The Unseen Powers: Perception, Stigma and Roma Rights

20 November 2007

Claude Cahn1

This essay looks briefly at several aspects of the impact of the perception of Roma - and the stigma of being regarded as "Gypsy" - on human rights issues. It notes that post-1989 Europe has produced a distinctive phenomenon of massive efforts to "pass" as non-Romani by major segments of the Romani community. It observes first of all that these efforts tend to fail, and secondly that this failure has painted the way for the first generation of Roma rights ethics. Finally, it examines in cursory form the problem that anti-Romani stigma poses for addressing human rights issues prevailing in traditional Romani communities.

I Am Not the Person You Say I Am

Approximately 11,000 people told censustakers that they were Romani for the purposes of the 2000 census in the Czech Republic. This was a decline of around 22,000 people from the previous count; in the 1990 census, around 33,000 people had claimed to be Romani in the Czech Republic. The 1990 census was the first Czech census carried out in democratic conditions, following the collapse of communism in Czechoslovakia, as elsewhere, in 1989. It followed singly and solely the principle of self-identification; in 2000, Roma were those people who told the census-taker that they were Romani. The observations of the census-taker as to who was a "Gypsy" were irrelevant.

The 1990 census itself had recorded a massive drop in the number of Roma in the Czech Republic. In the previous census, undertaken in 1980, 88,587 persons told the census-taker that they were Romani, Gypsy or were otherwise recorded as "citizens of Gypsy origin". The conditions of communist Czechoslovakia were however, for many reasons, wholly different from those prevailing in 1990 or indeed today. Annual records were also kept regionally by the National Committees (národní­ výbory). These went out primarily from a blend of various policy-loaded considerations including identifying those persons who remained un-integrated for the purposes of absorption into an undifferentiated, homogenised communist polity. They were not indifferent to the observations of the state registrar. The National Committees identified 107,274 individuals in 1980, rising to 145,711 by 1989, who were "citizens of Gypsy origin" and therefore in need of special "social and re-educative care".

The gap between persons identifying themselves after 1989 as Romani for official purposes on the one hand, and the evidently much larger number of persons who were Romani in the Czech Republic posed genuine policy dilemmas, such that by the late 1990s, part of the Czech government itself was rejecting its own data. Thus, a 1997 Czech government Council for Nationalities Report accepted "unofficial, qualified estimates" of 200,000 Roma in the country. Although not always consistent, the government bodies working on Romani inclusion issues in the Czech Republic have continued the tradition of grounding work in unofficial estimates to today.

A number of explanations have been offered for the drop in the numbers of persons claiming to be Romani for official purposes in the Czech Republic between 1990 and 2000. Some inadequate suggestions have included the idea that around 22,000 Roma had actually emigrated during the period, or had been expelled by Czech authorities to Slovakia, and so the data was purported to be possibly accurate or at least close to accurate. A more nuanced explanation has been proffered by several Czech officials, who have suggested that the difference reflects confusion as to the nature of the question. On this account, since the break-up of Czechoslovakia in 1993, citizenship in the Czech Republic has for the first time been contiguous with ethnicity; Roma previously lived in a multi-national federal state. The Romani assertion that they are "Czech" for the purposes of the official data is, on this account, in fact an assertion of loyalty to state and public in a highly charged ethnic environment where pressure for conformity is intense. This assertion is especially over-produced in light of the 1992 Czech Act on Citizenship which, through a series of coded provisions, attempted to preclude great numbers of Roma from having access to Czech citizenship. The adoption of the Act on Citizenship was accompanied by a number of dramatic expulsion episodes of Roma in the Czech Republic to Slovakia.

These and similar explanations, although interesting, are at best partial and ultimately unsatisfying. At minimum, they need to be supplemented by a recognition that the very powerful stigma associated with being "Gypsy" in post-communist Czech Republic has driven large numbers of persons ethnically "underground" for the purposes of official information and registry. The eruption of anti-Romani sentiment in the Czech Republic post-1989 - which included a vibrant anti-Romani skinhead movement, vicious killings which went unpunished, coercive sterilisation practices unchecked by any authority, systemic racial discrimination in a range of areas, regular anti-Romani pronouncements by highranking Czech officials, and a widespread view that Roma deserved abuse - has been met by a collective response in which tens of thousands of persons have attempted literally to leap from their own skin and assert that they are not the persons they are accused of being. And this tendency has grown more pronounced over time. It was already an issue in 1990 - early post-communism. However, the full impact of intense anti-Romani hostility in the post-communist period was not seen clearly, in this context, until 2000.

There were a number of ironies arising from the results of the 2000 Czech census. The census had been preceded by a campaign by Romani civil society organisations and others in the Czech Republic to "trust the system" and declare their ethnicity in the census. This was noted to be important for policy and, in particular, funding purposes. Judging by the results, Czech Roma apparently thought little of this effort. The census therefore constituted a fairly resounding rejection by non-activist Roma of Romani civil society and political leadership.

