Roma: Not all alike

Roma beggar in Paris. Credit: Seb Ruiz, Creative Commons licensed on Flickr
Roma beggar in Paris. Credit: Seb Ruiz, Creative Commons licensed on Flickr

Guest post by Sam Beck

The European Union must be held accountable if European states continue to expel Roma from member countries. The expulsions are taking place because Roma have created settlements not only in designated campgrounds but also within urban boundaries. This is not new. However, the scale and density of such settlements disturbs the sensibilities of Europeans. This is not only a West European phenomenon. Events of intolerable discrimination are also taking place in East Central Europe and the Balkans from which many of these Roma originate. The history of anti-Roma sentiments in both East and West Europe is torturous and long-standing.

A rather unusual situation emerged in Romania where Roma have lived for hundreds of years, where to this day they appear in abundant variation, from people who have resumed migratory lives to people who have been settled at the margins of villages, towns, and cities for as long as anyone can remember. In Romania, Roma were enslaved and indentured for centuries. They played important roles as musicians, miners, and in producing objects necessary for an agrarian society, crafting metals and wood objects. Today, those that we call Roma, were involved in all sorts of labor, agricultural workers and house servants.

Some may no longer speak their Sanskrit based language, or if they do they speak it with lexical-items borrowed from Turkish, Romanian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Czech, Slovak, Russian, and so on. In Romania, many no longer speak Romani. In Romania, Roma may identify themselves with this “national” identity, or they may identify as “tsigani,” how others have named them. This is a term of derision. Some Roma have integrated themselves into the mainstream of Romanian society and melted into the Romanian ethnic identity. Some Roma sustain their identity and have experienced upward mobility in many different fields.

Roma were persecuted in the Nazi era, large numbers of whom lost their lives; their population decimated in great proportions to their total numbers, referred to as Prajmos. Oddly enough, when mentioned at all as a persecuted population in Germany’s ethnic cleansing effort they are lumped in with Jews, rather than being mentioned outright as a population. No museums exist for them and if there are memorials for them, I do not know of them. They have no homeland with which they can identify. There is no Israel that was created for them as it was for Jews. Their identities are claimed as citizens of their countries of origin.

Since the 1990s, the people who are being displaced and resettled are the ones who are poor. These are not the migratory Roma. Much like low-income migrants from all over the world, Roma are looking to gain a better life for themselves and their children. While Roma are increasingly being organized into a mass movement within their respective countries of origins and in the European Union, local events cause them to be persecuted as a maligned, racialized, and stereotyped minority if they are lucky or as unwanted outsiders and criminals. Roma from East Europe and the Balkans are leaving their countries as a result of the persecution that is so virulent there that it has caused death and destruction of settlements not unlike pogroms of centuries past. For example, in Cluj, a university city in Romania’s multi- ethnic Transylvania region, a large Roma settlement is being displaced and moved into a more remote and environmentally marginal area. The Roma have not been given any recourse. They appear not to have any civil rights. Roma have been attacked in Hungary, the Czech Republic, and the Slovak Republic. These attacks include fire bombings, shootings, stabbings, beatings and murders.

The world over, the stigma associated with migratory populations ranges from the relationship between nomadic and transhumant pastoralists and sedentary agriculturalists to immigrants of various sorts displaying religions and customs not present and appreciated in the host country or region. Tax collecting and census taking States are normally uncomfortable with highly mobile populations. Moreover fear of the “stranger” has a long history in European countries. Roma are often considered “internal foreigners.” In the past they had the reputation of stealing children because it explained why Gypsies had blond children, while Jews were said to steal children to eat them in cannibalistic rituals. Fears of the stranger persist in Europe.

National identities embedded in the idea of racial purity linger in modern Europe, a Europe whose nations have seen their diversity swell well beyond what the populace believes to be acceptable levels. Switzerland had to curtail the height of mosque minarets to retain their built environment identity as Swiss. France passed laws to prevent Muslim female school children from wearing clothes that covered their heads and faces believing that this was an attack on France’s “secular” system that has a Roman Catholic overlay.

