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Sinti and Roma demand equality and participation
– by Sheila Mysorekar
© picture-alliance/AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski
At a memorial service in Auschwitz (Oswiecim), Poland, a Roma flag is displayed in memory of the Roma and Sinti murdered by the German Nazi regime in the Second World War.
There are around 12 million Roma in Europe, and they face extreme discrimination throughout the continent. “Roma” (from the singular: Rom = human being) is the self-designated name of an ethnic group that migrated westwards from the north-west of India to Europe more than 1,000 years ago. The Sinti are a Romani sub-group who settled centuries ago in the German-speaking parts of Central Europe. The name Sinti possibly derives from “Sindhi”, the name of a people native to the Sindh region in present-day Pakistan.
Little is known about the origins of the Roma. Their migration to Europe from what is now India and Pakistan spanned around 500 years and took different routes. Their language, Romani, is related to the ancient Indian language Sanskrit but includes elements borrowed from the languages spoken in the countries where the migrants settled. In Germany, for example, there is a dialect known as “German Romani”. The Roma are thus a collection of very heterogeneous groups. Their religion also tends to follow the majority society, depending on where they live; in Central Europe, for example, they are generally Christians.
In the official EU definition, the term Roma covers “various groups such as Roma, Sinti, Kalé, Romanichals, Boyash/Rudari, Ashkali, Egyptian, Yenish, Dom, Lom, Rom and Abdal, as well as Travellers (gens du voyage, Gypsies, Camminanti, etc.)”. Every European country has different names for groups within the Romani minority – some of them pejorative. But all of those groups have one thing in common: they are generally descended from outcasts, who were not allowed to settle permanently. That made them an itinerant people – not necessarily by choice but because they were denied rights. In south-east Europe, they were forced to live for centuries as serfs or even slaves.
Discrimination reached a peak in Nazi Germany, when the Roma were targeted for persecution. From 1934 onwards, large numbers of Sinti and Roma were forcibly sterilised and, from 1942 on, many were systematically murdered. It is estimated that around half a million Sinti and Roma across Europe fell victim to the National Socialists’ extermination policy. The genocide is known in Romani as the “Porajmos” – “The Devouring” or “Destruction”.
Discrimination continued even after the Nazi years, as evidenced by the long hard fight that was needed for survivors to be even considered victims of fascism. The Sinti and Roma genocide was not recognised as such in Germany until 1982. In 2015, a European Day of Remembrance was established for victims of the Porajmos.
In the post-war years, the German police force often worked with the same lists as the Nazis, where the names of Roma and Sinti appeared as alleged “criminals”. In many cases, investigating officers were the same ones who had organised transport to the concentration camps during the Nazi era. Perpetrators were not held accountable for their actions.
There is a racist background to this continuity: antiziganism – what the German Federal Agency for Civic Education calls the “defensive attitude of majority populations towards Roma and Sinti”. Antiziganism refers to the political exclusion and persecution of Sinti and Roma in Europe since the 15th century. In antiziganism, members of the Roma and Sinti groups are indiscriminately labelled “alien” or “criminal”. In other words, millions of an ethnic minority are alleged to have an innate, unalterable tendency to live outside society or outside the law. The majority of Roma have actually led a settled life for generations; however, they are still considered “nomadic”.
Even today, antiziganism is still a widely held and widely accepted attitude towards Sinti and Roma in European societies. This means the ethnic minority faces massive discrimination. “Antiziganism today,” says Berlin historian Wolfgang Wippermann, “is more a product of the past than of the present.” However, the impacts are still keenly felt.
In 2014, a survey conducted for Germany’s Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency showed that Sinti and Roma have an extremely bad reputation in Germany. The researchers found that “they are the least desirable neighbours and their lifestyle is viewed by a particularly large number of people as deviant”. Eastern Europeans, Muslims, Blacks, Italians, Jews and asylum seekers scored better.
Two years later, a study by the Heinrich Böll Foundation proved that almost six out of ten Germans would have a problem with Sinti or Roma living in their vicinity. Around half thought that Sinti and Roma should be banned from inner cities.
The fight for equal opportunities
Since 1995, Sinti and Roma have been recognised as a “national minority” in Germany, which obliges the state to make it possible for them to “maintain their traditions and cultural heritage”. However, they have a very low social status. This can be seen in education, for example, as confirmed by a 2021 RomnoKher study on the current situation of Sinti and Roma:
That study shows, for example, that more than 50 % of over 50-year-olds have no school qualifications. Among 30 to 50-year-olds, the figure drops below a third and among under-30s it is 15 % – as compared with less than five percent for the population as a whole. Nearly 80 % of over-50s and around 40 % of 18- to 50-year-olds have no vocational qualifications. In response to the study, Sinti and Roma groups are calling for action against bullying and racism in schools.
The situation of Roma in many European countries is catastrophic. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Roma children are often routinely placed in special schools as if they had learning disabilities, which results in de facto segregation in education. In Bulgaria and Romania, Roma make up a tenth of the population but only half of them in Romania have jobs and only 46 % in Bulgaria have health insurance.
Throughout the EU, Roma are frequently victims of eviction, harassment by authorities and violent assault. In a 2014 report, the human-rights organisation Amnesty International (AI) documented a wide range of hate crimes. In Greece and France, for example, it was found out that police often failed to intervene in violent assaults on Roma. In the AI researchers’ own words, perpetrators are “often not seriously investigated” and suspected “racist motives are ignored”.
In Hungary, Roma are targeted for violent attacks by far-right “vigilante groups”, largely unhindered by the police. Under the pretext of “special support”, Roma children are often placed in separate school classes, leading to further segregation.
In 2020, the rampant Covid-19 pandemic had dire consequences for hundreds of thousands of Roma across Europe. In many places, lockdown restrictions presented a risk of starvation. Racist resentment led to physical assaults and indiscriminate acts of repression, adding to the troubles of Roma communities living in many countries in precarious conditions – often with no access to clean water or health care. This is a humanitarian catastrophe in the heart of Europe, yet it is largely ignored by international media.
However, there have long been Roma-led organisations in every European country campaigning against antiziganism and fighting for more participation and equal opportunities. During the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, the #Act4RomaLives campaign was launched.
Today, racism and discrimination in general are topics of more widespread discussion in Europe. This encourages many Roma to stop denying their origins. Even a number of celebrities are now known to have Romani roots: German pop singer Marianne Rosenberg, US actor Yul Brynner and Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Wood are just a few examples. These are exceptional success stories but participation should be everyone’s right.
RomnoKher, 2021: Ungleiche Teilhabe. Zur Lage der Sinti und Roma in Deutschland („Unequal participation. On the situation of Sinti and Roma in Germany” – only in German).
Sheila Mysorekar is a freelance journalist and project manager at Deutsche Welle Akademie.