Some history and thoughts on the Roma
By Peter Lippman
Compiled Fall, 2017
The Roma: some history and cultural
Among people I've been in touch with, both in the world of folklore
enthusiasts and in the general population, there is, unfortunately,
much ignorance and stereotyping of the Roma. Expressions of
confusion and ignorance crop up periodically. I feel inspired to try
to address those stereotypes, by way of sharing a compilation of
material I've written on this subject at various times over the
years. I will start by sharing some of the history, describing
current living conditions and discrimination, and I will then
discuss some prejudices pertaining to the Roma.
Much thanks to Morgan Ahern and Sonia Tamar Seeman for reviewing
It is generally recognized that the Roma left northern India some
1,500 years ago, and they arrived in Europe between around the end
of the first millennium CE. While for much time their origin was a
mystery, in the late 18th century linguists recognized
that the Romani language was related to Hindi, thus unlocking the
secret of their origin.
Romani communities spread westward from India through the Middle
East into northern Africa and Europe. In part, their influx into
Europe accompanied the Ottoman encroachment into the Balkans. The
Roma served the Ottomans as tradesmen, artisans, and soldiers.
A particularly dreadful chapter in Romani history was the period of
their enslavement in parts of Europe, especially Romania, from the
14th to the 19th century. There, Roma were bought and sold as
property, just as was done with enslaved people in the American
South. Throughout Europe over the centuries, Roma were subject to
persecution, sterilization, forcible assimilation, and expulsion.
Not enough has changed since those times.
Where human rights and standard of living are concerned, the Roma
are at or near the bottom of society in every country in Europe.
Discrimination against the Romani populations and the forced
migration of their communities have been as common in the last
couple of decades as they ever were. Compounding these injuries is
the widespread racism against Roma, comparable to the racism against
African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos that exists in the
United States. That is, European racism against the Roma is both an
attitude and a systemic problem.
Any discussion of Roma history in Europe should note that the
biggest disaster in that history was the World War II Holocaust, in
which the Jews were not the only victims. This history, as so much
with the Roma, is usually forgotten. Genocide was committed against
the Roma as well; Romani communities throughout the lands occupied
by the Nazis were forced into ghettoes, and many of these people
were sent to concentration camps or simply murdered where they
lived. Other Roma were subjected to long imprisonment. It is
difficult to cite accurate figures, but
this report holds that of Europe’s pre-war Roma
population of one million, approximately twenty percent, or around
Since World War II Roma have struggled to integrate themselves into
the economies of the countries in which they live, while proudly
upholding their traditional cultures. This has been an uphill
The situation is difficult in central Europe, in such places as the
Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania, where the Romani
population is significant. In those countries discrimination is at
times organized, and there are periodic incidents of violence
against the Roma. In August of 2012 a thousand neo-Nazis descended
upon a mixed Romani and Hungarian village in western Hungary,
shouting at Romani inhabitants, “You are going to die here.” (see
Hungarian Anti-Roma marches)
A particularly notorious violation of Roma rights took place in
France in 2010, when President Sarkozy ordered Roma from Bulgaria
and Romania—that is, fellow EU citizens—to leave the country.
Repeated police raids on Romani communities resulted in the eviction
and expulsion of nearly 15,000 Roma from France in 2010 and 2011.
Sarkozy’s law permitted French authorities to expel people from the
country if they were suspected of immigration simply for the purpose
of “benefiting from the social assistance system” (See
France: One Year On, New Abuses against Roma.) In 2012, after Sarkozy was replaced, the French
government took steps to ameliorate the abuses against the Roma, but
much damage had been done.
While human rights abuses against the Roma occur on a wide scale in
various parts of Europe, the EU itself has taken a stance in favor
of the rights of the Roma, and has attempted to promote more
favorable policies. The Roma Education Fund reports that the
European Commission is working to help with integration of the Roma
thus: “The social and economic inclusion of Roma is a priority for
the EU and needs the commitment and joint efforts of national and
local authorities, civil society and EU institutions. The European
Commission is committed to taking the necessary steps to improve the
situation of Roma people and their social and economic integration
in society. On April 7, 2010 the Commission adopted a Communication
on the social and economic integration of Roma in Europe (IP/10/407;
MEMO/10/121) – the first ever policy document dedicated specifically
to Roma. It outlines an ambitious programme to help making policies
for Roma inclusion more effective and defines the main challenges
The same report notes, “There are between 10 million and 12 million
Roma in the EU, in candidate countries and potential candidate
countries in the Western Balkans. Roma people living in the European
Union are EU citizens and have the same rights as any other EU
citizen. A significant number of Roma live in extreme
marginalisation in both rural and urban areas and in very poor
social-economic conditions. They are disproportionally affected by
discrimination, violence, unemployment, poverty, bad housing and
poor health standards.” (See
Frequently Asked Questions on the European Roma Population.)