A Roma woman overlooking her house?s window in Sulukule district of Istanbul, Turkey. Stigmatization has been a major problem of Roma in Turkey, but the advocacy for their rights is just flourishing since a few years. Photo credit: Najla OsseiranThe 2000 census also fell in the first period of genuine post-1989 Czech government engagement on Romani issues, and following the first sparks of engagement by general civil society groups and journalists to make inroads into anti-Romani antipathy in the Czech Republic. It was a measure of the limited impact of these actions that, weighing the strength of the power of the "Roma-friendly" forces on the one hand, and its nasty counterweight on the other, most Roma in the Czech Republic decided that the latter were far more powerful.

Twentieth century Czech Romani history is in some ways unique. By 1945, the genocidal policy implemented by the German occupying powers and their Czech collaborators had proved almost completely successful; most Czech Roma were killed in Auschwitz or in the camps established in Bohemia and Moravia, where conditions were established to encourage inhabitants to die. This situation differed from that prevailing in Slovakia, where the collaborator regime had pursued a policy primarily of forcing Roma to undertake slave labour. In 1945, the Slovak Romani community, although massively abused, was still for the most part intact. Following World War II, the Czechoslovak government resettled Roma from Slovakia to Czech lands, and many Roma also joined many Czechs in taking over properties in the Czech Sudeten border territories, from which circa three million ethnic Germans had been expelled in 1945-1946. Movement from Slovakia into the Czech lands continued throughout the communist period. Amongst other things, this meant that: (i) in 1989 most Roma in the Czech half of Czechoslovakia were either directly from Slovakia or had very recent family ties there; (ii) as distinct from the predominantly rural Slovak Romani community, where community structures remained intact, Czech Roma lived predominantly in urban and often ghetto conditions, where communal structures had broken down; and (iii) the combined force of the first two matters gave rise to the fantasy amongst Czech officials that they might design policies forcing Roma to go "back" to Slovakia, hence among other things the 1992 Act on Citizenship noted above. These issues are to be taken into account in explaining the 2000 census data and their wide divergence from "reality".

That said, however, differences between the numbers of Roma recorded by the census and "real" numbers of Roma as asserted by other modes of documentation and assertion by civil society are a region-wide issue.2 The Czech 2000 census is only a particularly extreme example. Thus, for example, in Hungary, although the 2001 census documented 205,720 Roma in Hungary,3 the most recent report by the Hungarian government to the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights does not even mention this fact, but states instead that, "Professional estimates claim the size of the Roma population to be approximately 450 to 600,000".4

Hungary and the Czech Republic are also similar to the other countries in the region in that some Romani civil society organisations would put the figure even higher. In the Czech Republic, estimates of up to 300,000 Roma are heard, while some in Hungary would put the number of Roma in the country at 800,000-1,000,000, or up to 10% of the total population of Hungary. Estimates by Romani organisations have in common with government estimates the following: They attempt to count (or at least estimate) the "real" number of Roma in the country, overriding self-identification (or at least self-identification to the census-taker5, and adding unspecified other criteria. These are presumed to include descent, cultural practices, or other criteria. These efforts to derive a "real" population of Roma legitimately aim to compensate for the evident failings of the census data for matters of policy and resource allocation, and in some cases they possibly illegitimately inflate the data for reasons of heightening prestige (or threat), or other nebulous reasons. However, their common feature is an inability or unwillingness to say clearly what is meant by the term "Roma".

The absolute maximum estimates of "Gypsies" in Hungary however emerge from the Hungarian police. A survey by sociologists György Csepeli, Antal Örkeny and Mária Székelyi, published in the Hungarian daily Magyar Hirlap on 28 March 1998, solicited the opinions of 1,530 police officers. According to the survey, 80% of the interviewed considered Roma violent and 54% stated that they believed that a criminal way of life is a key element of the Romani identity. Only 11% of officers questioned disagreed explicitly with the statement. Seventy-eight percent of officers surveyed in the 1998 study responded that they believed there is a direct connection between crime and ethnicity. The study also found that police officers tend to drastically overestimate the size of the Romani population of Hungary, with officers estimating that "Gypsies" comprised up to 1/3 of the total population of Hungary. Apparently, a certain segment of the Hungarian police see Hungary as awash in deviants and miscreants of all stripe, and these share the qualities they consider to be typically "Gypsy".

Some Implications

This cursory overview has been a prelude to the following series of conclusions:

First of all, Roma everywhere in Central Europe are attempting, on a massive scale, to "pass" as non-Roma, for official purposes. The reasons for this are complicated and numerous, but central to them are the stigma and shame associated with being regarded as "Gypsy". This stigma and shame are in a number of cases deeply internalised.

Secondly, non-Romani Central Europeans reject these efforts by Roma. Everywhere, Gypsies are "outed" - quietly or publicly - as Gypsies. The effort to "pass" is exposed where attempted, if the person concerned is not "white" enough to pass. Or, more likely, it is not openly exposed, but the person is quietly treated differently: Denied work, rejected school placement, excluded from various benefits. Of course, some efforts to "pass" are successful. But many are not.