Very much like blacks in the United States, the Roma still receive improper and poor education, have limited access to resources for development, whose cultures are disrespected and even loathed. They find it difficult to gain access to housing acceptable to the authorities and often enough do not know how to live in such housing when obtained. This situation is recognizable enough to anyone who is familiar with how difficult it is for long-term US homeless to adequately care for themselves in housing provided to them. People have to be taught how to live in apartments, if what you are used to is living in homes made up of found objects. It is not as if people like to live in filth and misery. They do not! Roma are either pushed into the most misery infested areas of a city or find themselves having to choose these, because they are denied access to anything better.

The European Union must do a much better job at caring for this population and seek out realistic strategies for integrating them into their national societies and the EU in general. It is ironic that a Europe, facing a population decline of large proportions that potential contributors to its economy would be cast out. European countries are facing demographic downturns that will have massive effects on their economies. Roma could be a helpful infusion into the labor force should respective countries assume the responsibilities they have for the rest of their population.

The total population number for Roma remains unclear; perhaps as many as 10 million Roma exist in Europe. Deportations of Roma, mostly from Eastern Europe and the Balkans have taken place since the 1990s. France deported over 10,000 since 2009. Germany deported 60,000 Roma in the 1990s as illegal immigrants. Holland, Sweden, and Italy have also deported Roma. Italy’s Prime Minister Berlusconi wanted to fingerprint Roma men women and children, declaring them a national security issue.

In the United States, discriminatory attention is now placed on Muslims. In present-day Europe, the economic downturn of events has placed the Roma in jeopardy. Lessons that should have been learned from the events of the 1920s-1945 seem to have been forgotten. Government sponsored discrimination inevitably leads to right wing led racism and xenophobia, bestowing the populace permission to scapegoat the Roma and doing some God-awful things to them.

Sam Beck was a child in post-World War II Vienna.  He studied in Yugoslavia as an undergraduate, carried out research in Iran among nomadic pastoralists, and completed doctoral and post-doctoral research in Romania before and after the execution of the Ceausescus.  Throughout this time, he had contact with Roma in Vienna, Yugoslavia, Romania, Turkey, and Iran.  During a post-doctoral research project funded by IREX, Beck collaborated with Nicolae Gheorghe, a Roma Sociologist political activist and found himself covering a wide range of Roma groups, especially in Transylvania. Most of his publications on his Roma research can be found in the first iteration of Dialectical Anthropology.  He now carries out research in New York City and is publishing work on Public Anthropology.

3 thoughts on “Roma: Not all alike

  1. matthäus rest

    there are memorials for the persecuted and extinguished roma and sinti, although not many: there has long been one in the auschwitz birkenau and there is an excellent museum in auschwitz that opened in 2001. i also know of a small memorial near brno in czech republic were a transit camp for czech roma used to be.
    as far as I know the memorial in berlin is still not constructed.

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  2. PG

    Roma have had years to adapt to modern society , they seem incapable of doing so . Also these people have a nationality , so why are they called Roma, they have not even integrated in their country of origin . There are laws worldwide for immigration , people respect these laws or suffer the consequences .
    Also you say the EU population is decling , that is not true , EU populations realise that overpopulation will be a problem on this planet if we don’t react , think of the future not just today .
    Also attention on Muslims is not just a priority in the US , in Europe also . I live in a Muslim country , with all its racism and inequality . Show me a developed democratic Muslim country in the world , thats why Muslims got to the West , to live better (hypocrytes)
    This Roma thing is a load of publicity bullshit , people either obey laws or they should be dealt with in one way or another .

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  3. Caryn

    Very interesting article, but this comment – “Very much like blacks in the United States, the Roma still receive improper and poor education, have limited access to resources for development, whose cultures are disrespected and even loathed.” will only fly with those not familiar with the US. While racism still exists to a degree, this is patently false–as we even have a black president. Black culture is not loathed, it is idolized by much American youth. A lot of time racism is maintained by myth of its continued strength.

    and

    “In the United States, discriminatory attention is now placed on Muslims. ”

    You have GOT to be kidding. I was very interested to read about the Roma, but considering your absolutely ignorant statements about something I know about, i.e. the US, I don’t trust you for information on something I don’t know about.

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