Roma: A people without a land

© Marika Schmiedt

Street Roots works with our sister paper in Belgrade to look at the plight of the Roma people in Europe
by Grace Badik , 10 Sep 2013,

Before coming to Street Roots in mid-August for a year of service through Jesuit Volunteer Corp Northwest, I  traveled to Central and Eastern Europe to research community organizing in post-Communist European states. Although, not central to my research, I suddenly found myself trying to comprehend a difficulty reality. The Roma people are without an official homeland, although some groups of Roma may have lived in Europe for centuries.

During my time in Europe, I witnessed individuals and families with darker skin who walked down the street, while others would walk on the other side of the sidewalk or take a wide turn around. On the train, people refused to sit in the same cab with Roma people. I witnessed blatant discrimination, which both astounded and outraged me.

I constantly asked the people I was meeting to explain to me the situation with the Roma. Here is a group of people who want to maintain their language, culture and way of life, but are not accepted by the majority group.

Roma people tend to live in isolated neighborhoods and receive sub-standard services. They face deep, systemic discrimination, sometimes perpetuated by the government itself. The European Roma Rights Center has documented discriminatory actions ranging from cutting off water supplies to Roma camps, to the building of a wall around a Roma neighborhood in Kosice, Slovakia.

Why are the Roma people being discriminated against throughout Europe? What is being done? The first step in ending discrimination is countering ignorance. In the United States, the situation with the Roma is widely unknown. Street Roots’ sister paper, Liceulice, in Belgrade, Serbia, has been working with Roma vendors for a number of years. Nikoleta Kosovac, a coordinator with the Belgrade street newspaper provides an insight into the situation of the Roma people.

Grace Badik: Most readers will know very little about the Roma people and Romani culture. Can you give a brief history?

Nikoleta Kosovac: For more than a thousand years, Roma people (including Travellers, Gypsies, Manouches, Ashkali, Sinti, etc.) have been an integral part of European civilization. Today, with an estimated population of 10 to 12 million in Europe (approximately six million of whom live in the EU), Roma people are the biggest ethnic minority in Europe. Most Romani—about eight to 10 million of them–live in Europe, where they are that continent’s biggest minority; in some countries, such as Bulgaria and Romania, they amount to as much as 12 percent of the total population. In addition, there are Romani scattered across Asia, Africa, North and South America and Australia as well.

The Romani have been always described as unique among peoples because they have never identified themselves with a territory.
They have no tradition of an ancient and distant homeland from which their ancestors migrated, nor do they claim the right to national sovereignty in any of the lands where they reside. Rather, Romani identity is bound up with the ideal of freedom expressed, in part, in having no ties to a homeland. The absence of traditional origin stories and of a written history has meant that the origin and early history of the Romani people was long an enigma.

Most Roma speak dialects of a language called Romani, which is based on Sanskrit, the classical language of India. The language is largely unwritten, however, because of the high rates of illiteracy in most Roma communities.

During the history, Romani were subject to many sort of restrictions and penalties. Roma were living in Spain, France, England, and large parts of what is today Russia and Eastern Europe by the late 1400s.
They suffered persecution in those countries ranging from laws against their language and dress to expulsion. In the beginning of the 15th century, many Roma were forced into slavery by Hungarian and Romanian nobles who needed laborers for their large estates.
Roma suffered horrible persecution also during World War II.

In some ways, the ultimate culmination of the anti-Romani hatred came during World War II, when the Nazis decided to exterminate the Romani people altogether. When the war ended in 1945, an estimated two million Romani had perished, including 500,000 who had been sent to the Nazi death camps. While exact figures or percentages cannot be ascertained, historians estimate that the Germans and their allies killed around 25 percent of all European Roma.

Nowadays, we have the Directive on Racial Equality that prohibits discrimination on the grounds of racial or ethnic origin. All EU countries have transposed the directive into their own national laws.
Yet many Roma are still victims of prejudice and deep-rooted social exclusion.

