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Explainer: who are the Roma?

Once again Roma people are in the news and, as ever, they are the focus of prejudice and vilification. The most recent story surrounds alleged child abduction in Greece, following a raid on a Roma encampment…

Targets for abuse: Roma women outside court in Larisa, central Greece. Nikolas Giakoumidis/AP/Press Association Images

Once again Roma people are in the news and, as ever, they are the focus of prejudice and vilification. The most recent story surrounds alleged child abduction in Greece, following a raid on a Roma encampment. The narrative plays to some familiar stereotypes: allegations of criminal activities, welfare scrounging - and even that age-old fairytale so popular in Victorian times of children being stolen by Gypsies.

As one of Europe’s largest minority groups - and its most disadvantaged, it would stand to reason that the Roma would be ideal targets for vitriol. Although this has certainly been the case in the recent past (in the UK The Sun ran a “Stamp on the Camps” campaign a number of years ago) things have been reasonably more uneventful of late – well almost.

The news coverage about how Roma are “criminals”, “undeserving” and a “drain on resources” are far more common in mainland Europe. France’s expulsion of Roma drew international condemnation - but right-wing parties regularly target Roma for their campaigns and hate groups focus violence on members of Roma communities.

Who are the Roma?

Roma people have a long history of living in Europe with a presence recorded from the 13th Century. They are now widely recognised as one of the EU’s largest minority groups with an estimate of more than 10m Roma living in Europe. The term “Roma”, first chosen at the inaugural World Romani Congress held in London in 1971, is now widely accepted across the European Union (EU) as a generic and pragmatic term to describe a diverse range of communities, tribes and clans.

Members of these communities can differ in many significant linguistic and cultural ways. The European Commission identifies four different types of Roma communities namely:

  • Roma communities living in disadvantaged, highly concentrated (sub)urban districts, possibly close to other ethnic minorities and disadvantaged members of the majority;
  • Roma communities living in disadvantaged parts of small cities/villages in rural regions and in segregated rural settlements isolated from majority cities/villages;
  • Mobile Roma communities with citizenship of the country or of another EU country; and
  • Mobile and sedentary Roma communities who are third-country nationals, refugees, stateless persons or asylum seekers.

Where do Roma live?

Data collection about how many Roma there are across the EU is incredibly challenging. Many states prohibit the official collection of data by ethnicity and even informal estimates are difficult given the low level of engagement by services with Roma populations.

The Sun: Stamp on a Camp campaign. Wikimedia Commons

However, the information we do have (which is contested by many but at least serves as a yard stick) points to two tentative conclusions.

First, there are varied numbers of Roma populations present in nations across Europe. The most significant populations are to be found in the central and eastern European states of Bulgaria, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Slovakia, Romania, Serbia and Hungary. In these countries, Roma make up between 7-10% of the total population. In most other states Roma make up around 1% or much less of the population.

Second, there are significant differences between “official” population estimates and estimates provided by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) active in this field.

The issues faced by Roma are complex, multilayered and often entrenched. The issues read like a description of a community living in a developing nation. Poor health, low levels of literacy, joblessness, poor accommodation standards, low levels of engagement with education and discrimination are endemic within all states within which Roma feature.

Roma in the UK

The communities of those people classified as “Roma” in the UK are complex. Under the definition from the Council of Europe Gypsies and Travellers are included. In fact, most UK Romany Gypsies arguably have a shared heritage with more recently arriving Roma.

However, within the UK the term “Roma” is more synonymous with migrants typically arriving from central and eastern Europe. Roma have migrated to the UK for decades. Increases in this migration occurred post-1945, during the late 1990s and early 2000s and more recently since the accession of new European Union member states in 2004 and 2007.

Previous estimates put the number at between 100,000 and 300,000 but data soon to be released by researchers at the University of Salford attempts an up-to-date enumeration of migrant Roma in the UK.

While in the UK, Gypsies and Travellers are split between those who live in caravans and those who live in housing, it is thought migrant Roma live in housing almost without exception - which reflects the situation across Europe, where Roma have moved from caravans and nomadic way of life to often precarious and poor housing.

Where do we go from here?

There are efforts being exerted at a European level to resist moving back to an archaic position of blaming Roma for a country’s ills. Unfortunately, however, EU member states tend to mobilise in response to the (mostly negative) perception of Roma, without regard to the reasons why Roma occupy the position of a vulnerable minority.

The EC is attempting to consolidate the efforts of its member states into making tangible improvements to the lives of Roma by encouraging the development of National Roma Integration Strategies. But there is clear confusion about how best to tackle this complex and politically charged issue.

A more humanised approach would be a start where we are able to separate the criminality of a few from tainting the futures of an entire ethnic group. The media may be able to help with this. Certainly more than they have in the past.

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19 Comments sorted by

  1. John Crest

    logged in via email

    Why is there such a negative perception of Roma / Travellers / Gypsies?

    What are the GOOD things they do that will allow us to change our views?

    1. Gregory Gee

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to John Crest

      They are human beings. They do the same good things any other group of human beings do. Is that not enough?

    2. Rene Oldenburger

      Haven't got one

      In reply to John Crest

      As a kid living in Holland and in a small village, it was needed to pass a Gypsy camp on the way to school.

