Catalonia, Sweden and Denmark.   In 1554, the Egyptian Act gave the English crown the power to expel ‘Gypsies’ from the realm.   Portugal deported its Romani population to its colonies from 1538 onwards. 

Against this background of general persecution, rather surprisingly, in 1596, England gave Gypsies special privileges not granted to other nomadic peoples and a similar law was passed in France soon afterwards.   In Russia, Catharine the Great declared the Romani to be ‘crown slaves’ which may hardly sound appealing but which granted them a status superior to that of the majority, who were still serfs.   However, in other parts of Europe, the Romani were from time to time subject to severe discrimination and ethnic cleansing:  in some communities they were branded;  in others, they had their heads shaved.   In 1710, the Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph I, issued an edict requiring ‘all adult males to be hanged without trial’, whereas the women and boys were merely ‘to be flogged and banished forever’.   In the Kingdom of Bohemia, it was decreed that all Gypsies must have their right ears cut off and in Moravia, their left, measures of such savagery that the Romani population was forced to flee northwards into the lands that form modern Poland, where the indigenous population seemed more tolerant - at least for as long as the Gypsies paid their local taxes. 

In the Habsburg Empire, during the reign of Maria Theresa, the authorities embarked on a quest to force all Gypsies to settle, removing from them the right to own a horse or a wagon, forcing the young men into the Army, and even prohibiting marriage between Romanies. Her successor, Joseph II, went further by prohibiting the wearing of traditional Romani dress and making the speaking of the Romani language punishable by public flogging.   Such extreme measures were not new, of course:  similar constraints had been placed upon Spain’s Gitanos as early as 1619, where there was also forced settlement, the prohibition of the Romani language, and where adult women and men were forcibly separated and placed in workhouses, while most children were sent to orphanages.   In Norway, as late as 1896, the state took powers to remove all children from Romani parents  and records indicate that in the 20th century, over 1500 children were taken from their families in this way.   Forced or clandestine sterilisation of Romani women was common too in a number of European countries - eugenics through the back door long after the Second World War had ended. 

While WWII brought about the deaths of millions of soldiers and civilians, it was also the age of genocide, with the systematic extermination of Jews, Slavs, homosexuals, the disabled, politicos, and anyone else who dared to stand up to the Third Reich.   However, in the eleven massive volumes that record the Nürnberg Trials, the extermination of the Romani is mentioned in but seven sentences only, yet we know that the Nazis and their brothers in Fascism, the Ustaše in Yugoslavia, embarked on the pre-meditated and systematic extermination of the Romani people, known as Porajmos:  Gypsies were worked to death in labour and concentration camps but were also killed on sight by specialist Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units).   It is certain that more than half a million Romani people were killed, with some estimating the death toll at closer to 1.5 million.   Ironically, while immaculate records were kept detailing the elimination of the Jews and other minorities, when it came to the extermination of Gypsies, such records were seen as superfluous - Gypsies literally did not count.   In some parts of Europe, in Poland, Moravia and Bohemia for example, but also in all the Baltic countries, the Romani people were almost completely annihilated.   The Ustaše in Croatia, close allies of the German Nazis, succeeded in the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of almost all Gypsies from their Balkan territories.

Unfortunately, antiziganism is a contemporary phenomenon too and anti-Roma prejudice has remained with us to this very day.   According to a 2011 report by Amnesty International, "... systematic discrimination is taking place against up to 10 million Roma across Europe. The organisation has documented the failures of governments across the continent to live up to their obligations ..."  and it is sadly the case that discriminatory human rights offences have been documented in Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and Kosovo right up to the year 2000.   Until quite recently, the Czech Republic and Slovakia forcibly segregated Romani children in the education system, barring their attendance at ordinary schools;  they were duly reprimanded by the EU.   In Bulgaria recently, a reputable academic felt confident in publishing an article that affirmed:  “Gypsies should be confined to ghettos because they do not assimilate, are culturally inclined towards theft, have no desire to work, and use their minority status to blackmail the majority.”

The European Union now considers Gypsies, Roma and Travellers to be vulnerable ethnic minorities.   Also, there is now for the first time a Roma member of the European Parliament, the Hungarian-born anthropologist, Lívia Járóka, and this has to be seen as a significant step forward.   But the vilification of Romani people continues with some force, with prejudice being especially evident during the recent period of economic austerity;  some very unpleasant tensions have developed amongst hard-pressed populations who have manifested increasing hostility towards all outsiders or anyone seen as an economic migrant.

