Friday, May 6, 2011


The Roma people (or "Gypsies" in the common vernacular) have come under the media spotlight again following reports that extreme right-wing vigilantes in Hungary have made threats on the local Roma population, forcing them to flee to safety elsewhere, with help from the Red Cross.

But who are these Romani people who have lived in Europe for centuries and seem to always exist on the fringes of society; and who have inspired much literature, music, legends and misconceptions?

For one thing, the English word "gypsy" is a corruption of "Egyptian," based on the mistaken assumption that the Roma came from Egypt.

Roma, who have endured extreme poverty, slavery, prejudice, discrimination, social exclusion and even mass murder (culminating in extermination by Nazi Germany) throughout their long history in Europe and elsewhere, are widely believed to have migrated westward from northern India in the early Middle Ages.

As such, the Roma have left evidence of their settlements across the Old World from South Asia, through the Middle East and into Europe.

There are currently at least 12-million Roma in Europe (some estimates run as high as 20-million or even more). They are concentrated in Eastern Europe and the Balkans -- in many of these countries Roma comprise the largest ethnic minority.

In a book about the European Roma, "Bury Me Standing," the author Isabel Fonseca wrote: "Gypsies have no home, and, perhaps uniquely among peoples, they have no dream of a homeland."

She also described the Roma as living "outside history."

The Roma in Spain, who number perhaps as much as 500,000, are known as "Gitanos", and have become intricately connected to the public perception of Spanish culture, particularly in the southern province of Andalusia.

For example, flamenco music, renowned across the world, is entirely of Roma origin.

Roma have been in Spain since at least 1425 and have been subject to persecution that kept them a repressed class for centuries, although many made a living as entertainers, blacksmiths, horse traders, musicians, dancers and fortune-tellers and street vendors. However, begging and stealing also predominated.

Since the death of General Franco, the Spanish government has undertaken a more sympathetic policy toward the Roma, especially in the areas of education, housing, social welfare and social services.


Hungary has long been associated with Roma, where they are believed to form about 10 percent of the population. Roma here have come under ethnic attacks in recent years, particularly by right-wing nationalist and paramilitary groups who have blamed them for crime. Some Roma have even been murdered.

Hungarian Roma remain burdened by dire poverty, poor housing, high unemployment and bad education. They also have the highest birth rate in the country.

However, Roma now have some semblance of political representation. In the European elections, 2009, Livia Jaroka became the sole Romani representative of the European parliament from Hungary.


Roma have lived in Greece since the late 14th century and now number about 350,000. They are the largest ethnic minority group in the country and are known as “Tsiganes.” According to the website, "most Greek Roma are indigent, living either as nomads seeking seasonal employment, or in makeshift settlements with no infrastructure whatsoever."

Pelekas adds: "Living in a legal limbo, [Greek] Gypsy populations attempting to settle down have repeatedly faced social prejudice and harassment. In recent years, as land has become more expensive, forced and often illegal evictions of Gypsies from long-standing settlements by order of municipal authorities have become more frequent. "

It is estimated that 80 percent of Greek Gypsies are illiterate.

During the Athens Summer Olympics of 2004, Roma families and encampments were reportedly cleared out and bulldozed, respectively, by Greek authorities, in order to provide space for athletic events (and most likely to remove the poor Gypsies from public view).


The name of the country of Romania is derived not from the Roma (gypsies), but rather from the Roman Empire.

In any case, Romanian Roma made news last summer when French president Nicolas Sarkozy ordered the deportation of hundreds of them from his country -- in a move that was widely condemned given that Romania is a member of the EU.

There are believed to be more than 2-million Roma in Romania (accounting for almost 10 percent of the nation's population).

While most Roma here are desperately poor, a distinct minority are quite well off, some are even wealthy landowners


Roma have had a significant presence in Bulgaria for at least 600 years. Although the Socialist government abolished ethnic appellations in the 1970s, prejudice and discrimination against Roma remains firmly in place.

Although the numbers cannot be verified, scholars believe there are probably about 500,000 Roma in Bulgaria, accounting for about 5 percent of the population.

Government efforts to assimilate Roma and force them to abandon their nomadic lifestyle have only been partly successful.


Many Roma in Poland were exterminated during the Nazi Holocaust (a tragedy they called the Porajmos). In the late 1980s, many Roma migrated to Germany.

As such, the Roma population is relatively small - estimated at only about 50,000.

However, Roma made a strong impact on Polish culture, poetry and music.

Perhaps the most famous Polish Roma was the poet and singer, Bronisława Wajs, better known as Papusza.


The Roma of Albania, who have been in the country for at least 600 years, are somewhat different from their brethren in neighboring Balkan nations in the sense that decades of isolation and poverty has left virtually all Albanians poor. Thus, the Roma, in general, are not much worse off than the other Albanians.

Roma in Albania are nominally Muslim and live all across the country. They number about 150,000.

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