Europe’s invisible minority

While the media have focused on the unsavory situations of Europe’s Muslims, the plight of the Romani, a devastatingly poor, long-persecuted minority in Europe, has gone unnoticed by many. These migrants are not newcomers from the Arab world, but rather nomads who came a millennium ago from northern India, genetic and cultural evidence suggests. Romani have adopted many of the customs of their homeland, and most practice Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Islam, or Catholicism, while maintaining some ancient Hindu customs. Concentrated mostly in Eastern and Southern Europe, this ethnic group makes up 1-10% of most European populations, but has lifestyles reminiscent of a different continent and century. A third of Romani are unemployed, 90% live below their home country’s poverty line, and large portions of the population are illiterate.


Data from the Pew research center and show that Romani today face far more discrimination in Europe than other minorities, including Muslims. This racism, called anti-ziganism, is strongest in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox nations and weakest in the Protestant Northwest of Europe.

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Hundreds of thousands of Romani, having been deprived of German citizenship by the Nuremberg Laws, were killed during the Holocaust. Unlike Jews, however, widespread belief in their genetic inferiority persisted. From the 1970’s until the breakup of the USSR, hundreds of thousands of Romani women in Eastern Europe underwent forced sterilization, sometimes without the knowledge of the victim. Like many of the laws requiring desegregation of Romani and whites in some European schools today, patient’s consent existed in name only. In Czechoslovakia alone, over 90,000 women were made infertile from 1971 until 1991. Sterilizations continued illegally in the Czech Republic until 2007, by which time it was a full member of the EU, and isolated incidents have been reported in other parts of Eastern Europe more recently.


Some of the worst conditions Romani face today are in Italy. 82% of Italians have unfavorable views of the group, and 68% believe that all Romani should be “expelled from the country.” Several acts of terrorism by Romani in the past decade have sparked a new wave of resentment on both sides, and Italy’s reactions have been unpleasant. In the most publicized of these incidents, Italian beach-goers looked on as two Romani children drowned, then took pictures of their dying bodies without seeking help. In the same month, a mob of Italians stormed a Romani village, lighting several houses on fire. In a lawsuit related to the organization of this terrorism, the Italian supreme court ruled against the Romani. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s last election campaign promised a severe clampdown on “Roma, clandestine immigrants and criminals.” The association of an ethnic group with crime is not an unusual tactic for politicians, but seems particularly troubling considering the region’s recent history. The most recent attack, the bombing of a Romani home that killed three sisters, is shown below.


According to Persian legend, the Sassanid king Bahrām V Gōr discovered that the poor in his empire could not afford music, and hired ten thousand of the best lute players from India. He gave each of them an ox, a donkey, and some wheat, so that they could sustain themselves while playing music for the poor. Rather than set up farms, the musicians ate their animals immediately and a year later returned demanding more. Angry that they had squandered his gift, the king banished them West, to wander the world. Whatever the truth of this story, it represents a long history of Western oppressors accusing the Romani of laziness and greed, rather than recognizing their own failure to provide a welcoming home for this travel-worn people.


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