Roma are the largest ethnic minority in Europe, comprising eight to ten million people, and are also one of the most disadvantaged. They migrated from India to Europe in the early part of this millennium and brought with them their own language (Romani, related to Hindi) and distinct cultural traditions. Roma in German-speaking countries are known as Sinti.
The name "Gypsy," which Roma are more commonly called in English-speaking countries, is a corruption of the word "Egyptian," reflecting a mistaken belief that Roma had come from Egypt. Some Roma reject "Gypsy" as pejorative and prefer, instead, "Roma" (a term of self-ascription from the Romani language).
There are Romani minorities in many states, including an estimated one million in the United States, but they are concentrated in Central and Southern Europe. To view the concentrations in different countries, visit here.
There are many stereotypes and assumptions made about Roma people. Roma live in many different environments, speak different languages and different dialects of Romani, they can be found on all five continents, and have adopted many of the habits of the majority population of the countries they live in. They are engaged in numerous occupations, are members of different religions, and their financial and educational situation also depends from person to person, from group to group, and from the general situation of the country they live in.
Only 20 per cent of European Roma today is still nomadic, almost exclusively in Western Europe. In previous centuries nomadism was almost never a matter of free choice but of persecution. Continuous expulsion is a main feature in Roma history.
For a discussion of more stereotypes about Roma, visit the Council of Europe's Dosta! campaign website.
Earlier this month, CRIN posted a story about how Finland is cracking down on Roma who beg with their children, threatening to send mothers and children back to their country of origin or to take the children into foster care. The aim, authorities say, is to protect the children.
In Italy, there is particular concern for the way in which the right-wing government, recently elected, is victimising Roma. Since late May 2008, the new government has adopted a series of legal and policy measures that explicitly discriminate against Roma, in violation of international and domestic law.
In July, the government was roundly criticised for suggesting that fingerprinting Roma children may help to crackdown on crime. The European Parliament called the fingerprinting a clear act of racial discrimination and urged the authorities to stop it.
Also in July, photographs were published of sunbathers in Italy continuing as normal with a day at the beach despite the bodies of two Roma girls who had drowned being laid out on the sand nearby.
Meanwhile in January, a town council in a district in Rome passed a motion to separate those children from traveller families from other children on school buses. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitors and reports on the human rights situation in its 56 participating states, including Italy, has expressed serious reservations about Italy's handling of Roma.
In November last year, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Czech Republic had practised racial discrimination by wrongly channelling Roma children into remedial education schools. And in August last year, a child prostitution ring which was sexually exploiting immigrant Roma children as young as nine was found to be operating in Glasgow, Scotland.
A tradition of repression: historical overview
Romani history in Europe has been characterised by severe repression, including enslavement in Romania and Moldova and efforts to assimilate them forcibly. During the Holocaust, Roma were targeted by the Nazis for extermination. Significantly, the mass killing of the Roma people was not an issue at the Nürnberg trial (the war crime trials held following World War Two). The genocide of the Roma – Samudaripe or Porrajmos – was hardly recognised in public discourse.
However, the Second World War did not represent the first period of repression for Roma. There has been 500 years of repression in Europe of the various Roma groups since their arrival following their migration from India. The methods have varied between enslavement, enforced assimilation, expulsion, internment and mass killings.
For example, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the 18th century the rulers applied a policy of enforced assimilation. Roma children were taken from their parents and instructions went out that no Roma was allowed to marry another Roma. Furthermore, the Romani language was banned. This policy was brutally enforced. For instance, the use of the ‘Gypsy’ language was to be punishable by flogging.
More recently, after 1990, Roma became the targets of racially motivated violence in some post-Communist countries. The absence of legislation to protect Roma from discrimination in the workplace, public places, education, housing, and the military often leaves Roma without legal recourse in many countries.
In 1999 they were the targets of violence by ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. In the Czech Republic, the city of Usti nad Labem constructed a wall to divide Roma from non-Romani residents.
Roma today: same old story?
Thomas Hammarberg, Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe, has noted that the ‘reasons’ for these policies have, over hundreds of years, been similar. He said: “The Roma were seen as unreliable, dangerous, criminal, and undesirable. They were the outsiders who could easily be used as scapegoats when things went wrong and the locals did not want to take responsibility.”
