A number of preconceived ideas potentially spring to mind when you hear the words ‘Roma’ or ‘Romani’. Many associate ‘Roma’ with a prejudiced narrative about antisocial gypsies who leach off social services. Others mistakenly think that Roma is simply an abbreviated way of speaking about Romanian people.
‘Roma’ in fact means neither of these things. Instead, the Roma are a distinct ethnic group who have descended from Northern India and live all over the world. Famous figures of Romani origin include Elvis Presley, Charlie Chaplin and Pablo Picasso. The Gipsy Kings are the most notable Romani celebrities that have gained recognition over the past few decades.
Despite a rich and fascinating culture, Romani people are also one of the most sidelined and misunderstood ethnic minorities both globally and in the UK. It is deeply entrenched within the Roma culture to be itinerant, and so Romani people live dispersed all over the world.
Many have settled in Europe, mainly Eastern Europe, and it is also estimated that between 50,000-100,000 Romani people are currently living in the UK. The Roma maintain their own international flag and sense of identity but they are a disbanded civilisation without their own country. Because of this, they have historically been subject to shocking mistreatment across the globe.
In the Second World War, the Roma were targeted by Nazi Germany and tens of thousands of them were killed in concentration camps. However, only as late as 1979 was it formally acknowledged that they were even racially victimised during the Holocaust.
A recent documentary that aired on BBC three showed how increasing hostility towards the Roma in Hungary has led to many Romani children unjustly being taken away from their mothers by social services. These children are then placed in shoddy state-run care homes where they are exposed to drugs, violence and sexual abuse.
The World Health Organisation has found that the life expectancy of those living in Roma communities tends to be 10-15 years less then the average. The abhorrent prejudice and derogatory treatment of the Roma is rife, yet it’s something that rarely gets recognised or resolved.
Last year I did a two-week work experience at the Big Issue offices in Bristol, where over 40% of the magazine vendors are Romani. For those of you who have ambled past a Big Issue vendor before without really understanding the scheme, it’s a simple way to help vulnerable and side lined people within the UK get back into employment.
Vendors pay £1.25 for each magazine, which they then sell on the streets for £2.50, therefore making a £1.25 profit on each magazine they sell. This gives vulnerable people an entry-level employment opportunity so they can earn their own wage and avoid begging on the streets. The vendors themselves are not just the homeless, but people in various positions of vulnerability. They may be living in temporary accommodation, in danger of losing a home or they might be in a financial crisis. Roma people often end up working as vendors for the Big Issue due to lack of employment opportunities and language difficulties.
The large number of Roma vendors in the UK has unsurprisingly been treated with criticism and suspicion by the media. National newspapers such as The Telegraph and The Daily Mail have published articles about how the Roma only work for the Big Issue in order to derive state benefits.
It has been perceived as scandalous that Roma people living in houses are able to sell a magazine that was “set up to help the homeless”. This has never actually been the case; the Big Issue has always intended to help people categorised as vulnerable or marginalised rather than just the homeless.
Many of the British vendors also live in some form of social housing, yet those trying to criticise the prevalent number of Roma vendors have conveniently overlooked this. Furthermore, even though Roma people may often have homes, their living conditions are far from ideal. It is part of the Romani culture to have very big and interconnected families, so they typically cohabit in expansive groups with many children. Large families surviving off a few Big Issue profits simply cannot afford enough space for everybody to have a comfortable existence – this results in hugely overcrowded and unsafe homes.
So why are Romani people the victims of so much condemnation? One answer is that a united voice to defend them against mistreatment and to help them integrate into local communities simply doesn’t exist. Romani people have always been perceived as guests in other countries and this can cause them to be treated like second-class citizens. They have no government or political power that’s dedicated to defending their rights.
Lack of education due to poverty is also an ostracising factor. Although it is important to remember the Roma are not natively Romanian, it is the language they most commonly speak since many travel to the UK through Eastern Europe. Many of the Romani people in the UK cannot speak English since they have never had an opportunity to learn, providing another hurdle to their incorporation.
I really witnessed the unequal treatment of Romani people whilst working with the branch of Big Issue that helps vendors get in touch with local services. When I took one of the white male vendors to register with the local health service it was no problem at all that he didn’t have any official address, yet when I took one of the Roma vendors a week later we found ourselves in a bureaucracy landslide.
The health service refused to enrol her without the credentials that I saw them happily turn a blind eye to a week earlier. It was a clear case of prejudice that causes the Roma to remain vulnerable in our society, since they cannot even gain access to services that allow their basic needs to be met.
The mistreatment of Romani people is almost like Europe and the UK’s dirty little secret. They are a marginalised ethnic minority, often bearing the brunt of racism and discrimination. Yet with no concerted effort in place to help provide leverage for the Roma within our societies, they continue to be victims of both poverty and prejudice.
words by Eloise Mönch