On the move

19th March 2004 at 00:00
In the face of extreme prejudice and discrimination across Europe, the Romani people are struggling to maintain their traditional culture and lifestyle. Reva Klein reports

Few groups of people suffer the universal fear and loathing experienced by Gypsies and Travellers, known in mainland Europe as Roma. Their persecution throughout history has been extreme and unrelenting. Pogroms, expulsions, enslavement, ghettoisation and discriminatory laws have plagued their existence. At least 500,000 Gypsies were murdered in the Nazi holocaust, and some believe the figure may be as high as 1.5 million. This has never impacted on the social conscience: wherever they go, there is hatred and distrust in the hearts and minds of non-Gypsies, or gadje.

In the UK, it is common to see signs outside pubs barring entry to Gypsies, in disregard of the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. In recent years, local residents of towns in south-east England have staged angry protests against proposals to house Roma asylum-seekers from central and eastern Europe, often fuelled by racist invective in the popular press. Last year, a 15-year-old Traveller boy was beaten to death in Cheshire after being called "Gypsy bastard", and the effigy of a Gypsy caravan and family were burned in a Guy Fawkes display in East Sussex last November.

Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council in Warwickshire was recently so desperate to remove 21 Traveller families from a caravan site they legally owned but had failed to get planning permission for that it called in its own bailiffs to remove them. Trevor Phillips, chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, sums up the picture like this: "Great Britain (for Gypsies and Travellers) is like the American Deep South was for black people in the 1950s."

In mainland Europe, the situation is much worse. Clustered in former Soviet-bloc countries and sprinkled around the Mediterranean, the Roma are the poorest, the least educated and the most unemployed groups in the population. There are more Roma in prisons in these countries than any other minority group. Human rights group Helsinki Watch, which monitors abuses in the former Soviet-bloc, reports that 60 per cent of men in Hungarian prisons are Roma, while Romani women account for a quarter of women prisoners in Spain, even though Roma make up only 1.5 per cent of the population.

Systematic human rights abuses are common in some countries. In Ostrava in the Czech Republic, for instance, Roma children are 23 times more likely to be sent to special schools for the "mentally retarded" than their white peers. A "petit apartheid" system operates in some Hungarian schools, where a "whites only" policy means that Roma children are barred from the canteens and gyms. In Slovakia, the most impoverished of the country's half a million Roma live on wasteland, without access to mains water. Throughout the region, racist attacks in the streets are commonplace.

Roma from eastern and central Europe have become the most demonised of all would-be asylum-seekers and immigrants. Just a few weeks ago, perceived anti-Roma sentiment led the Prime Minister to announce that he would consider limiting the numbers of people coming into Britain from eastern European countries once the 10 new accession states join the European Union on May 1. By playing the populist card, placating the ever-growing anti-Roma, anti-asylum lobby with its promise to head off the large numbers of Romani families from Slovakia and the Czech Republic who are predicted to make their way here, the Government is hoping to lay to rest the view of Britain as the European soft-touch capital for would-be asylum seekers, criminals and, as some tabloid papers have referred to them, "foreign scroungers".

The UK Government has even placed adverts on Slovak television asking people not to come: a British Tourist Authority public relations exercise in reverse.

Throughout Europe, numerous surveys, polls and studies show that public opinion overwhelmingly takes the view that these people bring trouble wherever they go, that their itinerant lifestyle is "dodgy", that they are not like us. In Bratislava, for example, an Institute for Public Affairs study in 2000 showed 80 per cent of Slovaks didn't want Roma as neighbours.

And an Ethnobarometer Survey in 2000 showed 67 per cent of Romanians feel resentment towards Roma.

What is this resentment and, for some, hatred about? Why should these people be the target of so much antipathy? There is no doubt that their identity as outsiders is a major factor. Many people are suspicious of those who move from place to place, and moving is both tradition and necessity for today's 12 million Travellers, Gypsies and Roma worldwide. It has been thus for a millennium.

The law

While much has changed since 1530, when the Egyptians Act required Gypsies to leave the country within 16 days, the law is not on the side of people who want to live in caravans.

The 1968 Caravan Sites Act was a watershed in English law, putting an obligation on councils to provide accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers living in the area. This resulted in a minimum number of pitches and sites being offered: those who could not find a space could be evicted from unofficial sites.

This legislation was overturned by the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. Local authorities are no longer required to provide sites, and it is estimated that 30 per cent of Gypsies and Travellers have nowhere to stay legally.

The Act has also given new powers to local authorities and the police to evict families living in unofficial encampments of more than six vehicles.

According to research collated in 1997, more than 90 per cent of planning applications submitted by Travellers for land they wished to buy are refused by local authorities.

In the absence of legal sites, and in the face of official obstacles, some Gypsies and Travellers are building on unsuitable land or on sites for which they have no planning permission - as in the case of the 21 families in Warwickshire. Others are camping in public areas, such as roadsides and car parks, which lack the most basic facilities. But most have been forced into local authority public housing.

The problem of finding sites is also difficult for Gypsies and Travellers in other ways: with no fixed address, it is not possible to register with a GP; life expectancy for both men and women is 10-12 years less than for the general population; up to 12,000 Traveller and Gypsy children do not attend school because they aren't registered with a school and, of those who are, the attendance rate, at 75 per cent, is the lowest of any minority ethnic group.

One Government estimate identifies that up to 8,000 pitches are required to accommodate those Gypsies and Travellers who are not presently housed on sites. Housing and planning bills currently going through Parliament may lead to the creation of more sites.