He added that there has still not been any recognition in several countries that this minority has been repressed in the past and no official apology has been given. One good example to the contrary was the decision by the government Bucharest in 2003 to establish a commission on the Holocaust which later published an important report on the repression and killings in Romania during the fascist period.
The Commissioner has noted with dismay the recent stories of Roma repression, and has argued it is similar to that perpetrated by the Nazis. He said: “Today’s rhetoric against the Roma is very similar to the one used by Nazis and fascists before the mass killings started in the thirties and forties. Once more, it is argued that the Roma is a threat to safety and public health. No distinction is made between a few criminals and the overwhelming majority of the Roma population. This is shameful and dangerous.”
European response 'inadequate'
The European Roma Policy Coalition* agues that, to date, there is no integrated and comprehensive EU policy that specifically targets Roma discrimination/integration. Where anti-discrimination laws have been adopted, implementation is either slow, inefficient or inexistent. The socio-economic gap between Roma and majority populations has caused social exclusion and unrest.
”Structural discrimination has been blatant in crucial areas such as access to housing (e.g. evictions), education and property rights. There is an unprecedented rise in anti-gypsyism in Europe, including in official speech. Roma communities migrate within Europe prompted, in many cases, by discrimination and other violations of their rights only to find themselves subject to the same problems in a new host countries”, the Coalition has said.
The EU has a website dedicated to the Roma issue which you can visit here.
On 2 July, the EU Commission released its Roma Inclusion 2008 Commission Staff Working Document. However, the European Roma Policy Coalition noted “the many gaps and failures in the current approach taken by the EU and member states to foster Roma inclusion…the failure on the part of the European Commission to develop an ambitious strategy, long term planning, or direct commitment for a coordinated EU Roma strategy” and called for the Commission to acknowledge its accountability and failure to take action.
Read the full response here.
A European Roma Summit is set to take place in Brussels, Belgium on 16 September 2008. See the draft programme here.
Unsure of the difference between the European Union and Council of Europe (and how they work on child rights)? Visit our guide here.
Such discrimination and repression has an impact for a wide range of children's rights. UNICEF, in a report called Breaking the Cycle of Exclusion: Roma Children in South East Europe, explains that Roma children suffer from poverty, discrimination and a lack of prospects for their future in eight states of South East Europe: Albania, Bosnia Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Kosovo, FYR Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania and Serbia.
According to the report, Roma children face a number of obstacles including:
- Poverty: Between one quarter (27 per cent in Bosnia and Herzegovina) and almost two thirds (59 percent in Kosovo) of Roma live in poverty and, in five of the eight countries/entities surveyed, more than 40 percent of the Roma population are poor.
- Health: Two thirds of the Roma households have not enough to eat. Children are less frequently vaccinated and their families cannot afford medicine when they are ill. 20 percent of the children are not healthy compared to seven percent of children from non-Roma families. Six times as many Roma children are underweight, compared to the average national figures in Serbia. In FRY Macedonia three times as many Roma as the national average are under weight.
- School attendance: Roma children are seriously disadvantaged as far as school attendance is concerned. If they are enrolled at all they usually go to “Roma schools” only which are ill equipped and lack qualified teachers. Roma children are very often referred to schools for children with special needs – the reasons for that appear specious.
- Level of education: A relatively high percentage of Roma children enter school. Unfortunately very few of them complete even primary education. In Serbia, only 13 percent of Roma children complete primary education. Results from FYR Macedonia show that less than half of the 63 percent of Roma children who enter primary school complete it. The data shows that the chances of Roma going on to secondary and higher education are much reduced in comparison to non-Roma children.
A number of organisations have focused on the racial segregation or exclusion of Roma children in education. Illiteracy becomes a serious handicap in an environment where the use of writing is an everyday necessity: the future of Roma communities hinges very much on arrangements for schooling their children.
For example, during research missions in Ukraine since 2006, the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) reports that a variety of forms of racial segregation of Roma in education have been identified. They can be described as:
- separate classes for Roma in a separate school building;
- geographically segregated schools in predominantly Romani neighbourhoods;
- schools where Roma predominate or where they are only students;
- classes for children with mental disabilities where Roma are overrepresented; and
- schools at risk of becoming segregated when non-Romani parents decide to take their children to other schools allegedly due to the health problems of Romani children who live in very poor conditions
Most Romani children either graduate illiterate or leave school at an early stage. In addition, most of the predominantly Roma schools are in poor physical condition with no cafeteria or dining hall, no sport facilities, with no indoor toilets or running water, with minimal furniture in various stages of disrepair and lacking the facilities necessary to educate students adequately, such as computers and laboratories. Even the most basic equipment is inadequate or altogether lacking.