There is room for optimism about the Romani people’s future.
The United Nations, the European Commission, and other international organizations have begun pressuring countries to end their exclusionary policies and to give the Romani people an opportunity to participate more fully in society. In addition, European Romani has formed organizations such as the Roma National Congress to represent their interests and press for change.

G.B.: Commonly, Roma people are labelled as “gypsies” and “travelers,” where did these names originate from?

N.K.: Roma groups often have similar occupations, drawing upon traditions of peripatetic and mobile economies that exploit niche markets, such as peddling and trading certain livestock (horses, dogs, and small birds). Roma artisans have also made livings from repairing items deemed “uneconomic” to mend, such as pocket watches, tea-pots and porcelain dishes — the originators of what is now described as the circular economy. Many Roma, Gypsies, and Travelers are engaged in recycling and have been for centuries, long before major environmental concerns.

G.B.: Currently, what is the situation in Europe for the Roma people?
N.K.: Many Roma live on the edges of communities or are transient.
They suffer massive discrimination throughout all of Europe, and are often the victims of forced evictions, racist attacks and ill-treatment by police, and are often denied their (basic human) rights – to housing, employment, health care and education. In some cases, Roma are ten times poorer than the majority population. A recent survey showed that nearly 80 percent of Roma in Bulgaria and Romania were living on less than $4 a day. On average, Roma live 10 to 15 years less than others.

In 2005, the Decade of Roma Inclusion was launched, aimed at fighting discrimination, providing a strategy for integration, improving the social situation by giving Roma equal access to education, housing, healthcare and the EU labor market; over €26 billion have been made available from EU funds to Member States for Roma programmes.

© Marika Schmiedt

With so much attention, one would think that the days when over 80 percent Roma lived below the poverty line, 15 percent struggling with starvation on a regular basis, when child mortality among the Roma was three to four times higher than the general population, reaching a staggering 80 percent in Romania, and when only one in a hundred Roma children had access to higher education, was a distant memory by now.

In reality, it scarcely improved.

While half of Roma children start kindergarten, and nine out of ten are in school between the ages of 7 and 15, only 15% complete a secondary education. One third between the ages of 35 and 54 report health problems that interfere with their daily lives, while 45 percent live in households that lack an indoor toilet, indoor kitchen, bath/shower facilities or electricity. (In Romania, approximately 85 percent lack at least one of the above amenities, versus 55% percent of the nearby non-Roma population, while in Bulgaria this figure is 75 percent versus 30 percent). Some 90 percent live in households with an equalised income below the national poverty level, and are unable to afford meat, fish or a protein, utility bills and rent, heating, a TV, a telephone or a washing machine; 40 percent live in households where someone has to go to bed hungry at least once a month. While child labor is virtually inexistent for non-Roma, more than one in ten children work on the farms, street vending, or running errands. Life expectancy is ten years less than the European norm, one in three consider themselves unemployed, and half have experienced discrimination in the past year.

In some European countries, especially in Slovakia, thousands of Roma children are placed in special schools and classes designed for pupils with “mild mental disabilities” or in ethnically segregated mainstream schools and classes that provide a substandard education. In Hungary, in the last few years there has been a disturbing trend in vigilante-style attacks on Roma communities, following widespread discrimination of Roma in the media and segregation in Hungarian society. Violence against Roma communities is also endemic in Italy. In December 2011, a settlement in Turin was set on fire in a racist attack.

G.B.: In Serbia…

N.K: Striving to become a member of the EU, Serbia has adopted numerous laws and strategic documents to align with the EU acquits.
With regard to promotion, implementation and protection of human rights, protection of minorities, and prevention of discrimination, legislative framework is mainly in place and Serbia has also signed all significant international human rights instruments, as stated in the 2011 Analytical Report on Serbia of the European Commission.

Serbia has also introduced various independent bodies for supervising protection of human rights, such as the Ombudsperson, Commissioner for Protection of Equality, etc. However, some laws and strategic documents still need to be brought further in line with EU standards or adopted. Implementation of the legislation and policies need to be strengthened so that results can be felt on the ground. Concerning the most marginalized and socially excluded population in Serbia, some progress has been made, especially in the field of education and health. However, the Roma are still the most discriminated population group. Their employment rate is still very low, just like the level of education. A large number of Roma live in informal settlements under deplorable conditions, while relocation of settlements is often conducted contrary to international standards and resulting in serious violations of basic human rights. Further efforts are required to improve their status and socio-economic conditions.

