Despite free borders, Roma (Gypsies) are still Europe's outcasts

A Seattle journalist, who is making a documentary on these fascinating people, describes their lives and why politicians like President Sarkozy keep scoring points by kicking them out of their countries.
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Roma children

A Seattle journalist, who is making a documentary on these fascinating people, describes their lives and why politicians like President Sarkozy keep scoring points by kicking them out of their countries.

You can watch excerpts of the author's documentary on Roma origins in India at the end of this story or by going to

Beg in Paris, or starve in Romania? That is the choice faced by many European Roma (Gypsies). Trapped by poverty in their homelands in Eastern Europe, Roma can head west, which offers the allure of making a tiny living in the street. An American friend in Bucharest fought bravely to keep a promising Roma girl in school, but the youngster dropped out to go to Paris and beg. That offered a brighter economic future than anything she could expect in Romania.

Now the French are kicking Roma out by the thousands, sending them home with one-way tickets and 300 Euros. The deportations, which go on all the time, become headlines when politicians like President Nicolas Sarkozy want to court right-wing votes. It’s easy to demonize illegal aliens (though Roma are legal). Across Europe xenophobes, racists, and nativists have donned white hoods to evict them.

Let’s get our terms straight. Many, but far from all of them, choose to be called Roma, their name in their own language (Romany). Among themselves they are likely to use Tzigan, Gitanos, or Zingaro, the words for “Gypsy” in Romanian, or French, or Italian. Academic literature calls them Roma-Gypsies.

I’ve spent many weeks with them over the last three years making a documentary about their problems and origins. A fair number live in tidy villages in the countryside, where the whole community may specialize as metalworkers, musicians, or spoon-carvers. There used to be bands of bear-trainers. But hundreds of thousands live in slums, amid squalor so terrible it is hard to convey. We visited a slum outside Braila, a port city in Romania, and found several blocks of houses sharing a single water tap, sewage in the streets, and smoke from a burning dump wafting through.

There are 9 million Roma in Europe, nearly the population of Belgium. Two million live in Romania alone. There are Roma from Bulgaria to Lithuania and Wales. Few Europeans (or Americans) understand who they are. A distinct ethnic group, they migrated to Europe from India about 1,000 years ago. That’s been confirmed by linguistics, and now genetics. They still speak a language called Romany based in Sanskrit, with hundreds of words in common with Hindi and Rajasthani. They rarely marry outside their tribes, and their gene pool is remarkably intact.

What’s happening in France currently is the logical consequence of the EU's ensuring free passage of peoples. When borders to the west were thrown open in 1989, Roma rushed to Western Europe. Most are employed in low-wage jobs, if they work at all, and live in vast slums in Madrid, Paris, Rome, and Milan. They are socially marginalized in every way. The host countries hector them constantly. The BBC filmed raids in Madrid where cops simply evicted Roma from shantytowns, and then bulldozed their shacks into splinters.

A thousand years after they left India, Roma are still strangers in their adopted lands. They are the people Europe wants to go away.

It’s a tough issue, filled with moral ambiguity. You can’t talk about Roma without running afoul of somebody’s taboos. Don’t use the G word, even though they may use it themselves. And certainly don’t raise questions about crime or antisocial behavior, which is immediately labeled stereotyping. But it’s obvious that many Roma in Europe, if not most, live outside society’s rules, camping where they like, and engaging in criminal behavior.

They crowd the jails in disproportionate numbers. I filmed interviews in the notorious Jilava Prison, where Ceausescu kept his political prisoners, outside Bucharest. I talked to two pickpockets and a murderer, who all asked, “would you steal if your kids were hungry?”

Roma are not violent. Roma women are not promiscuous, but extremely chaste and protected, despite what they act like on the street. Roma love their children — and sometimes put them to work panhandling when as young as six or seven. Their kids are often betrothed at 12, sometimes married at 14 (although child marriages are declining), another custom that infuriates the locals.

Education statistics are appalling. Illiteracy probably reaches 50 percent in Balkan countries. They are so wary of census takers or social workers with clipboards that there are no reliable statistics. The Romanians counted 1 million, then published their estimate at 1.5 million, but everyone believes there are 2 million. Many have no official identity, which puts them into a vicious bureaucratic circle. No identity card, no work. No work, no home. No home, no identity card.

I haven’t met a European outside an NGO who didn’t express distaste, if not loathing, for Roma. A distinguished faculty member at the University of Bucharest raved at me, “you can’t possibly know what they are like.” A Lutheran cathedral expelled a man who came in to get out of the sun. We watched a border guard demand a bribe from a Roma driver entering the country from Bulgaria.

We brought a Roma girl to Seattle from Bucharest for a month in 2008. Her family is moderately successful, and she gets excellent grades. She attended Bush School here, and I think she was staggered by the prosperity and openness of America. She has finished high school now. It grieves me to think of the obstacles Claudia has ahead.


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