For ERRC recommendations on how to address these disparities, visit here.
According to a recent Amnesty International report, Romani children are still being segregated within Slovakia’s public school system. Amnesty has also produced reports focused on the discrimination against Romani women and girls in Macedonia, and on the exclusion of Romani children from primary education in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The journal Roma Rights Quarterly, produced by ERRC, has focused on child protection. Read the edition, issued last year, here.
Read from the ERRC on children here.
Sources: Council of Europe's Dosta! website; U.S. Mission to the OSCE Office of Public Affairs Nov 1999 Fact Sheet: US. support for Roma and Sinti; Open Society Institute and Soros Foundation Network; EU Roma Policy Coalition; EU website on Roma; Thomas Hammarberg's viewpoints on the issue
*(The European Roma Policy Coalition brings together national and international NGOs working on discrimination, human rights and social inclusion issues. They are: Amnesty International-EU Office; European Roma Rights Center; European Roma Information Office; European Network Against Racism; Open Society Institute-Brussels; Spolu International Foundation; Minority Rights Group International; European Roma Grassroots Organisation; Roma Education Fund; and Fundacion Secretariado Gitano).
- Council of Europe: Recommendation No R (2000) 4 on the education of Roma/Gypsy children in Europe
- European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages
- EU Race equality directive
- International standards and commitments on tolerance and non-discrimination (OSCE)
- International standards and commitments on Roma (OSCE)
- Reference framework for educational policies in favour of Roma (Council of Europe)
- Human Rights, Redress and Remedies in case of Roma: A perspective of the National Council for Combating Discrimination from Romania (OSCE)
- See a list of Collective Complaints under the European Social Charter (what is this?) (Council of Europe)
- Cases from the European Court of Human Rights dealing with Roma issues (ERRC)
- Convention on the Rights of the Child - Articles 17 and 30 especially
- Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
- International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
- International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights - Article 1
- Concluding Observations of the Committee on the Rights of the Child e.g on countries with Roma populations such as Romania, Italy, Bulgaria etc
- Visit CRIN's legal database for more laws and guidelines
- Minority Rights International: International instruments on minority rights
- Minority rights case law from European, Inter-American and African regional systems as well as UN Treaty bodies
- Child Rights References in the Reports of the Working Group of the Universal Periodic Review for Romania
- European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia: Roma and Travellers in Public Education: An overview in the Member States (May 2006)
- Open Society Institute and Soros Foundation Network publications on Roma
- European Roma Policy Coalition: Towards an European Policy on Roma Inclusion
- Council of Europe webpage on exclusion of Roma children in Europe
- Toledo guiding principles on teaching about religions and beliefs in public schools
- Amnesty International: A tale of two schools: Segregating Roma into special education in Slovakia (July 2008)
- Italy: Security a la Italiana: Fingerprinting, extreme violence and harrassment of Roma in Italy (July 2008)
- UNICEF: Breaking the Cycle of Exclusion: Roma Children in South East Europe (May 2005)
- Amnesty International: False starts: The exclusion of Romani children from primary education in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (November 2006)
- European Roma Rights Centre: http://www.errc.org/
- The European Roma Policy Coalition: http://roma.wieni.be/
- Amnesty International-EU Office:
- European Roma Information Office: http://erionet.org/site/
- European Network Against Racism: http://www.enar-eu.org/
- Open Society Institute-Brussels; http://www.soros.org/initiatives/brussels
- Spolu International Foundation; http://www.spolu.nl/index.html
- Minority Rights Group International; http://www.minorityrights.org/
- European Roma Grassroots Organisation; http://www.ergonetwork.org/
- Roma Education Fund; http://romaeducationfund.hu/
- Fundacion Secretariado Gitano: http://www.gitanos.org/
- Council of Europe Roma and Travellers division: http://www.coe.int/T/DG3/RomaTravellers/Default_en.asp
- Dosta! Go beyond prejudice, discover the Roma.” Initiated by the Council of Europe and the European Commission - http://www.dosta.org/