In early 2005, eight European governments (Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech
Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, and
the Slovak Republic) launched the “Decade of Roma Inclusion,” in a
bid to promote national action plans that would help end
discrimination against the Roma populations in their respective
countries. However, in the same period, evictions of Roma were
ongoing in the UK, Lithuania, Albania, Greece, Ireland, Kosovo, and
In Bosnia-Herzegovina the history of the Roma, and discrimination
against that community, has paralleled that of the rest of Europe.
In World War II, Croatian collaborators with the Nazis put Roma in
concentration camps along with Jews and Serbs. Then in the more
recent war, Serb separatists expelled the Roma, along with other
non-Serbs, from the parts of Bosnia that they controlled. On the
other hand, in Muslim-controlled parts of the country the Roma were
not mistreated, and in many cases they joined the army and fought
alongside other Bosnians in defense of the country.
Recently released census figures set the Romani population at nearly
9,000, but the true figure has often been estimated to be at least
five times that. After the war in the 1990s, to some extent
displaced Roma returned to Serb-controlled territory, the "entity"
known as the Republika Srpska. Now, they are subject to
discrimination and poor conditions in both entities, throughout
Thousands of Roma live at the margins; in any given municipality it
is common to hear that perhaps one percent of the Roma population
holds a steady job. Bosnians do not generally hide their racism
towards the Roma. In 2000, I was in contact with a Romani
organization in Sarajevo, and I mentioned their struggle to improve
their conditions to a human rights activist in a completely
different field, off in central Bosnia. He commented to me, “You
know, they don’t really even care whether they have toilets in their
In the Decade of Roma Inclusion, Bosnian Roma have seen little
benefit from the bureaucracy that was constructed to include them
and from the EU money that has supported that bureaucracy.
Employment of Roma has not increased significantly, nor has health
coverage. Few Romani children finish elementary school. And while
the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg decreed in 2009
that Roma and Jews must be given full political rights in Bosnia, to
this date constitutional obstruction of those rights has not been
Conditions for the Roma in the rest of Europe are similar or worse.
In Bulgaria Roma make up a high percentage of the unemployed. In
Italy hundreds of Roma live in old trailers and dilapidated
barracks. Roma live in unsanitary conditions in the Czech Republic,
Slovakia, and Romania as well. Even in enlightened Sweden, in late
2013 the police secretly created a list of 4,000 people, mostly
Roma, for surveillance as potential crime suspects.
The influx of Middle Eastern refugees in the past year has only made
conditions more difficult for the Roma, many of whose ancestors have
lived on the continent for the last 700 years.
Troubles of the Roma in Kosovo
In 2016, the famed Romani singer Esma Redžepova
performed once again in Seattle, not long before her death. She
lived in a Romani community near Skopje, Macedonia. However, she
originally hailed from Kosovo. And for that matter, our dear friend
Šani Rifati, who recently taught dances in Seattle, is Esma's
cousin and he comes from Kosovo as well.
Over the last century Kosovo has been marked by periodic
conflict between the (erstwhile) Serbian regime and the majority
Albanian population, with Serbia holding the upper hand until war
broke out between the Serbian regime and insurgent Albanian forces.
The war ended with the regime’s defeat and expulsion at the hands of
NATO in 1999.
As in the rest of Europe, over the decades the Roma in Kosovo were
at the bottom of society, subject to discrimination from all
directions. To their great misfortune, during and after the 1998-99
war, Roma were caught between two parties in a fight that was not
theirs. Romani men were sometimes abused, and sometimes drafted to
fight, both by the Serbian side and by the Kosovar Albanian side. It
happened that relatives even found themselves looking through their
gun sights at each other.
