The Roma people (also referred to as Gypsies, Tsigani, Tzigane, Cigano, Cigani, Zigeuner) are members of a minority group that is dispersed around the world, encompassing more than 12 million people located in many countries. Their origins can be traced to an initial migration from India about 1,000 years ago. The second great migration was from southwest Asia into Europe in the 14th century, and the third migration was from Europe to the Americas in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
From a linguistic perspective, it is also possible to link Roma back to their origin, the Sind area of India (today’s southern-central Pakistan). Nowadays, three identifiable linguistic populations are traceable: the Eastern Gypsy (Domari) in Egypt and the Middle East, the Central Gypsy (Lomavren) in Armenia and eastern Turkey, and the Western Gypsy (Romani) in Europe. This last group is the one most widely dealt with in reference works and literature and, therefore, the object of interest in this entry.
Anthropologists suggest that the nomadic lifestyle of the Roma developed as a response to constant fighting, pushing them westward. Originally refugees from India, the Roma may have once thought they would return to their homeland. They fled during a war at the start of the 11th century in which the Muslim general Mahmud of Ghazni attempted to push Islam eastward into India, which was then mainly Hindu territory. Refugees often remain ready to return to their point of origin for many years, once they have been pushed out of their native lands. Whatever the reason, instead of returning, Roma were either kept in slavery in what is today Romania or moved on to the rest of Europe, reaching every northern and western country by about 1500.
Over time, as a result of having interacted with various European populations and being fragmented into widely separated groups, Roma emerged as a collection of distinct ethnic groups within a larger whole. Consequently, the so-called Roma problem (general problems of the minority in Europe, usually connected to housing problems, unemployment, and low education levels) is a serious challenge facing European countries. The Roma minority is seen as the victims of prejudice and discrimination, being the most disadvantaged social group in all of these countries. Members of the Roma minority were the first to lose their jobs: They had lower education levels, lived in economically disadvantaged regions of countries, and were discriminated against by the non-Roma population. Social insecurity, growing poverty, dependence on social assistance, extremely high unemployment rates, exploitation in the Black economy, discrimination in education, and housing problems are factors seen in every country in the region and make the social integration of Roma difficult.
Because Roma in Europe are a minority that extends beyond the boundaries and responsibilities of any single country, a common practice for dealing with the “Romani problem” would be a positive step. Especially since the European Union’s enlargement, it has become obvious that Roma are neither a small population, nor are they facing the usual minority problems. Although the actual size of the Roma population in Europe is unknown, it is estimated to include as many as 10 million people. Estimates made by eleven European countries individually result in totals between 2.7 and 5.6 million. However, the Roma population in Europe has grown considerably since the accession of new EU member countries in May 2004, when the European Roma minority was estimated to have grown by an additional 1.5 million, thereby representing the biggest ethnic minority in the EU.
An accurate or at least a more precise estimate of the size of the Roma population would facilitate further regulation of socioeconomic and legislative fields to ensure the Roma levels of protection that are comparable to those provided for other minorities. For the Roma minority, this is especially important because differences in history and historical conditions have caused extreme differences between individual Roma communities resulting from their traditions, specific ways of life, and levels of socialization and integration in the environment. This makes implementing common policies at the European and national levels difficult and supports the tendency to regulate the Roma question at the local level.
However, certain parallels can be drawn that suggest common features in all local Roma communities. The Roma are a poorly educated population with low employment levels, poor housing conditions, and an underdeveloped adjacent infrastructure. Their difficulties can be divided into the following main problem complexes: upbringing and education problems, employment, housing and infrastructure, and participation in the formulation of public policies of local significance.
Perhaps most crucial to the success and legitimacy of initiatives to alleviate the concerns of Romani communities is involving the Roma themselves in developing, implementing, and evaluating policies and programs. Such an approach is supported by pragmatic considerations, as well as the basic democratic principle that individuals should have a say in how they are governed. The importance of minority participation in public affairs is specifically provided in the Copenhagen Document, the 1990 agreement adopted by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) which requires participating states to “respect the right of persons belonging to national minorities to effective participation in public affairs, including participation in the affairs relating to the protection and promotion of the identity of such minorities.”
In addition, directives of the OSCE dictate that its members should strenuously and conscientiously ensure the exercising of the rights of Roma. In its reports, the OSCE is especially aware of the importance of including Roma in policymaking processes at the local level. The roles of local government and civil organizations are important in this respect; some of the most impressive programs launched in recent years have been undertaken at local levels, frequently on the initiative of nongovernmental organizations. But local governments have also blocked promising initiatives; some have even sought to institutionalize anti-Roma discrimination through exclusionary policies. Thus, it falls to state authorities to ensure that Roma enjoy the fundamental right to equality in both law and in fact, irrespective of the division of jurisdiction within the state.
Although the principle of equality requires protection against discrimination, it also entails proactive policies and special measures to ensure equality of opportunity. This is particularly relevant for Roma, who have been excluded from opportunities and are otherwise disadvantaged for generations. Political challenges include an acknowledgment of the Roma minority, an adequate census of the Roma population, the appropriate inclusion of Roma in political decision making, the accessibility of financial resources, and cooperation of local communities.
Especially important for the position of Roma in Europe are international legal documents that contribute to improving their position and preserving their identity. Therefore, the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the OSCE, and the Central European Initiatives have adopted some antidiscrimination directives and recommendations. The umbrella European document against discrimination and racism (including discrimination against the Roma minority) is Article 13 of the Treaty Establishing the European Community and the ensuing directives that are binding on all members.
Particularly significant for the Roma minority is Directive 2000/43/EC, “Implementing the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin” (the “Race Directive”). Many member countries—but not all—had codified antiracist and antidiscrimination mechanisms and sanctions before the so-called race directive was adopted. Among important documents regulating the Roma’s status are the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities of the Council of Europe, the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and Council of Europe references and resolutions on the position of Roma in Europe. The inclusion of minorities (also the Roma) in decision-making processes in the European space is extremely important for creating an international environment that will represent the interests of all residents of Europe.
Cross-Frontier Contacts; Ethnic Group; Europe; India; Minority/Majority; Minority Rights; Racism, Cultural; Segregation
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