Wednesday, September 29, 2010


The Situation of Roma
by Ian Hancock

Radio Free Europe

September 18 2010

Ian Hancock

While the Romani people’s problems are currently making headlines they are nothing new. Indeed the racism directed at Roma in the early 1990s was palpably more violent, on the street, than it is today. But-­-perhaps more troubling in some respects–­now the discrimination is originating at the governmental level, as events in Italy and France shockingly demonstrate.

In 2005 The Decade of Roma Inclusion was initiated, a coalition of the governments of Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania and Montenegro, and whose founding partner organisations included, inter alia, the World Bank, the Open Society Institute, the United Nations Development Program and the Council of Europe. It pledged “that our governments will work toward eliminating discrimination and closing the unacceptable gaps between Roma and the rest of society.” But at the midpoint of the Decade, little has so far been accomplished.

The factors underlying the contemporary situation are many and complex. First of all, one cannot even begin to tackle them without understanding the circumstances of Romani history. And while the early details of that history are vague in any case, they found no place at all in the socialist ideology (in all of the Decade’s member countries), which placed the future and loyalty to the state ahead of history and ethnocentrism. Roma were treated as a socially defined population and linguistic and cultural differences were carefully controlled, with their assimilation being the long-term goal.

Western scholars have known for over two centuries that the Romani people came from India. The details of how and why and when they left and reached Europe occupy much time among the academics, but it is generally accepted that the population was a composite one from the very beginning, and that it crystallized into an ethnic people­the Roma­during the mediaeval period having been brought there as service providers by the Seljuqs. And it was in the same capacity that they moved on up into Europe, this time as attachments to the Ottoman Turks in their conquest of the Byzantine Empire. Although located where Turkey is today, the Byzantine Empire was essentially “western” – Christian and Greek-speaking. Thus the Roma, Asian in language, culture and genetics, have only ever existed as a people in the West. This alone sets them apart, as Europe’s square pegs. And the situation is further complicated by the fact that as the Roma were shifting their identity from an occupational to an ethnic one, so they were fragmenting­moving across into Europe over perhaps a two century span of time, not as one group but as several. Scholars point to three main migrations. For this reason, there has never been a sense of “pan-ethnic” identity amongst the world’s ca. 12m Roma, divided by space and time; Gitanos in Spain have been separated from the Kaalé in Finland by hundreds of miles and as many centuries. We define ourselves more by what we are not (gadjé or non-Roma) than by what we are. We are defined in turn in many ways, but­thanks too to a well-entrenched literary stereotype­mostly as a people identified by behaviour­individuals who could “stop being gypsies” if they wanted to. That word for us is seldom written with a proper noun’s capital letter.

These details, and events over time such as expulsions, transportations, slavery and the Porrajmos (the holocaust) add up as external factors contributing to the barrier separating the Romani and non-Romani worlds. But there are internal factors too that have to be acknowledged. Together they explain how it is that a people with no land, government, militia or economy has managed to survive the centuries with its language and culture intact.

The internal factors that I referred to are just that; but bilingual and bicultural curricula are still barely evident in the post-socialist nations and will have to find a place in their classrooms eventually, especially where Romani pupils are concerned. Language is an issue in some countries but not others; in Slovakia, there are Romani children who can’t speak Slovak, but in Spain or Finland the children can’t speak Romani. Amongst many Romani groups such as the Vlax or Sinti, the cultural restrictions on socializing with non-Roma are deeply rooted and children are kept out of school because of it; but in other countries such as Greece they are less so, and it is mainly the external factors that divide society.

Some Romanies bear another, heavier legacy­a perspective on life inherited from the hundreds of years of slavery. If, for centuries, a people have lived in a society where every single thing, including food, clothing and even one’s spouse is provided from outside, i.e. at the discretion of the slave owner, and if getting anything extra, including favours, depends upon one’s influence with that owner, then it will instill an assumption that this is how one survives in the world. And while slavery has been abolished now for a century and a half, remnants of this way of thinking are still in evidence. Not only are assistance and material things sought from outside rather than from within the community, but cultivating useful and influential contacts outside of the non-Romani world is also a priority, and becomes a mark of prestige within it. A man can become the leader of his community on that basis alone. This kind of thinking does not encourage self-determination or personal initiative; but before it can be addressed and changed, it has to be understood. Statistically, the highest number of criminal arrests for national Romani populations are among the descendants of the freed slaves, even though they do not form the country’s majority Romani group­in Hungary is an example.

This psychological baggage, still evident a century and a half after abolition, is matched as well by the damage done to Europe’s Roma during the Porrajmos (the holocaust); the Final Solution of the Gypsy Question issued over Himmler’s signature on March 24th 1938 led to massive losses that are still being enumerated. As with the abolition of slavery, when the former owners were compensated for their loss but the ex-slaves were simply turned loose, no war crimes reparations were paid to the Romani survivors after the Holocaust, reparations which, one might speculate, could have helped Roma reorient themselves. No programmes exist as yet to examine the psychological problems endured by Roma.

These are just some of the factors that have to be examined if constructive moves forward are to be made. Education is paramount; both Roma and non-Roma must be taught the details of the historical experience. The external circumstances that have brought us to this deplorable condition today have to be understood, and our linguistic and cultural distinctiveness accommodated. We need our own teachers, lawyers, physicians and politicians, not to work separately from the larger society but to work with it and within it; we must be consulted directly about what it is we want and don’t want, spoken to and not about: in the words of the Decade’s action statement, “nothing about Roma without Roma.”

Ian Hancock


The Romani Archives and Documentation Center

Texas State Commission on Holocaust and Genocide


A collection of Ian Hancock’s writings may be found in Dileep Karanth, ed., Danger! Educated Gypsy (Hertfordshire University Press, 2010

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