The eternal minority

The Roma have suffered centuries of persecution and marginalization. Now Roma children are turning up on the doorstep of British towns. *Eleanor Harding* tries to find out why – and follows the trail from Slough, in England, to Romania, newest member of the European Union.

Seven-year-old Gruia Georgiana

Eleanor Harding

A tiny girl stands giggling in the entrance to a hovel at the edge of town. Her copper-streaked hair shines in the bleak afternoon. Her name is Gruia Georgiana and she is seven years old. Behind her, a dirty mattress lies on the mud floor. There is no toilet, electricity or stove. ‘My dearest wish is to go to school,’ she says. But Georgiana will never go to school, and neither will her three younger brothers. Her mother can only afford clothes, copybooks and stationery for one child, her eldest, to be educated. Georgiana wears nothing but a grubby swimming costume, and two of her siblings are naked.

The situation of the Gruia family might be less of a shock in Delhi or Rio de Janeiro. But this is Bucharest, Romania, which became part of the European Union (EU) in January. According to the 2002 census, there are 535,140 declared Roma in Romania, making up about 2.5 per cent of the population. Unofficially, this figure could be as much as 2.5 million. Although there are many different groups of Roma, a proportion of whom are well educated and successful, a worrying number are not, due to deprivation, bureaucracy and racism. Only two-thirds of the country’s Roma children are enrolled in school, according to UNICEF. To do something as basic as run a market stall or sell anything, a person must have a certificate of trade, which requires six years of primary school education. So education is vital to engaging in legal employment.

Slough, the promised land

Romania’s accession to the EU has meant that those who never received an education can now turn to other countries for help. Between January and May 2007, for example, 88 Roma children arrived in the town of Slough, west of the British capital London, from all over Romania.

Janet Tomlinson, Slough’s Director of Education and Children’s Services at the time, was in charge of providing them with housing, food and clothes. ‘If we find a youngster under 18 without a bed for the night, they’re in our care,’ she said. Most of the children are teenagers, although some are as young as 10. ‘We don’t know how they came here; the first time we see them is when they turn up at the town hall. They’ve told us they came in a lorry, but one young girl when questioned said there were soft seats and that everybody had a seat, so it started to sound more like a coach. They tend to clam up about it, which suggests they’ve been told not to say anything.’

‘They give the impression of being streetwise,’ she continued. ‘They look as if they’ve had a harsh life and they’ve learnt to be tough. The reasons why they say they came vary. Sometimes they say it’s because they know somebody in Slough and they know that if they come here, they can get a roof over their head and so on. Mainly they just say that it’s a lot nicer than Romania.’

Slough’s Council has been working with the Romanian authorities and the Roma community to reunite the children with their families. This has presented difficulties, since the parents could be anywhere in Europe. Of the 88 children that arrived, the Council provided care for 52. The others either went to stay with family members already living in Britain or were assessed as being over 18 years old.

‘Some of the children have said they thought it would be easy to get a job and money,’ said team manager Lauren Watts. ‘But the reality of coming to a new country is different. Some of them feel isolated and lonely.’

‘With these children, the fact of going to school will be alien,’ said Tomlinson. ‘They haven’t done any formal learning in Romanian, and they’re illiterate in the Roma language, so there’s very little to build on.’

Enforced poverty

When Roma children wash up in other European countries, it is often assumed that their lack of schooling is attributable to a travelling lifestyle. But, contrary to popular belief, only some Roma groups are nomadic. In the ghettos of Romania, many Roma children have lived in the same community their entire lives without access to a school. Although schooling in Romania is free, parents are expected to provide copybooks and stationery themselves, as well as appropriate clean clothing and transport. For many Roma families, food takes priority over such items. Some parents would also rather send their children out to beg, or to earn tiny wages on the black market, than send them to school.

It is poverty which keeps these children out of school; poverty which is institutionally reinforced. In Romania, identity papers are required for getting a job and accessing social welfare. The papers state where the individual lives, and so property papers, proving the individual’s permanent residence, are a prerequisite. A makeshift hovel does not count as a place of permanent residence, and therefore the poorest people in Romania have no way of legally earning money, or even accessing state benefits. United Nations Development Programme figures show that the poorest people are most likely to be Roma. Some 66 per cent live in households with a daily expenditure of less than $4.30 per day – compared with just 25 per cent of non-Roma.

Their house is a botched job of scrap metal, bits of plastic, mud, wood and bricks that they found in a field. It hardly looks as if it would last a night

Oxford University sociologist Razvan Constantinescu says that Roma were always considered an underclass, but during communist times were able to get jobs and housing. When communism collapsed, the old prejudices set in and they were first to lose their jobs and their housing.

