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
Policies of containment associated with restrictions on nomadism,
are defined as "compulsory, generally violent integration of Roma/Gypsies into
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
"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
- Deplorable living conditions, usually on the outskirts of cities;
- Fewer camping spaces;
- Pressures to give up nomadism;
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
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
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.
"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
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
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
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
ROMA/GYPSY POPULATIONS THROUGHOUT EUROPE
90,000 - 100,000
20,000 - 25,000
10,000 - 15,000
10,000 - 15,000
Bosnia-Herzegovina 40,000 - 50,000
700,000 - 800,000
30,000 - 40,000
500 - 1,000
250,000 - 300,000
1,500 - 2,000
1,000 - 1,500
7,000 - 9,000
280,000 - 340,000
110,000 - 130,000
160,000 - 200,000
550,000 - 600,000
22,000 - 28,000
90,000 - 110,000
2,000 - 3,500
3,000 - 4,000
100 - 150
220,000 - 260,000
20,000 - 25,000
35,000 - 40,000
500 - 1,000
50,000 - 60,000
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.