Few and Neglected: Roma and Sinti in the Netherlands
31 March 2006
Peter R. Rodrigues1
How extensive is the discrimination that the 6,000 Roma and Sinti experience in the Netherlands? Our goal was to make an inventory – from the perspective of the Roma and Sinti – of whether incidental or structural instances of discrimination occurred in the period 2002-2003. Information provided by ‘key informants’ was supplemented by our own research and available statistics in this area.
In recent history, there has been a group of Sinti in the Netherlands since the beginning of the twentieth century. Before and after the Second World War they were the largest group; nowadays their total number is about 2,500 persons.
A small group of Roma arrived in the Netherlands between the First and Second World War; this group will later be referred to as the ‘old’ Roma. At present day there are about 500 descendants of them in the Netherlands.
In 1943, during the Nazi Occupation of the Netherlands, caravan dwellers were prohibited from travelling. Many Roma and Sinti subsequently chose to abandon their caravans and went into hiding. Nonetheless, in May of 1944, 245 Dutch Roma and Sinti were rounded up and deported to Nazi concentration camps. Of this group, only 30 Roma and Sinti returned.2 This small group of survivors retreated to isolated areas of the country. They felt (and still feel) as if their very existence and the story of their persecution in the Netherlands has never been properly acknowledged.
After the Second World War, new groups of Roma arrived in the Netherlands. This migration can be divided into a few distinct periods. There were Roma among the so-called migrant labourers who came to the Netherlands in the 1960s as foreign workers from Italy, (former) Yugoslavia, Greece, and Turkey.3 The best estimate is that their numbers in the Netherlands – including descendants – are in the neighbourhood of a thousand people.
Beginning in the middle of the 1960s, groups of Eastern European Roma – often stateless – travelled to Western Europe. West European governments tried, as best as they could, to discourage this migration. By the mid-1970s, a group of approximately five hundred ‘stateless’ Roma were living in the Netherlands. Given the fact that this group could not be expelled because no other country was willing to take them, the Dutch government was forced to come up with a solution. It took a year before eleven municipalities were found that were prepared to provide quarters for these Roma, but in houses, not in caravans. With the stipulation that they would choose for a sedentary lifestyle, 450 Roma were issued residence permits in one of these so-called opvanggemeenten (relief municipalities). Their numbers are now estimated at 1,500 people.
The newest group of Roma in the Netherlands is found among refugees and asylum seekers who fled – especially Eastern Europe – for political and economic reasons in the 1980s and 1990s. Their exact numbers are not known because they usually do not reveal their Romani background. We estimate their number at 500 people. Their position differs from earlier groups of Roma and Sinti. They hardly travel and they live in permanent housing, so they are less recognisable as a separate group. In addition, they have frequently been educated or have worked in the countries they originate from and are therefore better able to adjust in Dutch society.
To answer the questions related to the likelihood of discrimination occurring against Roma and Sinti in the Netherlands, it is crucial for the classifications that are made to be correct. The question then arises whether it is judicious to regard the Roma and Sinti as one population group, or is it essential to our analysis to divide them into diverse groups with their different backgrounds and circumstances? It is difficult to provide an answer to this question, because it also depends on the selected approach.
What all Roma and Sinti have in common is their history of travelling and being persecuted. Furthermore, it would seem they share a common origin and their language and customs exhibit huge similarities. Additionally, they are almost always stigmatised by the outside world as one group: with terms such as ‘Gypsies’, or simply ‘caravan dwellers’. Some of our informants admitted that even they, at times, have presented themselves as one group in order to improve their position. Certainly a larger group has more influence than all sorts of smaller groups with competing interests. It is indeed striking to see that when they have a mutual interest at stake, such as their rehabilitation after the Second World War, that different groups of ‘old’ Roma and Sinti can work together relatively well. But aside form these similarities, there is also a huge amount of diversity within and between these groups, something they themselves generally like to emphasise.