It was the disaster of the Kosovo Roma community that its members
were caught in an impossible position. Immediately upon the end of
the NATO intervention, hundreds of thousands of Albanians came
streaming back from exile to their (often destroyed) homes.
Unfortunately, there were Albanians who wished to take revenge for
their brush with danger, and they were not particular about their
targets. Those Serbs, Roma, and other minorities who had remained in
Kosovo after the NATO intervention were at risk.
There was a near-unanimous belief among Albanians that Roma had
collaborated with Serbian forces during the war. It is more accurate
to say that the Roma were in an untenable position in that period,
caught between two opposing forces in a fight that was not their
own. But beliefs about the behavior of the Roma during the war
apparently contributed to the subsequent mistreatment of the Roma.
On the other hand, while Albanians may have held enduring prejudices
against the Roma, most Albanians, having survived a brutal war, just
wanted to move ahead peacefully and get on with their lives.
I visited Kosovo immediately after the NATO intervention in July of
1999. At that time, I went to a collective center for displaced Roma
at Kosovo Polje, on the outskirts of Prishtina. Approximately 8,000
Roma had moved into a high school in this town when they left
Prishtina and other nearby localities under pressure from returning
Albanians. The Roma were about to be moved from the school to a
nearby tent camp.
There were around two hundred Roma sitting outside the school
building, with piles of bedding, cradles, and other belongings
waiting to be loaded. The women and children had already left. One
man said to me, “Many people have come and written different things
from what they actually saw. They wrote that we were thieves.
Deutsche Welle said in a broadcast that we are used to this kind of
life. That's not true. We are used to living in houses. You should
see the houses we used to live in, where we came from.”
As Kosovo was established as an international protectorate after the
war ended in mid-1999, several camps for displaced persons were set
up to receive those Roma who had not left Kosovo. A large number of
Roma found themselves in four camps near Mitrovica in the north of
Kosovo. They were out of the frying pan, but into the fire; these
camps were terribly polluted by contamination from a former lead
smelter. The camps were maintained for a decade, with one shut down
in 2010, and another only in late 2012. Residents were moved to
newly-constructed houses near Mitrovica.
Estimates of the prewar Roma population in Kosovo vary wildly; I
have seen figures ranging from 100,000 to 300,000. A more realistic
estimate may be somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000. A Human
Rights Watch report estimated that the population of Roma remaining
in Kosovo by 2010 was approximately 38,000.
After the war at least 100,000 Roma were exiled from Kosovo to the
surrounding former republics of Yugoslavia, especially to
neighboring Montenegro, Macedonia, and Serbia; many also ended up in
central Europe, especially Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and
Scandinavia. Their living conditions in those places of refuge were
sub-standard. They lacked employment and often ended up living at
the poorest margins of the cities, sometimes on or near landfill.
Many people lacked basic identification, and as such were not
registered as refugees.
Not all is hopeless. While the Roma displaced from Kosovo struggle
to make a life in their host countries or, if deported back to
Kosovo, try to adjust to changed circumstances back home, there are
initiatives and organizations trying to help. The Kosovo Foundation
for Open Society advocates in the EU for the rights of minorities in
Kosovo. RomaReact fights stereotypes about the Roma. The Roma
Education Fund promotes education in Romani communities. The Society
for Threatened Peoples (based in Germany) monitors the state of
human rights for the Roma in Kosovo. And Voice of Roma, based in
California, works to educate the public about the rights of the
Roma, and presents Romani culture and traditions in order to fight
Džafer Buzoli lives in
Kosovo and works there for the Society for Threatened Peoples. He
monitors and reports on the state of human rights for the Roma in
Kosovo, and advocates for their improvement. A couple of years ago,
he brought me up to date on the situation of the Roma.
Džafer told me, “At
the end of the NATO intervention, there were some 8,000 Roma who
found themselves in the area of Mitrovica. At that time, the UN
established four camps for the displaced Roma in lead-polluted
areas, in North Mitrovica. There was lead dust in the soil and the
water. People lived there for ten years, until 2008 and 2009. Then
they were removed to a French NATO base. But it was not clean.
“In ten years, around 90 Roma died from lead poisoning. Now some
Roma have returned to the south Mahala [a traditional Roma
neighborhood]. Most of the others fled to Macedonia, Germany, or
Switzerland. The Roma in Kosovo are no longer living in the polluted
camps, but in that area where they now live, there is still lead
dust in the air.
