The Roma in Europe: 700 Years of Discrimination

Picture: Giusi Barbiani, Flickr

Who are the most persecuted people in Europe? Jews? Muslims? Homosexuals? You could easily argue that any of these groups qualify, but there is another minority that could be considered to have good claims to the title of most persecuted; the Roma.

The Roma minority has been living in Europe since at least the 14th century and its history has been marred by persecution since.  Often they were slaves and there are many gruesome examples of the harsh attitude directed towards the Roma; e.g. a law in Switzerland in 1510 that stated that any Roma found should be put to death. England adopted similar rules in 1554 and Denmark followed in 1589. Portugal took a different approach and decided to simply deport Roma to its colonies in 1538.

Nazi Germany targeted the Roma, as well as the Jews, in the holocaust. The total number of victims cited varies but commonly the figures stand between 500 000 and 2 million. In Central Europe around 70 % of all Roma are thought to have been killed during the holocaust.

But what about today? Europe has transformed in numerous ways since WWII; the European Union has won the Nobel Peace prize and we often consider ourselves to be part of a modern democratic society which values human rights. Where does that leave the Roma? A review of certain events in recent years paints a rather bleak picture:

In Hungary, paramilitary groups of right-wing extremists demonstrate outside Roma’s houses, they set their homes on fire and attack and threaten them; all without any intervention from the authorities. In 2010 a village in Slovakia built a wall to separate the Roma population from the “normal” inhabitants. Roma children in Slovakia are regularly sent to schools meant for those with intellectual disabilities. Although some Roma manage to integrate many still live on the outskirts of society; in Slovakia more than 90% live below the poverty line and the unemployment rate is 70%, twice that of the non-Roma.

In 2009 France deported 10 000 Romanian and Bulgarian Roma with several thousand more during the following years. It was part of a program to shut down illegal camps. The French government claimed it was not done on ethnic grounds but the action received harsh criticism from the EU and in the media. Germany has also expelled Roma, mainly to Kosovo, although in substantially lower numbers than France. Lots of the deportees were children, who were born in Germany and who didn’t speak any Albanian or Serbian.

In Italy a survey conducted in 2008 showed that 68 % of the population wanted the 150 000 Roma living in the country to be expelled. A decree the same year gave authorities the power to expel EU citizens in cases of public safety. The number of deportations is unclear but it is thought to be fairly low. However, in recent years local governments have dismantled many Roma camps and evicted its residents.

In Sweden there is a long history of discrimination and abuse of the Roma people by the authorities. For a long time they were denied the right to vote, children were removed from their parents and women could be subjected to forced sterilization.  Even as late as 1996 the authorities in Stockholm kept registers of the Roma, putting labels on people such as “whole Z” and “half Z”. In September this year another register was discovered when media revealed that the police in Skåne had illegally registered thousands of Roma, even children.

Another strong indication that prejudice against Roma is still prevalent is how the recent reporting of the blond child “Maria” in Greece was carried out. An old myth instantly reappeared; the belief that Roma people commonly abduct blond children. It is by no means a new story: for hundreds of years stories have been told about Roma kidnapping children. One can simply read the hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo to find an example. When the authorities in Greece saw “Maria”, a blond child in a Roma camp, they quickly drew the conclusion that she was abducted. Similar reasoning was displayed in Ireland a few weeks later when two children were removed from their respective Roma parents on the basis of them being blond with blue eyes. Roma was also recently suspected to be behind a British child abduction case.

So, has nothing changed since the middle ages or the holocaust? Thankfully yes; no longer are the sentiments towards Roma articulated as being racially or genetically based. Many Roma have successfully integrated into European society and many countries take active steps to halt discrimination. And perhaps most crucially, media and big parts of the public are today outraged when stories of discrimination are uncovered. But the hatred lingers. After living in Europe for at least 700 years they are still outsiders. The continued exclusion of the Roma after hundreds of years shows either a quite remarkable resistance from the Roma towards integration or a potent and persistent hatred and discrimination towards this European minority.


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