Responding to a call from the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement to reject the racism, discrimination and prejudice against the Romani people, protest marches expressing Roma Pride took place Oct. 7 in France, Denmark, Norway, Italy, Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, Poland, Ukraine, England, Turkey, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria.
In France, where a recent attack on a Roma encampment in the northern part of Marseilles was brushed off by the authorities (La Province, Sept. 28), there will be marches in Paris, Bordeaux and Rennes.
While the people themselves share a common culture, language and history, the Romani people are also known as Roms, Roma, Tsiganes, Gitane and Manouche. These names vary since they are spread over so many countries, and the name used in one country is sometimes regarded as pejorative in other countries. In the United States, they are commonly called Gypsies, which is historically incorrect since their roots are in northern India, not Egypt. The European Union officially estimates that there are 10 million to 12 million Roma living in the EU. Some French academic experts put the number as high as 20 million.
Historically, the Roma have suffered extreme oppression and racism. They were enslaved in eastern Europe from the 14th to 19th centuries. The Nazis set up extermination camps for them, very similar to the ones they set up for the Jews, which is why there are currently so few Roma in Germany.
In reaction to the Nazi genocide, the progressive regimes set up in eastern Europe after World War II guaranteed the Roma full employment, mainly in low-skilled, industrial jobs, and education for their children. Certainly centuries of racist oppression, prejudice, exclusion and misery were not erased, but the material conditions of the Roma improved tremendously.
What is called the “fall of communism in 1989” meant a huge blow to the Roma. According to a 1998 Wilson Center report, unemployment in Roma communities reached 50 percent to 75 percent.
Especially in Romania, where many of the Roma expelled from France have their origins, the Roma are forced to live in actual ghettos: walled communities with just one or two gates and one well for a few thousand people. The apartment houses have no door and no windows, and receive at best a few sporadic hours of electricity a week. Garbage and trash pile up for months. Only a few families can afford school fees in the ghettos, and the only jobs available are very dangerous, noxious ones in the chemical industry. (French TV channel TF1, Sept. 28)
Conditions are very similar in the Czech Republic and in Slovakia. In Bulgaria and Hungary, right-wing parties with neo-Nazi orientation have actually demonstrated against Roma communities, forcing them to flee to work camps set up by the government. (European Grassroots Antiracist Movement blog)
The situation for the Roma in western Europe is less harsh than in eastern Europe, but they still face serious obstacles. In Sweden, Roma in traditional dress can’t rent cars. (Agence France Presse, Oct. 7) Roma who are not French citizens face expulsion, even though they are citizens of an EU country, which gives them some residency rights in France. Roma who are French citizens have to confront French laws that make it difficult for them to vote; they have difficulty getting their kids into schools and getting health care. They face racism that can be quite virulent at times.
According to an EGAM press release for Roma Pride Day, similar conditions hold in Spain, Italy, Germany and Denmark.