‘They were pushed back out of modern Romania but by now they had lost their links with traditional communities and they didn’t have support networks. They lost their traditional skills. They ended up in an ethnic no-man’s land. They were rejected by both societies. That’s what really generated the poverty.’

Those who clung to their traditional communities during that time also now find it difficult to obtain papers. Gruia Bumbu, president of the Romanian Government’s National Agency for Roma, explains: ‘Historically, some Roma haven’t had houses, but in the last few decades some have built them on the public land owned by the Romanian state. Their houses have been there for 10, 20 or 50 years, but they don’t have the papers for the land. If you don’t have the property, you can’t obtain identity papers. There are also streets in some areas which are not on the map of the town because the map was made 50 years ago. If you are not on the map, officially you don’t have a property so you cannot obtain an ID. The other problem is with Roma who migrate. They don’t have a permanent home which they can obtain documents for. If you don’t have any documents, you can’t have welfare – you simply don’t exist.’

Without access to employment or social welfare, a family is condemned to poverty. Little Gruia Georgiana’s family has no identity papers, and her mother, Gruia Vica, says she has never had help from the Government. They make money by collecting scrap metal in a wheel barrow and selling it to recycling companies. For 10 kilograms they will earn about two dollars. Vica says they used to have a horse and cart but the police took it away, as these cause traffic problems and are illegal in cities.

Vica and her husband have lived here for 10 years, and they built their ‘house’ themselves. It is a botched job of scrap metal, bits of plastic, mud, wood and bricks that they found in a field. It hardly looks as if it would last a night. There is no door, even though temperatures in Bucharest reach -30˚C in the winter. They eat mostly bread and potatoes and there is no milk for the children. They use a portaloo in a nearby cemetery and cook outside using firewood.

Vica cannot send her four youngest children to school. The family is too poor to provide basic school materials and, besides, the children are needed to help collect the metal. ‘All I want is to have a proper home for the children and a proper job,’ she says. ‘But I have no plan. What plan can we have when we are so poor? Georgiana will turn out the same as me. What can she do without school?’

A few kilometres away, a party is being held in honour of National Children’s Day by the Pro-Roma Party, a government-funded organization. The event is called ‘Our Children Are Our Future’. The Gruia children are not present. Roma adviser Niculescu George says he tried to get documents for the Gruia family, but the police refused to allow it because they had no property documents. ‘It’s ironic that the people who need the help most are barred from it,’ he says.

But having the right documents sometimes doesn’t guarantee social and child welfare. In the small town of Sacosu Turcesc, near Timisoara, Roma people from the surrounding villages gather angrily outside the town hall. They claim that a senior official and his staff have been pocketing their benefits. One of them, 21-year-old Gretu Silvia, says she had to wait eight months for her child benefits. She and her sister were entitled to 180 RON ($80) each for their two children, but a town hall worker pocketed the money.

‘They lost their traditional skills. They ended up in an ethnic no-man’s land’

The senior official refuses to see the angry crowd and soon leaves the hall. Both he and the worker in question refuse to comment on the allegations. When the representative for the Roma at Timisoara central administration is telephoned, he refuses to provide assistance without every complaint being put in writing, even though many of the villagers are illiterate. Sein Eugenia is the founder of the Roma from Banat Association, which she runs using the profits from her family’s construction business. She spends every free moment helping Roma families to access ID papers, employment and social welfare, and she is the organizer of the protest outside the town hall.

‘When you see all this,’ she says, ‘can you understand why Roma children are going to England?’

Decade of Roma Inclusion

The Romanian Government has its own ‘National Strategy for the Improvement of the Roma Situation’. It is also party to the Decade of Roma Inclusion (2005-15), a political agreement with other Central European governments to improve the socio-economic status of Roma, supported by the World Bank and George Soros’s Open Society Institute. However, according to 2007 Decade Watch, the progress over the first two years leaves much to be desired. Roma job fairs have been the only measure taken to improve the economic situation of families and these are under-publicized, with effects felt only on a small scale.

Funds aimed at helping the Roma are not always finding the right channels. Dr Razvan Constantinescu, who spent six months in Romania researching Roma education, explains: ‘I met very committed people. But I also met, as in every society, people who were using their Roma background to attract funding from the West and the Government to get a nice car.

‘When I began my research, there was a huge cluster of new NGOs specializing in Roma; about 350. By the time I completed my research, there were 120 left. They were taking the money, getting themselves huge salaries, and closing the programme. The problem was it was so easy. You want to establish an organization, you get a few signatures, you get yourself in business as an NGO. And because there was a stampede from everywhere – including the Romanian Government, who wanted to look like they were doing something with Roma – they were getting money for the asking… Some people were very thorough and professional and very ethical in their deeds. Some weren’t.’