Illustrative of this diversity in the community is the fact that not even our key informants could agree about the breakdown of and actual differences between the groups. However, it is clear that except for a few Roma families, the Sinti have lived in the country the longest. Their situation in Dutch society is therefore not an issue. They know how to arrange the essentials required to survive in Dutch society. For a (limited) number of the Roma – some who arrived in the 1970s as well as some new refugees – problems still exist related to the status of their residency. Naturally, this uncertainty about their situation and future does not contribute to their integration into Dutch society. At this moment, the Dutch Roma tend to travel more than the Dutch Sinti. By all accounts the Roma feel more European – more like world citizens – than they do Dutch and are therefore less inclined to invest in their position in the Netherlands. In contrast to this, the majority of Roma live in more urban areas and mingle faster with the rest of society, while the Sinti primarily live in the countryside and often withdraw into their own communities. This can be attributed in part to the Sinti being more attached to traditional customs.
The question remains if the differences between the diverse groups of Roma are not just as great as between the Roma and the Sinti. The older group of Roma (from before the Second World War) resembles the Sinti the most. Besides their long history in the Netherlands, among other things, they have the experience of the war years in common. The Sinti and ‘old’ Roma regularly have contact with each other, including via the marriages that occur between their families. In many ways, the 1970s Roma are removed from these other groups. Both the Sinti and the ‘old’ Roma were unhappy with the stigmatisation created by the problems that existed at that time, and the media attention that this group attracted. Despite the steps that were finally taken toward legalisation, the problems with this group were not resolved. This can, in part, be attributed to the uncertainty of the position they found themselves in for quite a long time. In addition, the arrival of (new) illegal Roma and their unwillingness to adhere to certain rules and procedures increased the difficulty of their situation. Today, a relatively large amount of problems still plague this group. In the meantime, not only does this affect the public image of the ‘old’ Roma and Sinti, but that of new Romani refugees as well.
One of the most striking outcomes of the interviews we conducted is that most of the key informants could barely recall any concrete complaints or incidents about disadvantage and exclusion in the period 2002-2003. Hypothetically, this could mean that the Roma and Sinti experience little disadvantage and exclusion, or discrimination. However, the general impressions of the key informants conveyed a different feeling. They stated, almost without exception, that the Roma and Sinti are in fact disadvantaged, excluded, and discriminated against in the Netherlands. We indicate that the public image of the Roma and Sinti plays an important role in the discrimination they experience. Without exception, all of those we interviewed thought that the portrayal of the Roma and Sinti in the media is almost exclusively negative. It seemed to some of those we interviewed that negative incidents seem more newsworthy to the media than reports of (gradual) achievements.
Because of all of this, there is a feeling in the Roma and Sinti community of biased reporting and unequal treatment. One should not underestimate the influence of the media. This is the only way most people in the Netherlands receive any information about the Roma and Sinti community. The key informants specifically listed housing, education, work, goods and services, public policy-making and the judiciary as important areas in society where exclusion (and disadvantage) occurs. In addition, many of those we interviewed remarked that it is difficult to determine whether something is a problem or an impasse as opposed to actual discrimination. Those we interviewed see disadvantage and exclusion more as a structural phenomenon than as a string of isolated incidents.
The most important issue for Roma and Sinti in the area of housing is policymaking related to caravan sites. This is a problematic issue which also applies to many other caravan dwellers. The shortage of caravan sites which has existed just about everywhere in the Netherlands has already been a problem for years. This shortage is estimated at around 3,000 sites.4 The government initially tried to reduce this shortage by measures taken in the Dutch Woonwagenwet (Caravan Sites Act 1968). The afstammingsbeginsel (birthright proviso) which was included was in fact directed at diminishing the number of caravan sites. Since the abolition of the Woonwagenwet in 1999, policymaking for caravan dwellers has been covered by regular housing legislation. Some municipalities have taken this as a signal that they are no longer responsible for providing enough caravan sites, which has resulted in long waiting lists. This often makes it impossible for family members to pitch on the same encampment, something of great importance to the Roma and Sinti.5 Even a temporary visit by a family member with a caravan can lead to their wagon being towed away.
