Published daily by the Lowy Institute

The Roma: EU’s neglected minority

The Roma are an ethnic minority that migrated during the Middle Ages from India into Europe.

Roma Gypsies celebrating Christmas in Luton, England. (Photo: Tony Margiocchi/Barcroft Images/via Getty Images)
Roma Gypsies celebrating Christmas in Luton, England. (Photo: Tony Margiocchi/Barcroft Images/via Getty Images)
Published 10 Jan 2017 

One of the most perfidious 'post-truths' of the Brexit campaign was the use of the word ‘migrant’ to describe any non-British person wanting to travel to and work in the UK. Given that Britain is a member of the single European Internal Market (which includes all EU-members, Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, and a few mini-states), the presence of citizens from other EIM members in the UK is - at least for now - a simple economic fact.

In any single market, goods, services, capital and labour fluctuate according to rules of supply and demand (in the EIM, the free movement of these is known as the four basic freedoms), rules which also see Brits working across the EIM. This sets the Polish plumber working in Southampton, in demand within their market because of their skills, a world apart from an avowedly economic migrant from Africa or a political refugee from Syria, who are more likely to lack marketable skills.

The rules of the EIM do not allow for interference in the four basic freedoms (which is why any ‘soft’ Brexit is an illusion, but that is another story). However, there is one, very visible and yet under-reported de facto exception from this iron law: the Roma. They are EU-citizens, yet a minority are not wanted nor integrated anywhere in the EU. This applies to both their countries of origin in Eastern (Hungary, Poland, Slovak Republic) and South-Eastern Europe (Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, and the successor states of Yugoslavia), as well as in Western and Northern Europe.

The Roma are an ethnic minority that migrated during the Middle Ages from India into Europe. Their language, now fading, is Romanes (often ‘Romani’ in English) and has its origin in Sanskrit.

But their origin is all they have in common. Different tribes of Roma have different religious beliefs, ranging from Catholicism to Islam and Orthodox to Protestantism. The majority do not speak Romanes, having adopted the languages and dialects of their countries of European origin or present stay. Many have not travelled for centuries and have become are integrated within society after centuries of mixing and assimilation. Often it is only their names that bear traces of their Roma origin. Their total number is correspondingly very difficult to ascertain. Estimates range as low as four million and as high as twelve million. This is mainly due to the fact that a majority don't perceive of themselves as Roma, and therefore do not declare themselves as such, but rather as Romanian, Macedonian, German or indeed Swiss (in Switzerland a prominent banker is the spokesman for an interest group trying to give more visibility to the circa 50,000 Swiss Roma).

The proverbial ‘Travellers’ are thus but a minority of Eastern European Roma, traditionally on the move due to their historical professions. In Western Europe they are a relatively new phenomenon; to quote the BBC, ‘hundreds of thousands of Roma (mostly from Romania and Bulgaria) have moved to Western Europe since the 1990s'.

In fact, before the implosion of the Soviet Imperium and its Eastern European glacis, these Roma officially didn’t exist. Strict laws regarding internal moving and schooling requirements for all children kept them in place, everybody had officially a job in the then ‘communist paradise’ and so they were at least nominally employed, whether they wanted to be or not.

When that system came crashing down after the fall of the Berlin wall, the Roma were among the first victims of capitalist onslaught, as they occupied the lowest ladders of blue collar work. And that hasn’t changed since. For many of them, rather than living on some semblance of a minimum wage in Romania or Bulgaria, it appears economically more favourable to spend at least the winter months in Western Europe, begging, camping out in public parks and spaces without any infrastructure, playing music in subway stations and on street corners, hoping to find refuge in a heated place for the night, provided by one of the many benevolent societies that help those who are in French known as ‘les SDF’ (Sans Domicile Fixe, which roughly translates ‘those with no fixed address’).

And this of course is the problem, especially when nationalists are fanning and exploiting the flames of exclusion. This particular tribe of Roma is very visible, both by their different appearance and their evident rootlessness. So authorities will ‘move them on’, even occasionally ‘send them back’ (France busses thousands back every year to Romania) only to see them come back next season, as EU citizens with the right of free movement within the EIM.

There is no easy solution to this particular EU conundrum. However, there are two measures that would clearly help: more robust interest groups to attract attention to the plight of the Roma at national and inter-governmental levels, and education for the young to help break the cycle of poverty, rootlessness, petty crime and exclusion.

On the first point, Germany is the most advanced. This is no surprise given relatively recent history. During World War II, alongside the millions of Jews killed in the Holocaust, the Nazis shot, gassed and starved to death at least 500,000 Roma. Official German atonement has thus always included the Roma, and especially the Sinti, the Roma tribe traditionally living in German-speaking Europe. Only steps away from Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial for Jews assassinated by the Nazis, there is a similar memorial space for the Roma. In a soon-to-be erected Holocaust Memorial in Amsterdam, Roma names will be lasered into the stone alongside the Jewish victims. Education is a much more complex and long term task, albeit one whose value to all minorities is well-recognised across the globe.

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