In the UK

The first wave of Romanis came to the UK around the mid-14th century.

Though treated benignly under Catholic rule, they were discriminated against from the time of the Reformation for refusing to adopt Protestantism. Henry VIII made it a capital offence to be a Gypsy, a law that was not repealed until the mid-1800s. Those identified were subject to expulsions at best and, at worst, execution.

Horse-dealing was a long-established Gypsy trade, but by the 20th century, the rural lifestyle became increasingly difficult to maintain, with legislation prohibiting or limiting caravan sites. Gypsies and Travellers were pushed out of the country and into cities and towns, where they found work as scrap and car dealers, and on road-building schemes.

The future

While the current political climate is weighted against Romani families coming from the new EU nations to take up residence and employment in the UK, the future for British Gypsies and Travellers is more positive. New legislation could open the possibility for more and better provision of caravan sites, and Gypsy and Traveller groups are becoming vocal and persuasive lobbyists, uniting with other civil liberties organisations in calling for an end to institutional and social discrimination.

Various Gypsy organisations are making inroads by discussing issues with both statutory and non-statutory bodies, raising awareness of the difficulties and obstacles faced by Gypsies and Travellers in attempting to live as they have done for generations. These organisations include: the National Romani Rights Association; Friends, Families and Travellers; the Gypsy Council for Education, Culture, Welfare and Civil Rights; and the International Romani Union.

Past UK governments have tried to achieve integration by putting Gypsies into houses. But many believe that prejudice can dissipate through social cohesion and mutual understanding. As Dr Thomas Acton, professor of Romani Studies at the University of Greenwich said at a 1997 conference entitled Land, People and Freedom, a genuine "level playing field" will be achieved "not by apartheid between Travellers and non-Travellers, or between different kinds of Travellers, but by people getting to know each other and each other's worth and needs. Racism against Gypsies is widespread - but often very shallow, ready to implode the first time a non-Gypsy knows a Gypsy as a personal friend. Getting real multicultural material into schools will help in this."


Romania 2,500,000

Bulgaria 800,000

Hungary 600,000

Slovakia 520,000

Czech Republic 300,000

UK c120,000

Poland 60,000


* There are an estimated 12 million Gypsies worldwide, including North and South America, the Antipodes, parts of Africa and Asia. In the UK, there are up to 120,000 Romani, half of whom are nomadic. They speak a mix of English and Romani, known as poggerdi jib, which means "broken tongue".

They are known as English, Welsh and Scottish Gypsies.

* Irish Travellers date possibly to pre-Christian times. They were nomadic smiths in medieval Ireland, mending and making pots and pans. They arrived in the rest of the UK in the 1800s, many coming at the time of the potato famine. In the early 1960s, the Irish government introduced policies to settle families in houses and many left Ireland in order to maintain their nomadic lifestyle.

* New Age Travellers are a 1980s phenomenon, comprising mainly young white people who have chosen to reject consumerist society, and many who are homeless. They often move from one summer festival to another.

* Showmen are Travellers who work with circuses and travelling shows. Like Gypsies and Travellers, showmen and circus families have a strong tradition of passing skills on to their children.


The Romani language, derived from the ancient northern Indian languages of Punjabi and Hindi, is still spoken today.

The language reflects the Romas' migratory paths from one culture and linguistic tradition to another. Spoken dialects vary widely between countries and even between communities.

Just as there is no single ethnic group known as Romani, there is no single Romani language. There are three language groupings: the Dom(ari) of the Middle East and eastern Europe; the Lom(arvren) of central Europe; and the Rom(ani) of western Europe.

The International Romani Union is presently developing a standardised dialect: a major undertaking for a language that has no written tradition.

Many Romas have lost their original language altogether. In Hungary for instance, only 20 per cent of Romas speak Romani.

There is also no single cultural framework to which all Roma adhere. But the following characteristics are common to all groups: lRules of hygiene, based on ancient Hindu laws, which involve the beliefs that menstruating women are unclean and that toilets and showers should be situated outside the home, to guard against spiritual uncleanliness.

lRunning water is not used for washing dishes, cleaning teeth, washing clothes and so on. Clean water is poured from closed cans, to prevent contamination. Bowls and utensils used for different purposes are strictly separated.

* Intense loyalty to the extended family and the clan.

* Belief in God (Del) and the Devil (beng), and in predestination

* Preparing children in early adolescence to learn the family trade.

* Traditional conservative family structures in which wives look after the home and husbands go out to work.


For centuries, it was widely believed that the Roma came from Egypt because of their dark skin and hair and colourful clothes. The name Gypsy comes from "Egyptian" and is considered by some Roma and Travellers to be a derogatory term imposed on them by outsiders.

Their roots lie in India, from where there appears to have been a mass exodus of Roma around 1000ad. Some scholars suggest they belonged to a low caste of Hindus, recruited into a mercenary Indian army that moved west to ward off Muslim invaders. They then travelled through Persia, Armenia, and Byzantium, and arrived in Europe at the beginning of the 14th century.

Their ethnic and linguistic identity became more distinct, and they adopted cultural and language traits from the countries they inhabited. Their nomadic lifestyle meant that they were made up of different ethnic groups.

But nomadism is not inherent to Romani culture. According to the International Romani Union, the Roma have been forced to roam because they have always been socially excluded. Banned from European towns - even enslaved in Romania until the 1860s - they were forced to live on the margins, living as metalworkers, scrap merchants, circus hands, horse dealers, peddlers, beggars and petty thieves. For people from Romania, begging is part of the legacy of Roma slavery.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today