Gypsies: Trapped on the Fringes of Europe

By Reyniers, Alain | UNESCO Courier, June 2000 | Go to article overview

Gypsies: Trapped on the Fringes of Europe


Reyniers, Alain, UNESCO Courier


Across Europe, Gypsies live in dire poverty and are frequently the target of violence and racism. But some governments are finally taking notice of the continent's largest minority

The figures are shocking. Between 60 and 80 per cent of Hungary's working-age Roma are estimated to be unemployed. More than 60 per cent of Romania's Gypsies are said to live below the poverty line and 80 per cent have no formal qualifications. In Bulgaria, the same percentage of Gypsies living in cities are jobless. The figures are believed to be much higher in the countryside.

In some villages of southern and eastern Slovakia, all Roma of adult age are destitute. In Britain, an estimated 10 to 20 per cent of the "travellers," as they are called, live in absolute poverty. In some French cities, between 70 and 80 per cent of the Gypsy population are on welfare payments paid out to the most destitute.

Their housing conditions are appalling, while their bill of health is another cause for concern: most Roma have a life expectancy of under 50.

Valued skills and masters of their own time

A glaring gap separates Europe's peoples from the continent's largest minority. Why, despite repeated attempts to assimilate or exclude the Gypsies over the past 600 years, have they remained cut off from other peoples and for the most part, pushed to the fringes of society? After all, not every group of people who came to live in Europe has been systematically ostracised. The Hungarians were a nomadic people of Asian origin but they managed to become a nation. And there are others.

Probably not all the Roma--who first came from India--were nomads when they arrived in the Byzantine Empire in the 12th or 13th century. But as far as we can tell from various writings, they had talents that enabled them to participate in the economies of the regions they crossed. They had no ambitions to conquer, but wherever they went, presented themselves as craftspeople, artists and traders. They were independent workers, committed to being masters of their own time, intent on making an earning from odd, on-the-spot jobs and with enough skills to meet the requests and needs of a dispersed clientele.

Many Europeans no doubt frowned upon the Gypsies' working habits: how they sought out jobs each day, their trust in luck, their spontaneous way of approaching strangers and their persistence. It set them apart from farming communities who worked for the long term, in tune with the changing seasons. Despite this and the inevitable friction between people from different backgrounds, nomads and farmers needed each other. The nomads provided tools, baskets, veterinary care, music or temporary manpower to the farmers, who gave them food and other goods in exchange.

For a long time, the Roma managed to make a living in this way, mainly as itinerants but also by staying in one place when there were opportunities. There were plenty of such cases in the Ottoman Empire and in central Europe, where the Roma served in the armies of invaders. They were also active in the Iberian peninsula, where they took over from the Moors and Jews expelled towards the end of the 15th century, at the time of the Reconquista, until they too were forced out.

These few examples go to show that Gypsies were not excluded because of a deep-rooted failure to adjust to local economic conditions, as it is too often suggested. Rather, it seems clear that governments and officials--first in western Europe, especially Spain, and then in central and eastern Europe--have, over the centuries, gone to great lengths to portray the Roma as a foreign and antisocial people without a culture of their own.

The contrived image of the Gypsies as an idle, roaming and dangerous people was one of the devices-along with violence, coercion and ideology-that was used to help forge the national identity of peoples belonging to specific territories with well-guarded borders. …

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