Europe's virtual third world.
They reached Greece early in the 14th century. Two hundred years later they showed up in Scandinavia, Russia, and the British Isles. Today, they are found throughout the world but their heaviest concentration is in southeastern Europe. The European population is estimated at between six and eight million; worldwide, there may be as many as 12 million Roma.
A small number of Roma still follow the nomadic lifestyle of their ancestors, with many of them working as members of travelling carnivals and circuses. But most Roma live in settled communities now.
For hundreds of years, the Roma have been among the most persecuted minorities in the world. Marchevo in Bulgaria is said to be typical of the type of communities that the Roma are forced into today. There is one water pipe for the 400 residents, no sewer system, and no garbage collection. The people live under blankets and plastic sheets draped over branches hacked from a nearby forest. The most educated person in the community left school at the age of 15.
Even though they live in widely scattered groups, the people have a very strong sense of the cultural identity. Many stick to their traditional occupations--carving, metalworking, blacksmithing, horse-trading, fortune telling, and basket making.
Their culture stresses the importance of Roma tradition, and strongly discourages mixing with other cultures; marriage outside the Roma community is not common. Many Roma women marry at the age of 12 or 13. Marriages are usually arranged by the couple's parents to create Alliances between families or clans. Some groups still hold to the tradition of the bride price. This is a payment made by the family of the groom to that of the bride to compensate for the loss of their daughter; it also guarantees that she will be well treated by her new family.
Their language, Romany, is something of a unifying force. The language has a number of dialects but only about four million Roma speak some form of it. Romany is spoken rather than written so, until recently, illiteracy rates were very high among Roma. Romany wasn't codified and written down properly until the early 1990s, and the current dictionary only contains 5,000 words. (The Complete Oxford English Dictionary, all 20 volumes of it, contains 615,000 words).
The various Roma tribes are divided into clans, each with a number of families that are related by common descent or historical association. Clan leaders sometimes adopt the title of king or queen. Such rifles are bestowed as signs of respect and do not necessarily signify positions of political leadership. Clans and tribes do not always get along.
The closed nature of their communities and their unconventional lifestyles have set the Roma apart from mainstream society. There is also a long tradition among the Roma of petty theft, which does not make them popular. As "outsiders" they have been misunderstood and greatly mistrusted, and they have become a convenient target for discrimination. They were persecuted under the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834). They were expelled from Paris in 1539 and booted out of England in 1563. During the next century, many Roma in Central Europe were forced into slavery: this slavery didn't come to an end in Romania until 1864.
In 1697, and again in 1701, the Roma were declared "outlaws" by Leopold I, the Austrian emperor. In 1710, all adult male Roma were to be hanged without trial, and it was ordered that women and young men were to be flogged and banished. In Bohemia, their right ears were to be cut off; in Moravia, the left ear; in parts of Austria, they were to be branded on the back.
But, even worse was to come. The Roma were victims of the Nazi Holocaust with as many a half a million being murdered by Hitler's death squads. The Roma call this tragedy "The Devouring." Not many of them got as far as the death camps, most were shot by local police before the Nazis could transport them. In Eastern Europe their problems were not over with the defeat of the Nazis in 1945. Under Communist regimes, the Roma were forced to assimilate with the rest of society. In Czechoslovakia, they lived as nomads until 1958, when the Communist government outlawed their way of life and forced them to settle down. Even with the collapse of communism in the late 1980s, their lot has not improved. In May 2001, The Economist wrote that: "A study in Ostrava. an industrial city in the Czech Republic, found that a Gypsy child was 23 times more likely to be placed in a school for the mentally retarded than a white Czech child, even when of normal intelligence. The best such a child can hope for is a career as a cleaner. In Hungary, Gypsy children are banned, in some schools, from the 'whites' only cafeteria and gym."
Nor has life been great in Western Europe. Roma have been targets of racist attacks at the hands of skinheads. Also, they have been discouraged from continuing their nomadic lives; in France, for example, their access to campsites has been restricted.
In an attempt to assert their rights, the Roma have become more politically active. In 1979, the United Nations recognized them as a distinct ethnic group. The International Romany Union, a non-governmental organization, represents the world's Roma at the UN. Other associations work for strengthening the civil rights of Roma throughout Europe. One of those is the European Roma Rights Centre, which is where Claude Cahn works. In 2000, Mr. Cahn talked to the New York Times about the status of Roma in Eastern Europe. "The Roma have no reason to stay where they live," he said. "They are excluded from employment. Their housing is appalling. They are hated. Their schooling will get them nowhere. They are not components of the societies in which they exist. But, Western Europe deports them back. They are what the Nazis called luftmenschen, people of the air, and it's hard to know on what they live."
The International Romany Union claims to represent ten million Roma. It is pressing for recognition of a landless nation founded on Roma culture, and has said it wants to create a Roma Parliament.
There are promises of improvements for the Roma of Eastern Europe. A condition of membership in the European Union (EU) is fairer treatment of all minorities and this, of course, includes the Roma. As the EU absorbs more members in what used to be Communist countries improvements will come. There have even been some suggestions that special seats should be set aside in the European Parliament for the Roma.
Perhaps one day the Roma will even have their own national homeland. In Slovakia, they make up I0 percent of the population and they have a very high birth rate. Meanwhile, the Slovaks have a very low birth rate. If current trends continue, the Roma will form a majority of the population in Slovakia by 2060.
ROMA IN CANADA
There are thought to be about 80,000 people of Roma descent living in Canada. That number nearly rose dramatically in the late 1990s. In August 1997, a television documentary was shown in the Czech Republic. The program said it was easy for refugees to get into Canada. And, once in the country, it said refugee claimants received help with assisted settlement costs, housing, and access to employment. Very shortly after that, a flood of Roma began arriving at Canadian ports of entry claiming to be refugees from the Czech Republic. Their claims were not without merit. Many were without citizenship, as a result of the division of Czechoslovakia into two nations in 1993. The Roma also cite racially motivated acts of violence directed toward them as reasons for wanting to emigrate. They say the state subjects them to systemic discrimination with the result that most are unemployed, uneducated, and live in crowded, cheap housing. In a nation with an unemployment rate of four percent, over 70 percent of Czech Roma are unemployed.
In the six weeks after the television show, more than 1,200 Roma made refugee claims on arriving in Canada. Ottawa quickly put a visa in place, which choked off the flow of new arrivals, but hundreds remained to be housed and processed through the refugee claims system.
Nicholas Gheorge, an expert on the Roma, has estimated that in Central Europe there about 20 Roma elected as members of parliaments or mayors and about 400 as local councillors.
European Roma Rights Centre--http://www. errc.org/
Romany Links (U.K.)--http://www.bbc.co.uk/ kent/voices/weblinks. shtml
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|Title Annotation:||Stateless Peoples--The Roma (Gypsies)|
|Publication:||Canada and the World Backgrounder|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2003|
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