Sunday, July 5, 2009


The Roma: Why We Shouldn't Fear Gypsies
by William Blacker
From The Times

"I know too well its truth, from experience, that whenever any poor Gipsies are encamped anywhere and crimes and robberies, etc, occur, it is invariably laid to their account, which is shocking; and if they are always looked upon as vagabonds, how can they become good people? I trust in Heaven that the day may come when I may do something for these poor people."

These lines were written by Queen Victoria in 1836 — wise words from a young girl. And just by writing them she had already done something for those “poor people”. The loyalist thugs responsible for the hate campaign against the Romanian Gypsies in Northern Ireland might perhaps heed the words of the great-great-grandmother of their present Queen.

Queen Victoria drew attention to what is still the nub of the problem: that wherever Gypsies go they arouse suspicion. They look different, often with dark skin and wearing unusual clothes, they speak a different language, do not understand local customs and make little effort to integrate.

As soon as suspicion is aroused, local populations are inclined to jump to the wrong conclusion and innocent people may suffer. I too have been guilty of over-hasty judgments. While in Romania some years ago my passport disappeared and I assumed that it had been taken by Gypsies living in a slum that I had been visiting. I returned there and asked for my passport. They assured me they did not have it. I told them that I would have to go to the police. They begged me not to: local people and the police would be furious with them, they said, for having shamed them by stealing from a foreigner. I decided to go to the embassy in Bucharest and apply for a new passport. On the way I called in on friends with whom I had stayed earlier. They handed me my passport. I’d left it on a bedside table.

Since that time I have become fond of the Gypsies, or “Roma”, as they are often known, and I have spent many years living in a village in Romania where most of the inhabitants are Gypsies. Their lives are disorganised, sometimes exasperating, but they are charming and with a joy of living despite impoverished circumstances. Many are musicians, others metalworkers or brickmakers. They are occasionally unreliable, but if there is any thieving it is usually petty and incompetently carried out. Overall, they are good, friendly people and I warmed to them, as I did to the Romanians and Saxons who also live in the village.

I have a son whose mother is a Romanian Gypsy with whom I had a relationship for more than three years, living together. My son is being brought up in her village and I see him for six months each year. He is a happy, contented three-year-old, but I worry for him when I read about indiscriminate attacks against Gypsies in Italy, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and now in Northern Ireland. I am sure that innocent people suffered.

I have no first-hand idea of what the Gypsies in Belfast were doing. I have read that they were begging, selling copies of the Big Issue, living many to one house and not respecting local customs. I do not know who is to blame for the trouble. But I know that this is a centuries-old problem.

The accepted view is that the Gypsies left areas in northwest India about 1,000 years ago and headed westwards, passing though Persia and Armenia and arriving in the Balkans in the 14th century. From there many continued farther west. There are account books from Holyrood House in 1529 that mention payments to Gypsies dancing for King James V of Scotland. In some places they were received favourably, in others not. Read any history of the Gypsies and you will find countless incidents similar to the one in Belfast. There is nothing new about Gypsies travelling around Europe, nor of them being made unwelcome.

What is new is the scale of the migration and the reasons for it. Nowadays tens, even hundreds, of thousands of East European Gypsies are travelling around the Continent. They have been leaving in droves since 2004 when visas were no longer required. Travelling long distances is now easy, and they have heard that good money can be made in Western Europe. There is one other important reason: the old way of life in Romania is breaking down. When I first went there most village communities were almost self-sufficient. They produced their own food and entertainment. Each village had its own sawmills and flour mills. Neighbours helped each other with farm work and young and old worked together in the fields.

The Gypsies too had specific roles within this society. They would travel from village to village working metal, making spoons, sieves, brooms, collecting old bottles for recycling, buying walnuts from the villagers. Others would play music for village balls, weddings and funerals.

But with Western ideas, which undermined local traditions, and Western products, which destroyed local economies, communities began to break down. The smoothly functioning, centuries-old communities of Eastern Europe are being allowed to disintegrate. And with this, Gypsies are gradually becoming redundant. There is less opportunity for them to make money and they have little choice but to do what everyone else is doing: to head west, looking for work, or to locate to countries where they have heard stories about the generosity of government welfare handouts. But not all Gypsies find lucrative work, or are lucky enough to arrive in countries that take care of them while they are looking for it.

Sitting in the bar of the village where I live in Romania, I hear the pitiful stories of those who have returned home disappointed. Many Gypsies have left in the hope of earning an honest living in the fields of Western Europe. The naive and innocent are lured away by unscrupulous agents. Two young boys I know were offered jobs on a farm in Germany and assured that they would earn €70 (£60) a day — many times more than they could earn at home. But they found themselves forced to beg on the streets of Salerno, Italy. They were beaten and threatened with mutilation or being drowned. At night they slept in rat-infested apartment blocks lying on cardboard boxes and rags, with hundreds of other bewildered Gypsy slaves. Only after pressure from their family at home were the boys returned to Romania. They had begged for three months, but returned with €3 in their pockets.

This month I heard of the experiences on a farm in Germany of two women from my village. They had been told they would earn €50 to €60 a day. They paid €100 for a contract and €100 for the journey. When they arrived they were housed in draughty huts in east Germany, near the Polish border. They were given numbers, not names, and at 5am each day were driven to fields and told to pick strawberries. They were paid by weight of strawberries but were lucky if they managed to earn €20 a day. From this they had to pay for lodging and food, and to repay their employer his expenses. If they had managed to work for two months they would have earned an average of €150 a month — €5 a day. They cut their losses, begged and borrowed money and walked 8km to the nearest town where they found transport to Romania.

Such experiences in labour camps in Germany, especially for Gypsies, has worrying resonances. People are tricked into such situations because there are no jobs in Romania’s villages. In Communist times there had been the co-operative farms, which provided work for everyone in the village. Since the Romanian revolution these have been allowed to decay.

Now there are few jobs but many Gypsy children growing up. My son goes to the local nursery school, along with the other Gypsy children. It is as good a school as any I have seen in England, and there are encouraging signs that Gypsies are being included in the Romanian educational system. But as my son and the other Gypsy kids grow older, they will not have jobs if the present conditions continue. Like the young now, if no work becomes available the chances are that they will turn to petty crime, or head west, very likely exploited by gang bosses, and possibly even end up begging in Northern Ireland.

Can not some imaginative EU politician think of ways of providing useful jobs in Romania to help disadvantaged minorities? Gypsies are skilled craftsmen, but their villages are often crumbling. Could there not be a system of grants from the EU to repair their historic buildings and so provide jobs for those who desperately need them. Is it beyond our wit to think of ways to redirect this money to Romania and save these communities before they break down altogether, to invest in local industry, to get working again the old saw and flour mills that have fallen into disrepair, to give grants to brick and tile-makers (a Gypsy profession) and to encourage small-scale organic agriculture?

All these are vital jobs are needed to keep the communities alive. All the different ethnic groups in Romania, including the Gypsies, would benefit. EU politicians should, like Queen Victoria, look for positive solutions to the problem, for “if the Gypsies are always looked upon as vagabonds, how can they become good people?”

Most Gypsies are not permanently nomadic and are longing to work at home in Romania.

Along the Enchanted Way: A Romanian Story by William Blacker is published by John Murray, £20. To order it for £18, inc p&p, call 0845 2712134 or visit

No comments: