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Roma and Gypsies in Ireland:
Background Information

Travellers, Gypsies and Roma

Recently there has been an increase in public interest in Gypsies in Ireland, particularly Roma from Romania. This interest is related to the media focus on refugees, asylum seekers and migration. Many people are asking who are these Gypsies? Where do they come from? How many are there and why are they starting to come to Ireland? In response to the situation this fact sheet provides some basic information on Gypsies in Europe and particularly Gypsies in Romania.

The diverse groups variously referred to as Travellers, Gypsies, Roma or Sinti throughout Europe have their own distinct identities, histories and experiences but also have much in common with one another. One of the key features which brings unity to their diversity is the nomadic tradition and its associated lifestyle, culture and values. Another is a long history of persecution, rejection and social ostracism which varies over time and from one place to another but which has some common characteristics of exclusion.

The term Gypsy is rejected by many groups and other names are used e.g. Tsiganes (France), Gitanos (Spain), Ciganos (Portugal), Zingari (Italy), Woonwagenbewoners (Netherlands). A 1987 Council of Europe publication stated that "Gypsies and Travellers form a mosaic of diverse groups throughout the world". It is estimated that the Traveller/Rom/Gypsy population throughout Eastern and Western Europe is over 7 million.

Racism towards Gypsies and Roma

The UN Commission on Human Rights in a report called Elimination of Racism and Racial Discrimination, 23rd November, (1994) deals with contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance in a wide range of countries. The report states that: "Gypsies, also called Tsiganes, Rom or Romanies, are a group which is particularly targeted by rising racism and xenophobia in Europe". With regard to Irish Travellers the report states that: "Travellers have experienced widespread discrimination in Ireland. . ." and "Travellers have also expressed the view that, where accommodation and services are provided, these do not always adequately reflect their needs".

The Minority Rights Group International report published in 1995, entitled Roma/Gypsies: A European Minority, says: "Policies towards Roma / Gypsies have always constituted, in one form or another, a negation of the people, their culture and their language. Past policies can be broadly grouped into three categories: 'exclusion, containment, and assimilation".

Examples of exclusion policies are given from different countries. Reference is made to the past and present specific targeting of Gypsies: "Some estimates put the number of Roma /Gypsies murdered under the Nazi regime at 500, 000 and systematic extermination is still going on: for example, whole families have been wiped out in certain territories of the former Yugoslavia in the name of 'ethnic cleansing.

Policies of containment associated with restrictions on nomadism, are defined as "compulsory, generally violent integration of Roma/Gypsies into 'mainstream'society".

Policies of assimilation are "characterised by the goal of absorbing Roma/Gypsies, now redefined as misfits associated with social and psychological difficulties. . ."

There are numerous reports and accounts of racist propaganda; social exclusion; discrimination and violent conflict towards Gypsies/Travellers throughout Europe. These reports refer to human rights abuses, including acts of violence against Roma in the Czech Republic, Romania and Austria. The specific form of racism against Travellers/Roma/Gypsies is often associated with antinomadism and gives rise to complaints similar to those of migrants and refugees.

Many Gypsies and Travellers throughout Europe experience the following:

  • Deplorable living conditions, usually on the outskirts of cities;
  • Fewer camping spaces;
  • Pressures to give up nomadism;
  • Ghettoisation.

International Recognition

There have been some positive developments at international level in acknowledging the specific needs of Travellers, Gypsies and Roma. The European Commission funded programmes have included projects involved with Travellers, Gypsies or Roma. The European Parliament has frequently drawn attention to their needs. The Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, (CSCE), The Council of Europe, the Standing Conference of Local and Regional Authorities in Europe (CLRAE), to some extent, have shown a growing awareness and interest in Traveller, Gypsy and Rom issues.

Roma/Gypsies in Romania

"G-ypsies in Romania have been the target of increasingly violent attacks since the revolution that toppled Nicolae Ceausescu. Their homes have been burned down and vandalised, they have been beaten by vigilante mobs and on occasion arrested by the police and beaten in police custody, and they have been chased out of one village after another, often without any opportunity to return".    Helsinki Watch, 1991

This oppression has a long history because Gypsies were enslaved in Romania until it was made illegal to do so in the nineteenth century. On being freed many emigrated throughout Europe.

The pro-Nazi government of Marshall Ion Antonescu, which came into power in 1939, was vocal in its anti-Gypsy sentiment and in 1941, Antoneseu made a speech calling for the "elimination" of national minorities. On the order of Antonescu more than 26,000 Gypsies were deported to camps located in the Romanian-occupied areas of the Soviet Union from 1942-'44.

Nomadic Gypsies were a particular target of the round-ups because they were considered to be largely made up of criminal elements. According to the Romanian War Crimes Commission, set up by the Romanian People's Court after World War 11, 36,000 Gypsies died during the war period.

As a consequence of the deportation of Gypsies during World War II and the general atmosphere of hostility towards minorities, some Gypsies felt it would be wise to assimilate as best they could. A Gypsy is quoted by Helsinki Watch: "Many of our people have not maintained our culture. A long time ago, during the war, they were too afraid and didn't follow their customs. So, they adapted themselves, but they lost much in the process".

In theory, during communist rule, the government guaranteed fundamental human rights to all Romanian citizens regardless of ethnic origin. However, Gypsies were never officially considered a national or ethnic minority during communist rule. Shortly after the communists gained control in 1946, the first programme was initiated to settle Gypsies. Many had already been settled for several centuries as a result of slavery. The settlement programme involved the confiscation of houses and wagons.

Under the Ceauseseu rule every citizen was required to have a permanent, registered address in order to receive certain benefits such as rationed goods or full medical services.

By the early 1970s, the official policy was simply to ignore the existence of Gypsies. In 1977, the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party decided that additional efforts should


One commentator gave us a reason for this: "Romanian officials are embarrassed by the (Gypsies) whom they perceive as reflecting backwardness and underdevelopment. To alter the 'uncivilised' conditions of (Gypsies), an integration policy was instituted". Helsinki Watch, 1991

Ceausescu's cultural policies became increasingly nationalistic during the 1980s, emphasising Romanian culture at the expense of the cultures of minorities within Romania. It was a policy of homogenisation of the Romanian society. Gypsy musicians and singers were expected to deny their identity or face exclusion.

Gypsies were usually located on the fringe of larger towns or cities, and inevitably received the worst housing. Ceausescu's "systematization" programme involved the construction of 'modern' high-rise standardised apartments and the razing of whole districts especially Gypsy neighbourhoods. The programme was a disaster for all ethnic minorities in Romania. Gypsies were also the most disadvantaged educationally. Many had no formal education at all; 37.7% over eight years were illiterate.

Traditionally, Gypsies worked as tinsmiths, brick makers and wood carvers, trades which were compatible with nomadism. Under communism, Gypsy trading was forbidden, so Gypsies became identified with the 'black' market. Gypsies allege that discrimination in hiring as well as the poverty in which they live pushes some Gypsy families into crime.  Gypsy leaders allege that in each police precinct there was a special department responsible for surveillance of Gypsies. This contributed to the atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust.

Gypsies experienced discrimination under the communist regime, yet, some Romanians assert that Gypsies were protected by Ceauseseu and received favourable treatment. Gypsies themselves state that their lives were better under Ceausescu in comparison to the increased violence against them since 1989.

Recent Developments

"The single most dramatic change for Gypsies since the 1989 revolution has been the escalation of ethnic hatred and violence directed against them by the non-Gypsy population".

Helsinki Watch, 1991

Gypsies in Romania continue to experience discrimination in most aspects of life. .... "worst housing, in the worst areas..... their children are placed in the back of the class on the first day of school, on the assumption that they will misbehave". The Gypsy population in Romania is currently believed to be approximately 2.5 million, thereby making up one of the largest minority groups in the country.

There is linguistic diversity among Gypsies in Romania and 60% approximately, speak Romani (Gypsy language) as well as Romanian or Hungarian. Most Gypsies in Romania are now sedentary. Those who were still nomadic at the end of World War II were forced to settle. It is officially admitted that 10% are on the road at any one time.

A number of improvements for Gypsies in Romania have been recognised: more cultural and political rights than in the past; their own political parties and cultural associations; and their own newspapers. But, poverty, illiteracy and unemployment are widespread and there is discrimination in accessing public services.

The Ethnic Federation of Roma in Romania reports violent attacks on Gypsy communities. Helsinki Watch recorded numerous incidents where Gypsies were the victims of violent attacks. A 1996 report by the European Roma Rights Centre states that there has been a change in the kind of violence experienced by Roma from angry mob attacks to police intimidation and dawn raids: "The Romanian police have, in our opinion, violated general international and domestic laws and regulations".

The International Law Organisation (ILO) in 1991 referred to the discrimination of Gypsies in employment and to the racist generalisation. "The situation of members of the Rom community was characterised by both direct and indirect discrimination".

In 1991 the German Government made an agreement with the Romanian government and began deporting Roma to Romania, thereby giving tacit approval to deal with Roma without fear of international sanction. The mass media in Romania publishes racist attacks on Gypsies. "We have few Jews so the need to find scapegoats is focused on Gypsies". Helsinki Watch, 1991


Gypsies from Romania coming to Ireland have a long history of exclusion and persecution. They are likely to be suspicious of the majority population and of officials which may result in attempts to hide their identity. They are also likely to have serious educational needs exacerbated by language problems. In the context of negative publicity, inhospitable attitudes towards refugees and migrants, and widespread hostility towards Irish Travellers it is important that the presence of Roma is not used to justify racism. The introduction of anti-discrimination is very urgent, as is as the ratification of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.



State                       Minimum - Maximum

Albania                             90,000 - 100,000
Austria                              20,000 - 25,000
Belarus                              10,000 - 15,000
Belgium                             10,000 - 15,000
Bosnia-Herzegovina     40,000 - 50,000
Bulgaria                              700,000 - 800,000
Croatia                                  30,000 - 40,000
Cyprus                                  500 - 1,000
Czech Republic                   250,000 - 300,000
Denmark                              1,500 - 2,000
Estonia                                      1,000 - 1,500
Finland                                  7,000 - 9,000
France                                  280,000 - 340,000
Germany                          110,000 - 130,000
Greece                                  160,000 - 200,000
Hungary                              550,000 - 600,000
Ireland                                  22,000 - 28,000
Italy                                      90,000 - 110,000
Latvia                                      2,000 - 3,500
Lithuania                              3,000 - 4,000
Luxembourg                          100 - 150
Macedonia                                  220,000 - 260,000
Moldavia                                   20,000 - 25,000
Netherlands                          35,000 - 40,000
Norway                                  500 - 1,000
Poland                                  50,000 - 60,000
Portugal                              40,000 - 50,000
Romania 1,800,000 - 2,500,000
Russia 220,000 - 400,000
Serbia-Montenegro 400,000 - 450,000
Slovakia 480,000 - 520,000
Slovenia 8,000 - 10,000
Spain 650,000 - 800,000
Sweden 15,000 - 20,000
Switzerland 30,000 - 35,000
Turkey 300,000 - 500,000
Ukraine 50,000 - 60,000
United Kingdom 90,000 - 120,000

Total Europe approximately 7,000,000 to 8,500,000

Source: Council of Europe Report, 1987



Helsinki Watch, Destroying Ethnic Identity: The Persecution of Gypsies in Romania, New York, September 199 1.

Roma (Gypsies) in the CSCE region, Report of the High Commissioner on National Minorities, 1993.

M. Braham, The Untouchables: A survey of the Roma People of Central and Eastern Europe.

Liegeois, J.P., Gypsies and Travellers, Council of Europe, Strasbourg, 1987. Fonseca, I., Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey, New York: Alfred A. Knopt, 1996.

European Roma Rights Centre, Sudden Rage at Dawn: Violence Against Roma in Romania, Country Reports Series, No. 2, 1996.


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Copyright 1998 Pavee Point.   Last updated 22 July 1998.
Created by Noreen Bowden.