A trend which has emerged since the abolition of the Dutch Caravan Sites Act is that, whenever possible, municipalities delegate the management of caravans and caravan encampments and sites to private companies. According to one of our key informants, presently sixty percent of the caravans that are being rented belong to private owners. On the other hand, what should be noted is that municipalities encounter a lot of resistance from the local population when looking for sites for caravan encampments. Almost without exception, there are protests against the establishment of any new caravan locations. Neighbourhood residents are afraid of trouble and fear that the value of their property will decrease. This argument is strengthened by incidents such as one that occurred in 1997 in the Dutch town of Weert. A councilman was awarded damages in a case he brought forward because a few new caravans located near his home obstructed his view.6 The compensation in this case led to claims for damages by other neighbours. This is probably the reason that in appropriating caravan sites, the (isolated) locations which are usually chosen could be called unpleasant at best and at times downright dangerous. The housing of minority groups in inferior areas in terms of environmental and safety standards – such as the blasting zone of an explosives factory7 – is known as environmental racism in the United States.8
We identified quite a lot of complaints about disadvantage and exclusion or discrimination in the area of education. Certain schools seem to be guilty of discrimination because they refuse to admit Roma and Sinti, if not always explicitly because of their ethnicity. Other problems are school absenteeism and segregation.
An important ruling was issued in 2003 by the Commissie Gelijke Behandeling (CGB or Equal Treatment Commission) with respect to admittance in a case involving a primary school in the town of Ede.9 The case was brought before the commission by the Landelijk Bureau ter bestrijding van Rassendiscriminatie (LBR or National Bureau against Racial Discrimination) and the Anti-Discrimination Bureau in the town of Veenendaal. The complaint filed by these antidiscrimination bureaus was directed against the governing body of an association for Protestant- Christian primary school education. This association applied a maximum admittance of fifteen percent for children using Dutch as their second language. In addition, the association imposed a quota on the number of children they would enrol from the Roma and Sinti community. The school association also made agreements with other educational institutions regarding this dispersal policy. The CGB ruled that the school was in violation of the Equal Treatment Act.
The key informants acknowledged in the interviews that Roma and Sinti children are regularly refused admittance to schools they want to attend. The reasons for this are often vague and usually not based on school performance. The mistrust of Roma and Sinti is so great in some areas of the Netherlands that schools ask for prior assurance that a child will not cause any problems. Bad experiences and prejudice seem to contribute to this. In the meantime, it becomes more and more difficult for the Roma and Sinti to find a school where their children are welcome. There are ways to hold schools that refuse children without legitimate reasons accountable, but this is seldom the pursued approach. This would undoubtedly disturb the relationship with the school in question from the start, so Roma and Sinti children who are refused enrolment usually end up going to other schools.
Nowadays, most Roma and Sinti complete at least primary school and usually attend a few years of secondary education. However, absenteeism is above average and many students prematurely drop out of school. Some Roma and Sinti still do not feel it is normal for their children to attend school for an extended period and on a regular basis. In the past, truant officers often looked the other way in respect for the culture, but also out of despair. Often those involved with compliance are uncomfortable pointing out to the Roma and Sinti what their own responsibilities are in this matter.
The percentage of Roma and Sinti who are unemployed is very high. Some believe the percentages reach even as high as ninety percent.10 However, concrete figures, as well as a break down amongst the different groups, are not available. The high unemployment in this community is a direct result of disadvantage in the area of education. The ambitions and traditions of the Roma and Sinti are also contributing factors. Many of them prefer self-employment as opposed to holding down a regular job. Due to the vanishing of many traditional vocations and the administrative and financial activities that accompany starting a business, the Roma and Sinti are frequently not successful at this, with the exception of performing music.