Meanwhile, the Gruia children and thousands of others like them sleep in their huts and their tents and work on the black market when they should be at school. For these children, government initiatives and private projects have failed, for whatever reason. They will grow up just as poor as their parents, and the cycle of poverty will continue. But these children are now EU citizens, and some parents see this as a window of hope.

‘If I came to England, could I get help for my family?’ one man asks. It’s a question which crops up again and again. Sein Eugenia of the Roma from Banat Association nods knowingly when she hears about Slough’s new arrivals. ‘More will come because they have been accepted once,’ she says. ‘The word will spread. But I can’t say that it’s good. Good would be if they were accepted in their own country.’

Gruia, her mother Vica and brothers.

Eleanor Harding

*Eleanor Harding* is a freelance journalist based in London, England.

Roma then and now

The Roma originally came from northwestern India – a fact originally discovered through linguistics, because the Roma language is Sanskrit-based, but more recently confirmed through DNA analysis. They were not a particular ethnic group. Rather, they came from a number of different social groups and castes recruited by the Aryan rulers of the Rajput Confederacy to defend the area from Muslim invaders led by Mahmud of Ghazni in the 11th century. Part of these Rajput forces were driven northward by the constant attacks, migrating through what is now Kashmir to the Upper Indus Valley. Even here they were susceptible to attack and, over generations, eventually migrated west along the Spice Road from China to Persia. Their route can be determined through the traces of local languages retained in Romani words and grammar today. After further stops in modern Turkey and Armenia they ultimately reached southeastern Europe during the 14th century.

‘Gypsies, tramps and thieves’

The term ‘Gypsy’ derived from the early notion that the Roma were Egyptian in origin but has generally negative connotations. Their skills as warriors and smiths were prized by some Renaissance courts but the Roma have generally tended to be regarded with suspicion. When they arrived in 14th-century Wallachia and Moldavia they were immediately enslaved – and remained slaves for the ensuing 500 years. Elsewhere they were often regarded as spies for the Ottoman Turks then threatening Christian Europe – ironic, given that the Roma had over centuries been forced into migration by hostile Islamic forces. They have tended to be regarded as a nomadic people, though their Indian forebears were certainly settled – as indeed are the vast majority of Roma in the world today.

Oppression of the Roma continued during the 20th century, notably when the Nazis and their allies targeted them for systematic extermination alongside the Jews – this genocide is known as the Porajmos. The number of lives lost is impossible to ascertain, given that the Roma were not covered by census data, but has been estimated at as low as 200,000 and as high as 1,500,000. The Roma of Bohemia and Moravia were completely wiped out, with no trace of their dialect remaining. In communist Bulgaria Romani language and music were banned, while in Czechoslovakia Roma women were sterilized. Roma were also forcibly sterilized in Norway until 1977.

Roma today

There are an estimated 15 million Roma worldwide, though in almost every country where there is a significant population the numbers vary hugely between official and unofficial estimates. The biggest Roma populations are in Turkey, Romania, Hungary, Spain and Bulgaria, though there are also significant communities as far afield as India, Canada, Argentina and Brazil. There is no specific Roma religion: they have generally adapted to the religion of the countries where they have settled.

Despite the discrimination and poverty many face, some Roma are highly educated and successful. The image of a 16-spoke wheel or chakra (shown on the flag above) was adopted as the international symbol of the Roma in 1971, nodding to their Indian origins while also representing Creation and movement. International Roma Day is celebrated on 8 April each year.


*European Roma and Travellers Forum (ERTF)* is an international Roma organization which brings together Roma NGOs from all over Europe. Based in Strasbourg, France, home of the European Parliament. **

*European Roma Information Office* is an international advocacy organization promoting political and public discussion on Roma issues. Also runs a series of nationally based email groups called the Roma Virtual Network. **

*European Roma Rights Centre* is an international public interest law organization combating anti-Roma racism and human rights abuses. Based in Budapest, Hungary. **

*International Gypsy Union* contests the use of the term Roma and aims to reclaim the word ‘Gypsy’ instead. **

The Czech-based *International Romani Union* has consultative status at the UN Economic and Social Council but seems to have no points of public access.

*Roma Community Centre in Toronto*, helps Roma refugees to integrate more easily into Canadian society. **

*Voice of Roma* is a San Francisco-based NGO which promotes authentic Romani music and art, counters myths about the Roma and is particularly active in supporting Roma in Kosovo. **

*Save the Children* has projects all over the world aimed at helping Roma children. Its Romanian branch focuses on education. **

*Roma from Barat Association* is a small grassroots NGO based in Timisoara, Romania. They help Roma families with documentation and living conditions. email: [email protected]