      The grown ups were already aware of the reputation of the Gypsies, who would frequent our area every two years or so. They would stay for around two week and the reality was, lock your doors, neighbourhood watch on full alert, especially during the night.

      At one stage, they demanded that school kids on bicycle who were on the way to school pay money to pass their camp. You got all sorts of things thrown at you by Gypsy kids while their parents watched and encouraged it.

      Needless to say this created quite some confrontation and luckily we had police who weren't that politically correct or took into account "the poor misunderstood" reputation they had.

      Needless to say, these gypsies were not the majority who are now referred to as Romani, but they certainly were there.

  2. John Newton

    Author Journalist

    A good way to start to get a handle on this problem and the persecution of these people is the book Bury Me Standing by Isabel Fonseca

    As to why they are persecuted? Their colour - they are descendants of tribes who left Rajasthan around 1000CE; previously their freedom, although many have now settled; and their antipathy towards us, who they call the Gauj/Gaj (non-Romas), and see as the enemy: often with justification.

    In the mid 70s I worked on yachts in Palma de Mallorca with an American whose wife had left him with a five year old daughter. He paid the Gitanos (Roma people) in a square near the port to look after her, which they did brilliantly - and didn't steal her. One downside.

    One night after work we were having dinner in a little restaurant near the port sand the daughter came back with a big handful of change: her guardians had taught her how to beg. My friend had to give back the money to the other patrons.

  3. Georg Antony


    The article is a perfect example of how to say very little about a problem, lest someone's sensitivity is violated.

    Many Roma still live in very stable tribal societies. This is remarkable social stability after millennia amidst foreign cultures, but it has drawbacks. Collectivist attitudes and a strong tall-poppy syndrome discourage personal advancement through education and other ways preferred by the wider society. Traditional Roma skills (eg, horse work, blacksmithry) are now in low demand…

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  4. Thomas Fields

    "progressive" watcher

    The joys of multiculturalism.

    The easy solution is to just blame white people.

  5. Venise Alstergren
    Venise Alstergren is a Friend of The Conversation.

    photographer, blogger.

    It is thought that Gypsies/Roma originated in Northern India and Pakistan. I have some gypsy blood via a grandmother. This gives me a mild interest in them.

    Some of their sense of isolation could have something to do with the hundreds of thousands of them who perished in WWII's Nazi concentration camps. And in countries like Australia anyone with a slightly darker skin than good old Anglo-Saxon white who arrives by boat is treated like garbage swill.

    1. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Venise Alstergren

      Venise, there would be about zero "Anglo-Saxons" in Australia, and even fewer Roma.

    2. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Venise Alstergren

      I get what you are trying to say, but you're wrong.

    3. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Venise Alstergren

      Where you are full of it - and offensively so - is your mischaracterisation of Australian people.

    4. Venise Alstergren
      Venise Alstergren is a Friend of The Conversation.

      photographer, blogger.

      In reply to Michael Sheehan

      I would have thought I was being spot on about the character of the Australian people. Or are all boats arriving in this country just an illusion I keep getting?

      Do you really believe all the people arriving on those boats would be treated the way they are if they were university educated Scandinavians?

      Of course skin and hair colour differences are of little importance if the individual concerned has a consummate skill with a ball.

      Also, remember the scandal amongst the CWA set when a Labor parliamentarian took the oath on the Qu'ran?

      I'm sorry Michael, there is enough dirt in this particular field to build a block of flats.

  6. Gary Murphy

    Independent Thinker

    And what's with the media's creepy fixation with the 'blonde' girl. From what I have heard this couple have numerous other children whose origins are also uncertain.

    1. Steve Phillips

      Nurse Practitioner

      In reply to Gary Murphy

      Most likely because she was the most obvious and tipped the wink for the investigators.
      My take on the Roma/gypsy deal is that any group that does not identify with the mainstream culture of a country can expect to be isolated and marginalised. I dont think that colour or religion makes a difference. If you put a barrier between yourself and the mainstream there will be trouble.
      I grew up with a group of people in a small country town in Australia who had dark skin, a totally different religion and a culture very different to ours. They fitted in nicely and were accepted because they participated in our society, in our way of life. Except where it transgresed their religious rules. They didnt hold themselves apart and we didnt reject them, so it worked.
      The Roma for the most part do not intergrate into the society in which they find themmselves and with the best will in the world, acceptence and tolerance must come from both sides for it to work.

    2. Ella Miller


      In reply to Steve Phillips

      Steve; It is sad that we can not accept difference and must condemn anyone who is different.

      My experience of gypsies is from Romania and Hungary.
      Whilst they suffer discrimination in both countries they have a rich culture and a love of music. There are criminal elements as there are in part in any society.
      My views may be a bit romantic but they come from childhood. Hungarian folk music is full of the most beautiful gypsy music, dances and even some very old customs which are dying out..sadly…

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    3. Steve Phillips

      Nurse Practitioner

      In reply to Ella Miller

      Thats a very romantic story but I suspect a long way from reality.
      A bit like the 'golden years' of country life before the industrial revolution.
      I agree that no group SHOULD be descriminated against because they are different, but they are more than different they are apart.
      They set themselves apart from the cultures and societies they live within.