Not all Roma and Sinti are interested in having permanent jobs. Yet those who do seek permanent or durable employment encounter discrimination from employers more often than not.11 Our key informants who are involved with mediating in the labour market indicate that employers are prejudiced as a result of the negative reporting by the media. This probably exerts the most influence on small companies in the towns where Roma and Sinti live. Larger companies, in cities such as Eindhoven, seem more prepared to give Roma and Sinti a chance. However, the Roma and Sinti often actually prefer smaller companies. They feel more comfortable there and above all they do not have to travel to the big city, which is considered dangerous especially for youngsters and women.
Goods and services
As far as the delivery of goods and services to Roma and Sinti is concerned, the problems that arise seem to be related to the surroundings where they live. Some companies are reluctant to deliver to the residents of caravan sites. Another example is that companies will only deliver goods when specific conditions are met. Customers have to pay in advance or have to collect the goods themselves. What is often said in defence of this sort of unequal treatment is that they do not want to risk exposing their personnel to violence or threats because of the bad experiences of suppliers in the past. They also consider the chance of goods being stolen too great. The Equal Treatment Commission ruled in a case brought by a non-Roma caravan-site dweller that this kind of unequal treatment against all caravan dwellers in the Netherlands is not justifiable based on a few bad experiences of the past.12 Refusal of goods and services sometimes takes place based on the ‘suspect’ postal code of the client. Excluding certain postal codes when providing (customer) service is called ‘redlining’.13
Problems also arise for Roma and Sinti when they try to purchase insurance, because insurance companies consider this group as a whole to carry an increased risk. This leads to insurance premiums being higher or caravan sites being excluded. The latter sometimes occurs because of high claims by a few other people living on a particular encampment. Based on the Equal Treatment Act such an indirect distinction by area of residence is only permitted if there is an objective justification.14 Therefore a legitimate goal is required and the means of achieving this goal must be appropriate and necessary. The concrete examples that are known are only related to caravan dwellers, but it seems obvious that Roma and Sinti living in caravans could encounter the same problems.
What can be concluded from the interviews we conducted is that the relationship of the Roma and Sinti with governmental agencies is often problematic. Not only is there a certain apprehension in organisations in regard to Roma and Sinti, but there is also a lack of understanding. Particularly the people who work closely with the Roma and Sinti complain that a variety of agencies such as juvenile social work, the departments that allocate income benefits, and the school inspectorates are often too afraid to intervene in the face of problems, while they simply would not hesitate with other groups. As a result, the Roma and Sinti are only approached when things have gone too far. Often, the aid of the police or a bailiff is then immediately called for. Subsequently, the Roma and Sinti feel they are being treated as criminals. This apprehension at different organisations is purportedly fed by a few incidents of threats made by Roma and Sinti. The generally poor relationship with government agencies leads Roma and Sinti to ask other people to call for them, also because people with Roma or Sinti names are not taken seriously. Given that Roma and Sinti often come from very large families, there is a good chance that people who have not done anything wrong might end up paying the price for somebody else’s actions.
According to one informant, a city official deliberately housed Roma and Sinti in a disadvantaged neighbourhood so they would have the least possible problems with discrimination by their neighbours. Perhaps this was meant well, but it is obviously discriminatory. Another informant related that there are generally few social welfare programmes specifically set up for the Roma and Sinti, while they often do not have access to neighbourhood projects in the isolated areas where they live. An additional problem is that Roma and Sinti in most municipalities are such a small group that it is hardly feasible to set up special activities only for them. Some municipalities with a larger number of Roma and Sinti have developed special projects, such as the town of Ede (educational project) and Nieuwegein (an afternoon open house for Roma women). A number of our informants felt that projects such as these are usually terminated much too soon.
Many key informants perceive the government’s termination of the structural funding it was allocating to the Dutch National Sinti Organisation (LSO) as evidence that the government is not seriously committed to the situation of Roma and Sinti in the Netherlands. It is incomprehensible from their viewpoint that in countless European forums the government of the Netherlands supports the prevention of disadvantage, social exclusion, and poverty among the Roma15 but fails to do so at home.16 We can only conclude that a striking discrepancy exists here.