“As to the exiled Roma, there is an agreement with the EU whereby
Kosovo is willing to receive all its citizens back. But,
unfortunately, this is equivalent to a green light to deport them
from their host countries. Roma are being sent back to Kosovo
without support. They are being expelled from Germany and other
countries. Return to Kosovo is difficult. If they are coming back
from Macedonia, Serbia, or Montenegro, then there is a support
package for their return. But if they are coming back from Europe,
there is no support. And it is a problem when the children do not
know the local language.
“In the schools, there has been a kind of segregation. The Roma
children are placed in the back of the classroom. However, now that
situation has been improving as a result of the state’s educational
“Meanwhile, there is no economic development taking place in Kosovo,
and there is little or no work here for the Roma. Some of them
collect scraps. It is easier for the people who live in villages,
where at least they can plant a garden.
“As to our work here, we collaborate in advocacy with the respected
people in the local communities. Those respected people are rich,
but they are passive. We are working to train the youth to be more
active. We have written letters of protest about local conditions,
but there has been no response.”
Mr. Buzolli summed up his hopes, saying, “We have to be optimistic -
but not too optimistic.”
Racism, stereotypes, and the "G-word."
A somber commemoration of the Romani Holocaust, called the Porajmos
(or Porriamos), takes place in early August.
Early in the Nazi regime, Germany began to treat the Roma the same
way it treated the Jews. The Roma were stripped of their citizenship
and, by 1936, began to be placed in ghettos or internment camps for
deportation. By a couple of years into the 1940s all Roma had been
killed or deported to concentration camps. As mentioned earlier,
between 200,000 and a half million Roma were killed—but some
estimates go as high as 1.5 million. A particularly large massacre
of Roma took place at Auschwitz on August 2, 1944; that date was
later established as the day to commemorate the Romani holocaust.
Racism is both a system and an attitude. It's the systemic racism
that really hurts people's lives, but the attitude—nine parts
ignorance and one part hate—facilitates the system. The attitude
supports the violence that is perpetrated regularly against the Roma
in Europe, some of which is mentioned above.
Just as with the mainstream, implicitly racist attitudes against
African Americans and other people of color that we are all fed in
our cultural atmosphere in the United States, racism against Roma is
in the air and in the language we speak. It is a good idea for us to
ponder this problem and to be on guard against terminology that
relegates the Roma to some land of fantasy—thus taking away the
opportunity of the Roma to be perceived as real people.
This pertains to us folklore enthusiasts who benefit from the
contributions of the Roma that so greatly enrich the culture that
fascinates us. Without the Romani influence, East European folklore
would be seriously impoverished. The contribution could be compared
to that of African American culture to mainstream American culture.
The image of the Roma, so often encapsulated in the word “Gypsy,” is
something that is romanticized and trivialized. If the effect of
racism as an attitude is to generalize a given ethnic group as less
human than the "mainstream" or "dominant" one, then evoking the Roma
as “wanderers,” “exotic,” and a host of other insulting categories
is just as racist a practice as any other.
These images are only reinforced by the semantic usages found in
shops such as "The Gypsy Trader," "Gypsy Junk," and "The Vintage
Gypsy." They are compounded by the thoughtless use of "Gypsy" images
and a caricaturized, exotic style in many realms from the boutique
on up to the folklore ensemble. The images portrayed in these
settings leave no space for the comprehension of the Roma as a
dignified people with legitimate rights and struggles that they are
Our friend Šani Rifati, Kosovo Rom and activist leader of the
organization Voice of Roma, expressed it well:
“I won't play you a sad song on my violin. I do not have a bandana.
I do not have a golden tooth. I do not have long hair or a golden
hoop in my ear. I am just trying to speak up for my people:
to tell you about their suffering and the persecution they've
endured throughout the centuries
to ask you to fight against ignorance, prejudice and stereotypes
Simply put, as a place to start: please call me Rom."
So, for starters, I propose that we recognize that the word “Gypsy”
is an insensitive word, and that we avoid it—or if it must be used,
that we put it in quotation marks. I also suggest that we let people
who name their stores, bands, or other outfits using the word
“Gypsy” know that they are employing a denigrating term that calls
up a caricature of a people who have just the same hopes, needs, and
ambitions as everyone else.
