Romani: Europe’s largest ethnic minority, their marginalization, and the way forward.

, by Konstantina Mirtzani

Romani: Europe's largest ethnic minority, their marginalization, and the way forward.
Romani women taking care of their children. Credit: Giorgio, Creative Commons

Today we commemorate Romani Resistance Day, but what do we really know about the Romani people? The Romani are Europe’s largest ethnic minority: an estimated 10 to 12 million Romani currently live in Europe, of which approximately 6 million are citizens or residents of the EU. The umbrella-term ‘Roma’ refers to diverse groups, including Roma, Sinti, Kale, Romanichels, Boyash/Rudari, Ashkali, Yenish, Dom, Lom, Rom and Abdal, as well as Traveller populations. The Romani identify themselves differently according to history, language, and profession, yet much is shared between the different groups. They use a common language, ’Rromanës’, which has different dialects. Historians believe the Romani first arrived in Europe from northern India, through what is now Iran, Armenia, and Turkey. They gradually spread their way across the whole of Europe from the 9th century onwards. At first, they were welcomed for their skills, but governments and the church soon started to see them as suspicious outsiders.

What is Romani Resistance Day?

Throughout history, Romani people have been forced into slavery, a practice which continued into the 19th century. They were also sentenced to death throughout the medieval era in England, Switzerland and Denmark. This gradually grew into organized persecution. Many countries, including Germany, Poland and Italy, ordered the expulsion of all Roma. In the 1930s, the Nazis in Germany saw Roma people as “racially inferior”. Under Adolf Hitler, a supplementary decree to the Nuremberg Laws was issued on the 26th of November 1935, classifying the Romani as “enemies of the race-based state”, thereby placing them in the same category as Jews. Historians estimate that between 220,000 and 500,000 Romani were killed (25% to over 50% of the estimate of slightly fewer than 1 million Romani in Europe at the time) by the Germans and their collaborators as part of their effort to commit ethnic cleansing of the Romani people. Later research estimated the death toll to be at about 1.5 million out of an estimated 2 million Roma. On the 16th of May 1944, the Romani imprisoned in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp rebelled against their captors. As a result, no Romani prisoners were sent to the gas chambers on that day. Therefore, Romani Resistance Day commemorates this courageous revolt as well as the suffering of Romani people during the period of the Nazi regime’s rule in Europe.

After the war, the Romani continued to be discriminated against and oppressed. Despite the principle of non-discrimination enshrined in EU primary law, a 2018 European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights report shows widespread discrimination against Roma currently persists in the EU. This discrimination is commonly manifested through harassment, hate crime and distrust. This phenomenon is called ‘’anti-Gypsyism’’ and has led to the social exclusion of Roma communities. This has resulted in Roma communities being at a higher risk of poverty than the general population and having a lower life expectancy. Millions of Roma live in isolated communities, often without any electricity or running water, and struggle to get the health care they require. Many live with the daily threat of forced evictions, police harassment and violent attacks. Romani children also often suffer segregation in schools and receive a lower standard of education. This practice of systematic segregation from formal, mass education takes different forms and is currently seen in North Macedonia, Moldova, Ukraine, Estonia, Hungary and Greece. Beyond the violence, it is also the everyday racism, the policies that forcibly evict and push Roma beyond the city limits, making them invisible, that cultivates complete indifference to their marginalization. More recently, the vulnerabilities that Roma communities typically face have been exacerbated due to COVID-19. Around 80% of Europe’s 10 million Roma live in densely populated neighbourhoods and overcrowded houses, and many do not have access to running water. This means that basic social distancing and sanitary measures required to combat the spread of the virus are more difficult to implement. In some countries, this has already led to the scapegoating of Roma communities as potential illness hotspots. Moreover, many Romani people work in grey market day-to-day jobs, meaning they have been unable to work and may not be eligible for state compensation schemes. In some countries, authorities have attempted to provide assistance but the help is inconsistent. For instance, due to an EU initiative funds were allocated in 34 municipalities where vulnerable Roma communities live to assist the provision of food packages, hygiene kits and other relevant products.

Action from the EU

EU policymakers are aware of these issues, and the EU itself has long stressed the necessity for better integration of Romani populations in its Member States. In 2011, the European Commission adopted communication pushing for the development of national Roma integration strategies, which detailed concrete policies and measures. By 2012, each EU member state had to produce a national Roma integration strategy, which included a set of integrated policy measures to ensure the effective integration of Roma populations. The Commission has since been releasing assessment reports, evaluating the progress of member states on their own set of goals and is pushing for further efforts to achieve Roma inclusion as part of the Europe 2020 process. On the 25th October 2017, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on fundamental rights aspects in Roma integration in the EU. The resolution calls on the EU, the European Commission and Member States to take brave action against anti-Gypsyism. More recently, on 7 October 2020 the European Commission adopted a new 10-year plan, including a proposal for a Council Recommendation, to support Romani people in the EU. There are seven key areas of focus: equality, inclusion, participation, education, employment, health, and housing. For each area, the Commission has put forward new targets and recommendations for Member States on how to achieve them, both of which will serve as important tools to monitor progress and ensure that the EU makes headway in providing vital support that so many Roma living in the EU still need. On the 12th of March 2021, the Council of the European Union adopted a recommendation on Roma equality, inclusion and participation in all Member States.

It thus becomes evident that on an institutional level the EU is making progress by continuously acknowledging the marginalization of Romani communities and recently providing concrete strategies to address the issue. Nevertheless, the situation of Romani people in the EU has not improved, partly due to a lack of political will. The EU’s new strategy for equality and inclusion of Romani people risks proving ineffective unless it introduces mandatory objectives and targeted funding. While the new framework is a strengthened strategic document and makes a significant step towards the achievement of equality, it is still a soft policy. This does not oblige any member states to actually implement effective National Romani Inclusion Strategies with adequate funding from national budgets, progress and success indicators, and a robust monitoring mechanism. Romani people all over Europe are fighting to gain or maintain their civil rights in the wake of state-sanctioned violence and ethno-nationalist regimes that use Romani people as scapegoats for economic decline and immigration issues. There is, thus, the need for a binding framework that will lead to positive change on the ground. It is important on this day to remember that all Romani people should have the opportunity to realise their full potential and engage in political, social, economic and cultural life in the EU.

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