Police and judiciary
Our research indicates that the relationship of Roma and Sinti to the police is far from optimal. Due to (often unsubstantiated) criminality, the Roma and Sinti frequently come in contact with the police. This often gives them the feeling that the police discriminates against them without due cause. An incident we were told about concerned a twelve-year-old Romani youngster from the town of Nuenen, who was unjustly accused of a sexual offence. This was allegedly not handled according to the rules of the juvenile justice system. The same fate awaited a thirteen-year-old girl caught in the act of pick-pocketing. In addition, against policy, the youngster was apparently not questioned in her own language (Romani). She was released after the intervention of one of our key informants.
Many people were amazed by the handling of the extradition request by the United States of America to the government of the Netherlands regarding the Romani family named Moro, especially from a humanitarian viewpoint. The family was suspected of theft in the U.S. and many of them were imprisoned for 28 months in the Netherlands while they awaited extradition. After the judge17 and the Minister of Justice agreed to hand over these stateless Roma, the U.S. abandoned prosecuting them any further.18 The threat that Father Moro would be separated for an extended period from his underage children who lived in the Netherlands expired with this decision.
Another incident in 2003 also received a lot of publicity.19 A Public Prosecutor from the city of Arnhem was charged with discriminating against the Roma. He made the following controversial remarks in his arguments at the trial of six members of a Roma family accused of theft and fraud:20 In the Romani Gypsy community, criminality is considered commonplace. The Romani community is involved with crime and punishable offences. Breaking and entering is considered normal. Although there are a few exceptions amongst them who are not criminals, all the rest are.’ Only when his statement appeared in the media and there were many outraged reactions, was a press release issued in which the Public Prosecutor’s Office declared that ‘by no means is this office of the opinion’ that a majority of the Roma community are criminals.21 A press release followed a day later in which the Prosecutor rectified his statement and apologised.22 Nevertheless, this incident resulted in many indignant reactions from Roma and Sinti themselves, as well as from many others who were involved with the community in some way or another. This case had a huge impact on the Roma and Sinti community. Given that the Prosecutor’s defamatory statement did not result in legal action, people in the Roma and Sinti community are very concerned that this gives others free reign to express their prejudices and hatred of ‘Gypsies’.
The issues we have presented in this contribution originate in essence from the huge cultural differences and long-standing mutual lack of acceptance that exist between the Roma and Sinti community in the Netherlands and Dutch ‘civilian society’. This has created a considerable amount of distrust between these parties, which further contributes to prejudice and leads to unequal treatment. The Roma and Sinti do not see themselves as ‘civilians’ and are usually not interested in participating in Dutch society. They differ in this way from other ethnic minority groups, because during their long history they have not aspired to ‘civilian’ careers. They are therefore less receptive to help and advice to achieve this. The high unemployment and criminality in the community does not contribute to their integration either. Moreover, the (nomadic) lifestyle of the Roma and Sinti no longer has its place in today’s post-industrial society.
The social status of the Roma and Sinti is cause for concern. The considerable disadvantage they experience in participating in educa- tion and the labour market surpasses that of other minority groups in the Netherlands. There are not enough caravan encampments and sites in the country, which leads to housing problems for those Roma and Sinti who are still living as caravan dwellers. In addition, the public image of ‘Gypsies’ in Dutch society is negative and stereotypical, and the Roma and Sinti are often perceived as threatening. It is not surprising then that negative attitudes about this population group lead to suspicion and exclusion. The Dutch government has not managed to turn this tendency around, and at times exactly the opposite has occurred. This relationship between the Roma and Sinti and governmental agencies is influenced by the persecution of the community during the Second World War.