© Marika Schmiedt

Between 2009 and 2012, the number of forced evictions of Roma from informal settlements increased. Precisely, there were 18 large-scale evictions affecting over 2,800 Roma and in only two years at least 1,000 individual eviction cases. During evictions, alternative accommodation is not always provided and even when provided it is inadequate. Roma are resettled to segregated container settlements inhabited only by Roma, with no or limited access to basic rights (the right to water, right to employment opportunities, right to education, right to social welfare and right to health care). Contracts on the use of mobile housing units are discriminatory for stipulating the right of the Belgrade City authorities to breach them unilaterally if the residents are not “behaving politely towards representatives of City of Belgrade” or “if they do not show active approach towards activities of City Administration aiming to socialize individuals and their families”. Recent experience demonstrates that well-established organizations have initiated changes in the field of housing but in order to systemically address the problems, it is highly needed to involve Roma activists and enhance their capacities.

Also, resettled Roma are continuously facing public condemnation by the citizens living in the neighborhood, which shows public intolerance towards Roma in Serbia and general lack of understanding for the right to adequate housing, one of basic human rights.

G.B.: How can the situation in Europe be improved?

N.K.: The continuing situation of many Roma to date, places them in a very schizophrenic legal field. Are they a marginalized group, economic migrants, war refugees, asylum seekers that survived ethnic violence and discrimination, an ethnic or a national minority?

So far, there have been many indications of strong commitment and formal recognition of the severity of the situation and the expectation that this will translate into policy on a local level, yet the authorities repeatedly fail to implement changes.

In the past, the EU has repeatedly stressed the need for better integration of Roma by initiating great number of projects/actions, investments into social politics of all EU and non-EU countries. Despite this, strong and proportionate measures are still not in place to tackle the deep-rooted problems facing a large proportion of the EU’s Roma population.

What I think is needed is a change at the local level, beginning with the general population. We have to put pressure on governments around Europe to change their policies and give the Roma people the human rights they deserve.

About Liceulice and vendors

Vendors at Liceulice, a street newspaper in Belgrade, Serbia are young people (16-25) that work and live on the streets, mostly Roma boys and girls. For the first time in their lives, many of these youth have a chance to have responsible and paid job.


Unofficial statistics state that there are more than 1,000 young people living and working in the streets (most of them are Roma), just in Belgrade. These young people have little control over their lives and available resources, and are highly dependent on others (e.g. social institutions or other people), which only contributes to their deepening isolation.

The youth vendors are an “invisible social category,” without possibility of entering into the system and realizing basic rights. Most of them attend evening schools or don’t go to school; they spend great part of the day in the streets, somehow trying to earn money for living. They don’t live in a safe and protected surrounding. In addition to this instability, they are marginalized on various other grounds (race, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, social status, etc). Although, they are aware of the situation and want to change it, they don’t know how or are scared to do it alone.
All of this contributes to the young people having low self-esteem and distrust of society.

After some time, Liceulice has widened their target group beyond young people and work with other marginalized groups – persons with disabilities, single mothers, and homeless who are not just Roma, but they are a big part of our distributive network.

Besides work in the magazine distribution, vendors have been attending different inclusive workshops – financial literacy, communications, promotion, computers, etc. One group of Roma teenage vendors even created a hip-hop band “Street face,” and they wrote lyrics about their work in Liceulice.

About: Street Roots and Liceulice are members of the International Network of Street Papers (INSP). Founded in 1994, the International Network of Street Papers supports and develops more than 120 street paper projects. Street Roots, along with its sister papers around the globe, join members from 40 countries in 24 languages.
Street papers are independent newspapers and magazines that operate on a social enterprise and self-help model to provide an innovative solution to urban homelessness and unemployment. In addition to employment, many INSP street papers offer their vendors ongoing social support and training opportunities.

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