Stop Calling Places Where Roma Live “Settlements”

By Adam Weiss

Did you hear about the one in Roanoke, where all the people disappeared in 1586? Were they killed by the Spanish? Who knows.

You’ve heard about the ones in Israel. Even Israel’s closest ally, America, admits they’re illegal and contribute to making peace in the Middle East elusive.

There is something a bit off about “settlements”. They are always ancient, temporary, or politically charged. People seem to be using the word less in English overall, despite its multiple meanings. Yet it’s a crutch for people talking about where Roma live.

I am a native speaker of English, and of course it’s easy (and mean) for me to pick apart non-native speakers for their word choice or grammar. But this criticism applies to me as well. For years I proofread and even drafted documents talking about the “settlements” Roma live in, without questioning what I was saying.

I don’t know why we use the word so often, but I don’t like it. With its implications of transience or colonisation, and whiff of illegality or adventure, it has antigypsyism written all over it.

We are not using the word “settlement” for all places Roma live. (Although we are always using problematic words, it seems. I live in Budapest’s eighth district, which was once described on the BBC as “Budapest’s Gypsy Harlem”.) The word “settlement” is usually reserved for places where Roma are living in substandard housing, maybe squatting on land to which they do not have tenure. At the ERRC we are working with Roma living in such places in Romania, Slovakia, Macedonia, Albania, Turkey, and elsewhere. Seeing Roma living this way suits the racists perfectly; assuming Roma are wilfully living impermanent lives and that they choose to remain in poverty are common tropes of antigypsyism. The reality is that the Roma living in the places known as “settlements” want to get out of poverty and live in affordable, good-quality housing in integrated neighbourhoods. But centuries of discrimination have left them poor, uneducated, and pushed out, including locked out of jobs and social housing and relegated to places we implicitly assume they have “settled”.

Describing where Roma live as “settlements” is wrong because it projects an act of will, a desire to settle somewhere new temporarily or permanently, a “settler” spirit that mixes too easily with racist stereotypes. It misnames what is going on.

So what words should we use?

How about the words we use to describe the places everyone lives: communities or neighbourhoods or districts or towns. If we want to stress that a place is racially segregated, we can call it a segregated community or a racially isolated neighbourhood.

And if we want to stress that the people do not have a right to be living in that place, or that their homes are somehow unlawful, we have words for that too. “Informal” can describe homes people have built by themselves out of available materials. Better yet, we can learn from our colleagues who work on migration and talk about “undocumented” (as opposed to “illegal”) homes.

It’s never neutral to talk about a place someone lives as a “settlement”. Let’s stop doing it with Roma. It signals something different, when we should be stressing what is the same. 

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