In recent decades, great strides have been made in protecting the rights of numerous minority groups, whether they have been ethnic minorities such as indigenous peoples, sexual minorities such as the LGBTQI+ community, or religious minorities such as Islamic and Jewish peoples. However, one group that we still hear very little about is the Roma.
The Roma are an Indo-Aryan ethnic group living mainly in Europe and Anatolia but with diaspora populations in every corner of the world, with significant concentrations in the Americas. To this day, many people still refer to this group by the exonym Gypsies, however, during the First Romani World Congress held in 1971, participants unanimously voted to reject the use of all exonyms for the Romani people because of the many negative and stereotypical connotations they have. The term Gypsy was rightly included in the list.
The ethnic minority group of Roma, like all others, is unique in its culture, traditions and language, however, its real - and perhaps greatest - uniqueness lies in the fact that it is a non-territorial, transnational group whose members do not have a 'home state', which often leads to insufficient state protection. Of course, there are also other groups that share this characteristic, such as the Kurdish populations, however, unlike the Roma communities, the Kurds appear to have at least territorial affiliations. The situation of the Roma is therefore very exceptional, and explains not only its marginalisation but also its relationship with states and other societies.
For Roma communities, marginality - understood as the condition of a person, or in this case a group, to be excluded from others - is a major problem. Since their arrival in Europe in the 14th century, this minority group has been socially, politically and economically excluded from the majority society. This aspect has slowly become a peculiar part of their identity and of their behaviour. Indeed, it is easy to see that it is often the communities themselves who are not interested in integrating into society, and how can one blame them? After all, if this situation has arisen, it is because the Roma have been strongly discriminated against and sidelined for centuries. This has undoubtedly led to numerous disadvantages including the lack of control over significant resources and very, very little political power. Fredrik Barth, in his work Ethnic Groups and Boundaries, categorised them as a group of pariahs subject to widespread and intense social rejection. In other words, the Roma are not just outsiders but strongly despised outsiders.
With the collapse of communism, and the subsequent transition to democracy, many minority groups were recognised. They were given the opportunity to participate in politics and to establish organisations representing their interests. Like many other groups, the Roma also embarked on this process of political mobilisation, yet despite their efforts, they still live in miserable socio-economic conditions. Racial attitudes towards them have not really changed either. Many European countries to this day still have such things as segregated schools for Roma children, blocked access to housing registers and children being separated from their families by authorities. In 2010, the French president Nicolas Sarkozy even paid Roma people €300 each to leave the country, and during the coronavirus lockdown numerous Roma and traveller communities around England have been left without water and sanitation facilities.
It is important that this changes, and as soon as possible. But what really needs to change, so that this community can finally be an active part of society? So that they are no longer prejudiced, discriminated against and marginalised?
However trivial, the marginalisation of Roma society can only be alleviated through long-term state policies. It is very important to implement numerous laws which protect their rights and punish and act of discrimination and racism against them. At the same time, equal opportunity programmes should be introduced to give them a better chance in the field of education and employment. In this context, it is precisely education which represents one of the aspects most in need of change. Without improving and raising the standard of education within the community, the socio-economic marginalisation of Roma groups will not undergo any substantial change. However, for this to happen, the attitude that most Roma share towards education – which could be described as indifferent, disinterested - would first have to change. As Barany in his book (which I added in the footnotes) mentions, it would be important to find a method that convinces the Roma that education is a prerequisite for prosperity and integration. Education will make it much easier for them to enter the labour market, which would greatly improve their position in society.
So far, what could be considered very positive, is the fact that there are numerous non-governmental organisations that are committed to defending their rights and to fighting for this situation to change. Their support must nevertheless continue uninterruptedly and states must start implementing policies that allow the Roma access to politics because, let's face it, without political representation no effort will ever be enough. Last but not least, the attitudes of the majority society towards them must change. No more prejudice, no more discrimination, no more marginalisation. The Roma community, like so many other minority groups, must be seen as an enrichment to society, and precisely for this reason everything in our and our states‘ power must be done to ensure that their culture, traditions and language are respected, validated and, above all, valued.