Well-meaning people sometimes respond, "But I often hear Roma
calling themselves 'Gypsies,' so why isn't it OK if I say it?"
What Roma or anyone else call themselves is their own business. But
we, as privileged people who are benefiting from and enriched by the
contributions of an oppressed people, need to hold ourselves to a
position of extra sensitivity. Avoiding the "G-word" takes a bit of
effort, and that effort constitutes a conscious step against racism.
It's the least we can do to show our respect.
Here’s more from Šani: “The first basic step in separating myths and
stereotypes from facts and authenticity is in the use of our
terminology. 'Rom' means a human being, person or man in the Romani
language. The Roma do not call themselves Gypsies. Historically, the
term ‘Gypsy’ came from the mistaken assumption on the part of
Anglo-Europeans that Roma originated in Egypt. In fact, the Roma are
a distinct ethnic minority, distinguished at least by Rom blood and
the Romani, or Romanes, language, whose origins began in the Punjab
region of India. Their migration began in the 2nd century, when they
traveled through the Persian Gulf, Egypt, and Turkey, eventually
spreading all over Europe. While Roma are Europe's largest ethnic
minority, they remain the least integrated and the most persecuted
people of Europe today. Using the word 'Gypsy' is not only
inaccurate but perpetuates the continuation of stereotypes that
portray Roma as beggars, swindlers, and thieves.”
It should be noted that, contrary to the stereotype, the vast
majority of European Roma have lived in settled communities for many
generations. And there are communities of Roma who have for the most
part ceased speaking the Romani language, but they still hold to
Here are a few more articles and informational sources.
Some web sites:
European Roma Rights Centre
International (enter "Roma")
European Roma Rights
Centre - International legal advocacy center
Human Rights Watch (enter
Kosovo Foundation for Open Society - Prishtina-based minority
Rroma Foundation -
history, book reviews, links, reports
Interactive multimedia site for news and advocacy. I strongly
recommend the flash mob video at the front of this site!
Education Fund - Hungary-based educational foundation:
Society for Threatened Peoples Humanitarian project
must ensure detox measures for Roma refugees from camp 'Osterode'
memorial] must be an initial step to establish a European
integration project for Romani peoples
The Society's work in Kosovo:
Roma Youth in Kosovo (Includes footage from Kosovo. In German)
Voice of Roma,
California-based advocacy and cultural association. Facebook
A surprising verdict: the Gypsies are the
racists, not the members of the Hungarian Guard,
October 2, 2013
Anti-Gypsyism 25 years on: Europe fails Havel’s
litmus test, by Bernard Rorke, January 16, 2015
'Gypsy' No More: Romani Music Festival Combats Stereotypes,
by Matt Saincome, April 29 2015
Romania turns its back on dark past of Roma slavery,
March 3, 2016
Roma Poisoned at U.N. Camps in Kosovo May Get Apology and
by Rick Gladstone, NY Times, April 7, 2016
And here's an article about a Romani museum in our own region, on
Mobile museum on Vashon honors Romani culture,
by Elizabeth Shepherd, Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber Staff,
July 6, 2010
Silent Harm, Verena Knaus et al. Silent Harm - A
UNICEF-sponsored report assessing the situation of the psycho-social
health of children repatriated to Kosovo. In cooperation with the
Kosovo Health Foundation, 2012.
Dossier of Evidence: Lead contaminated camps of internally displaced
Roma, Ashkali and Kosovan-Egyptian families in North Mitrovica,
Kosovo, Society for Threatened Peoples, July, 2009
Memorandum of the Society for Threatened People: Lead
Poisoning of Roma in IDP Camps in Kosovo
Until the Very Last Gipsy Has Fled the Country: The Mass Expulsion
of Roma and Ashkali from Kosovo, Society for Threatened Peoples
International, Human Rights Report No. 21, September 1999
Romani Routes: Cultural Politics and Balkan Music in Diaspora, Oxford University Press, 2012
By Carol Silverman, Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Folklore
at the University of Oregon.
Romani Routes provides a timely and insightful view into Romani
communities both in their home countries and in the diaspora.
site for the book
And in general, see anything you can get
your hands on by Ian Hancock, Adrian Marsh, Carol Silverman, or
Sonia Tamar Seeman.
Index of previous
journals and articles