It seems as if the Roma and Sinti more or less accept the discrimination directed against them as something normal. Incidents are not reported, complaints non-existent. However, our study indicates that disadvantage and exclusion did occur in important areas of society during the period 2002-2003. This was usually not related to individual incidents of discrimination, but primarily concerned mechanisms that result in structural forms of discrimination and exclusion.
- Dr. Peter Rodrigues is lawyer at the Anne Frank House and member of the Legal Advisory Network of the ERRC. This contribution is a summary of the study Monitor Racism and the Extreme Right – Roma and Sinti. Anne Frank House, Amsterdam 2005, which the author wrote together with Maaike Matelski. The whole publication is available on www.annefrank.org).
- W. Willems and L. Lucassen. Ongewenste vreemdelingen. The Hague: SDU Uitgeverij, 1990, p. 19.
- P. Hovens and L. Weiss. “Sinti en Roma anno 2002”. In: P. Jorna (ed.) Terug naar Auschwitz. Een gedenkwaardige reis van Nederlandse Roma and Sinti Utrecht, FORUM, 2002, p. 1920.
- K. Sikkema. Roma and Sinti in Nederland, Een onderzoek naar de algemene levensomstandigheden, gezondheidssituatie en toegang tot de gezondheidszorg van de Roma and Sinti in Nederland. Amsterdam, Dokters van de Wereld, February 2004, p.10.
- See also the kamervragen Aanhangsel Handelingen II (Appendix parliamentary questions II), 2002/03, no. 32 and no.199.
- HP/De Tijd (magazine) 11 July, 1997 (Weert op wielen/Weert on wheels).
- Noord-Hollands Dagblad (newspaper) 20 November, 2003.
- See for example D. M. Robinson. Environmental Racism: Old Wine in a New Bottle, at: http://www.wcccoe.org/wcc/what/jpc/echoes/echoes1702.html (16/06/2004).
- Commissie Gelijke Behandeling, case file CGB 2003-105.
- K. Sikkema. Roma and Sinti in Nederland, Een onderzoek naar de algemene levensomstandigheden, gezondheidssituatie en toegang tot de gezondheidszorg van de Roma and Sinti in Nederland. Amsterdam, Dokters van de Wereld, February 2004, p. 11.
- M. Beijering. “Stichting Romene Sinti” (Foundation Romany Sinti) in: De grote kleinekansen atlas (The big atlas of little opportunity), P. Voogd (ed.), Den Haag: Landelijk Centrum Opbouwwerk, 2003, p. 95.
- Case file CGB 1999-65.
- P.R. Rodrigues. Anders niets? Discriminatie naar ras en nationaliteit bij consumententransacties. (Discrimination on the grounds of race and nationality in consumer transactions) Lelystad: Koninklijke Vermande, 1997, p. 154.
- Article 2, section 1 AWGB (Equal Treatment Act).
- See among others Recommendation Rec (2001)17 of the Council of Europe (27 November, 2001) and Decision 566 of the de OVSE (27 November, 2003).
- See also: Andacht voor Roma in verband met de uitbreiding van de Europese Unie (attention for the Roma and Sinti in an expanding European Union), Kamerstukken II (Parliamentary documents), 2002/03, 23 987, no. 29.
- Rb (District Court) Den Haag 28 August, 2003, LJN nummer (number) AI 1543.
- NRC Handelsblad (newspaper) 24 September, 2003.
- See newspapers such as: De Gelderlander (15 May 2003), NRC Handelsblad (16 May 2003), and Vrij Nederland (24 May 2003).
- ANP, 15 May 2003. Mensenheugenis. Terugkeer en opvang na de Tweede Wereldoorlog. Getuigenissen (Living memory. Return and reception after the Second World War. Testimonies). Amsterdam, Bert Bakker, 2001, p. 75.
- Eindhovens Dagblad (16 May 2003) and press releases from the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Arnhem, 15 and 16 May 2003.
- Follow-up press release related to this case from the Public Prosecutor’s Office (Arnhem) on 16 May 2003.