Roma in Finland

15 December 2004

Janette Grönfors1


The largest traditional ethnic group in Finland, the Roma, has been studied extensively from different angles, often to clarify their social, educational and cultural status. With a few exceptions, the studies and surveys have been conducted by non-Roma.

Roma have lived in Finland since the 1500s and perhaps precisely for that reason we feel ourselves to be very Finnish. We have taken part, alongside other Finns, in all of the wars the country participated in. Our mother tongue is Finnish and we are Finnish citizens. We also obtained the status of a traditional Finnish minority in the 1990s.

At the moment, at least 10,000 Roma reside in Finland. In addition, approximately 3,500 Finnish Roma live in Sweden. Regardless of their small number, Roma have been able to preserve and maintain their distinct cultural traditions.

The status of Roma has traditionally been very different from that of the majority. Roma were persecuted in Finland, too, from 1600 to 1800. Efforts to improve the living conditions of Roma began about 100 years ago, when two state committees were created to handle Romani affairs. The committees submitted their findings in 1900 and 1955. Both studies concluded that only an assimilation programme would make the Romani population acceptable? for society. This stemmed from a general view that the cultural features of the Roma, such as their language and way of life, were so drastically different that they were not to be supported or maintained. The idea of promoting diversity, and maintaining the Romani culture, came about much later in Finland.

In 1956 an Advisory Board for Gypsy Affairs was established within the Ministry for Health and Social Services (presently the Advisory Board for Romani Affairs). The most important issues the board dealt with included housing and education, as well as the status of the Romani language and culture. The social and educational status of the Roma has also been supported by the establishment of the Romani Education Unit of the National Board of Education in 1994. Its main goal is to represent expertise in education and culture, and to influence the planning and implementation of educational programs so that the basic and vocational education of Roma could be realised on an equal basis. The National Romani associations (Romano Missio, The Finnish Romani Association, The Finnish Free Romani Mission) have played a key role in improving the status of Roma in Finland.

Roma and Health

The health affairs of Roma have not received the same attention as education and culture. Due to the fact that there are few Roma with higher medical education, there are hardly any studies or surveys on health issues created by Roma themselves. Traditionally, Roma find hospital environments frightening and accept to be treated in hospitals only in emergency situations. The fear stems from the fact that many of us find hospital environments strange and foreign. Even today, many Roma do not use health services as much as the rest of the population, partly because of a lack of information. Some Roma tend to keep children at home, partly because mothers tend to stay home themselves. By school age the children have to be sent where? with the rest of the population which is difficult for many families.

It is only during the past 10-15 years that Romani mothers have started using the services which the Finnish state provides for childcare, but still only a small portion of Romani children attend pre-school. This fact may create an obstacle to children's progress at the beginning of their school career.

The effects of the difficult housing situation of the Roma in the 1960s and 1970s can still be seen today on the condition of our elderly and middle-aged. General diseases include (no specific data) cardiovascular diseases and pulmonary problems. On the other hand, we must keep in mind that all cultures see illnesses in a different light. In general, the Roma tend to ignore minor health problems and think of themselves healthy unless illness makes their everyday life too difficult.

An interesting point is that hospital care is regarded as a last resort. It is still part of the Romani tradition that families take care of their sick. The same applies to the elderly or the handicapped; sending them to an institution is uncommon.

It is vitally important that Roma receive enough information on how to take care of their own and their loved ones' health. For Romani women, the National Board of Education's Romani Education Unit, has arranged national health education days which are very popular. The next one will be in the fall of 2004. Even though there are no cases of discrimination in health care, the health care professionals do need topical information on ethnic groups, their cultural characteristics, and how to take them into consideration in their work.

Equality Legislation in Finland

During the 1970's the Finnish society finally started to accept Roma as a national minority. Since that time, the society has taken special measures to enhance the social and educational status of Roma. Support for Roma culture was provided simultaneously. A general change in attitude is visible in the national legislation: Article 5 of the Constitution that took effect in 1995 has a universal prohibition of discrimination: "No one can be treated unequally on the grounds of gender, age, origin, language, religion, conviction, opinion, health, disability or other reason relating to the person." In addition, Article 14(3) of the Constitution guarantees the right of minorities to their own culture: "The Sami as an indigenous people and the Roma and other groups have the right to maintain and develop their culture and language."

Discrimination has been criminalised since 1995 in Finland. Article 11(9) of the Criminal Code states that if a public official or servant does not treat everyone equally, regardless of their race, national or ethnic origin, skin color, language, gender, religion or other comparable reason, he/she shall be issued a fine or convicted to serve a prison term of up to six months. The Criminal Code at Article 47(3) also provides for punishment of discrimination in employment.

Despite existing anti-discrimination provisions, Finnish law does not meet the standards set by the EU equality directives. The transposition of the directives was seriously delayed and in February 2004 the European Commission opened infringement proceedings against Finland for failure to communicate actions for the transposition of the directives.

Discrimination of Roma in Finland

Roma in Finland are faced with discrimination in their everyday lives.

Early education reveals deficiencies in the training of pre-school professionals when it comes to minorities. There is no sufficient material on Romani culture.

At school, the curriculum, and the teaching material do not include enough information on Roma and their culture either. Often, the knowledge of the teachers about Roma is also inadequate, and this fact is a source of tension between them and the Romani children at school.

Furthermore, in Finland as elsewhere in Europe, Romani children have been placed in special education on insufficient grounds.

Discrimination against Roma also manifests itself in a lack of service, or restricted access, to stores and restaurants.

In employment discrimination is also present. The traditional dress of Romani women sometimes raises prejudice, which leads to double discrimination, both on the grounds of sex and ethnic origin.

Media holds a key role in promoting positive attitudes. A negative image of Roma in the media will naturally increase prejudice.

In conclusion

Racism and discrimination based on racial or ethnic origin is prevalent all over the world, and Finland is no exception. Tolerance and equality between the diverse ethnic groups in society need to be protected by law as well as by efforts to eliminate barriers erected between the various groups whether due to lack of information about each other, or the spread of biased information. Ethnic diversity can only enrich society.


  1. Janette Grönfors is a Finnish Romani woman who has worked for the Finnish Government in the National Board of Education, Romani Education Unit, since 1995. She is also communication’ s coordinator for the International Roma Women Network (IRWN).


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