The Roma people continue to be associated with unemployment, with an unwillingness to work or to play an active part in society, while happily claiming benefits and spongeing off the state.   They continue to be linked with organised crime, with human trafficking, prostitution and other forms of exploitation.  And this is despite the fact that many Roma have successfully settled in their host communities where, whilst they maintain their culture and traditions, they are active and successful members of society, sometimes with a high-profile presence in culture, commerce, sports and science.

Regrettably, it is also the case that major controversies continue to arise in the policy making of European states.   For example, since 2007, Italy has taken drastic measures to repatriate Gypsies to the Balkans, accusing them of criminality, the brutal rape of women, and the organised deployment of minors for the purposes of organised theft.   In France, the ‘Roma Question’ is once again on the agenda and deportations are widely supported by  many in society.   The French Police and Courts have specifically targeted organised gangs that force children into crime - often burglary and pickpocketing.

In 1998, in the Czech Republic, Roma made up over 60% of the prison population, with surveys indicating that over 83% of the population there considered Gypsies to be ‘asocial’ and a staggering 45% wanted them expelled from the country.

In Britain, hostility towards Roma people is also commonplace.   The metropolis of London traditionally absorbed (and continues to absorb) waves of immigrants from all over the world and few would dispute the fact that these newcomers have helped to make London the remarkable city that it is today.   But for whatever reason, some ethnicities seem to offer perennial and legitimate targets for vilification, and that is certainly the case with the Roma. 

Despite all the prohibition and the obstacles that public authorities have put in their way, it must be acknowledged that some Roma families have managed to continue living a form of nomadic existence.   For them, coming to terms with ‘bricks and mortar’ would never be easy.   Such families often make temporary homes on the outskirts of major conurbations, where they often colonise derelict sites, old industrial premises, formal landfills, or along river and canal banks, sites that are deemed unsafe and where there is almost no proper sanitation or clean, running water.   Conflict with the local population is almost inevitably the order of the day and friction with town planners and other urban authorities is common.   However, Lívia Járóka, Roma member of the European Parliament, has stated quite rightly:  “Decades of discrimination have resulted in economic unemployment, extreme poverty, low education levels, segregated housing, human trafficking, substance abuse and high mortality rates.  But a cultural explanation of Roma criminality is nonsense!  It’s all about economics.”

In Hungary and the Czech Republic, there was great pressure to move Roma families into ‘bricks and mortar’ and to relocate them to some of the vast tower blocks built during the 1970s.   Unfortunately, this resulted in the phenomenon of ‘white flight’, with existing ‘normal’ residents moving out as a consequence of the Roma moving in, and with the buildings becoming increasingly ghettoised and derelict.   Of course, the Roma people were then blamed for the accelerating cycle of dilapidation.   It was not fully understood that any minority suffering from chronic, economic under-privilege would simply need greater support to survive in that sort of suburban environment.

Of course, this is not to deny that many Roma families are happily settled;  many have built or acquired impressive houses in Eastern Europe while working in the West, ultimately to return home to greater prosperity and perhaps in a position to start up a small local business too.   Some Roma people have long since lived settled lives in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania and are now similarly settling in France, Germany and Britain - just like everyone else, they mostly want to become more prosperous and to give their children a better start in life, and a better future.   These sorts of families struggle to start with, of course, as all new arrivals tend to do, but after a few years they become integrated into their new host community while continuing to respect their Romani traditions, culture and language.

This article is intended as but a brief insight into the Romani people and the adversities they have had to confront over the centuries;  it seeks to say something about their extraordinary stamina in surviving in host countries, never having one of their own, about the intense vilification and persistent discrimination they have suffered, and about the near extermination of the European Romani during World War II.   Above all, it is a small testament to their will to survive.

To those who would like to learn more about the Romani people, Katherine Quarmby’s recently-published book, No Place to Call Home, is highly recommended (published 2013 by Oneworld Publications).

Page updated 1st June 2014

The purpose of these notes is, in the spirit of education, to provide the reader with some additional information about specific topics covered in the sitters’ interviews and to draw together statistical, sociological and other relevant data which could not easily be incorporated into the records of the interviews themselves.

The notes are largely constructed from widely-available published materials on the topic in question and every effort has been made to exclude material which could be seen as spurious or contentious.   Of course, though care has been taken to draw only from bona fide sources, it cannot be claimed that these notes are authoritative;  for those who are already expert or who wish to delve further into a specific subject, cross-referencing with other reliable references is recommended.

While no material has been consciously included that might be deemed sexist, racist or offensive in some other way to a particular minority group or to individuals adhering to a particular religious creed or moral code, it is hardly to be expected that everyone will agree with every observation and conclusion.