One secondary implication is that the accusation levelled by some Romani activists that the media are singly and solely to blame for anti-Romani sentiment in Central and Southeastern Europe is not accurate. Media have indeed actively incited anti-Romani sentiment on occasion in the region. However, far more frequent in media practice is a coded nod to pre-existing anti-Romani sentiment. Public hostility towards Roma preexists any efforts by the media to activate it. The high numbers of persons clambering to be listed as anything but Gypsy are the most powerful litmus test of how society treats Roma and others regarded as Gypsies.

The foregoing is a vindication of antidiscrimination challenges as an appropriate response in the current circumstances. In an environment in which the public overrides the free will of the individual in determining herself and imposes a strong, negatively loaded stigma, as a mode of or with the effect of diminishing her humanity, stripping her of entitlements, and relegating her to a pariah existence (or, alternately, elevating her to a status of surreal, inhuman fetish, to similar effect), anti-discrimination measures, such as vigorous challenges of unequal treatment and proactive efforts to design and implement policies to redress systemic exclusion are one appropriate - if not the most appropriate - response. In challenging different treatment - the single most evident tangible expression of disadvantage produced by the imposition of stigma - an individual or community mobilises to reclaim dignity, to the best extent possible.

At first blush, the material presented above would seem to undermine hope for a minority rights-driven approach to addressing Romani issues. How, one might ask, might Roma claim the goods typically offered by the minority rights regime - own-language place names, media and education in the mother tongue, etc. - in a situation in which the vast majority of persons purported to be Romani or "Gypsy" do not feel sufficiently comfortable to present themselves to the public authority as such? However, this conclusion must be regarded sceptically; in the present circumstances, in which the stigma "Gypsy" acts as a magnet for the cumulative frustrations and hypocrisies of the wider society, there is a duty imposed on the public authority to undertake measures to heighten the prestige of the identity itself. In that sense, minority rights measures - themselves in any case inextricably intertwined with the anti-discrimination acquis - present themselves as an available mode for beginning the project of restoring honour to Roma. The minority rights regime offers opportunities for partnership between government and minority elites, as well as public recognition of minority cultures and values, in addition to the intrinsic goods of minority expression which constitute among its primary purposes. But these issues would be the subject of a different essay.

Stigma and Internal Community Issues

It is not immediately apparent from the foregoing, but on the level of Roma rights activism, amongst the most evident impacts of the powerful force of stigma is in the frequent victory of the "challenging stereotypes" priority over vigorous human rights engagement. This is perhaps most evident in the field of women's rights, despite the existence of multiple formal and informal networks of Romani women's rights activists at European level, as well as extensive public and private funding focused on supporting Romani women's initiatives.

First of all, there are relatively few major organisations in a broad field to have taken a consistently women's rights approach to Romani women's issues. Recent ERRC and Open Society Institute reports take a balanced approach to human rights issues facing Romani women, for example focusing on violence against women, while eliding the issue of who constitutes the perpetrator. However, these are minority voices in a field also featuring major international and European players. Few major organisations have taken steps to examine human rights issues in the community.6

Secondly, despite the existence of many Romani women's activists, there is yet to emerge a vocal and unequivocal articulation of Romani women's priorities in the language of human rights. Many of the prominent players in Roma rights can be heard quietly acknowledging that there are serious human rights issues facing women and children in the community but that: (i) one should downplay any view that they may derive from patriarchal values particularly prevailing in the Romani communities (or any which might be different from those prevalent in the wider society); and/or that (ii) "one should not speak about these things in public" because of the danger of "heightening stereotypes". There is something disingenuous about a critique of the treatment of Romani women that hones in on the treatment Romani women face at the hands of non-Roma, but at the same time speaks only obliquely about forces oppressing Romani women at home. One might similarly question whether a "violence against women" approach equating physical abuse by the police with domestic violence does sufficient justice to examining the dynamics behind the two issues; they may in fact be distinct. The combined force of these issues have conspired to result in the fact that data on internal community human rights issues, such as domestic violence and child marriage in Romani communities, is missing or of very poor quality.

Finally, as a result of prevailing fears of "inflaming stereotypes", facts are regularly suppressed; victims are ignored or pressured into silence; and those making public uncomfortable news about internal community human rights issues are criticised.

The denial of internal community issues is problematic because it: (i) unjustly suppresses legitimate claims by victims of human rights abuse; and (ii) rejects as untrue issues which are patently demonstrable. However, the denial of internal community human rights issues based on a claim centred around the danger of "inflaming stereotypes" is also inadequate as a response to the problem of negative stereotypes, because of the particular nature, dynamic and force of stereotypes about "Gypsies" (similar to all pariah groups). The nature of the suspicion falling on the pariah is such that adjustments of conduct in response to the accusation encompassed in the stereotype is sui generis humiliating capitulation to the force of the unfair stereotype. Individuals falling under the pariah suspicion are compelled to act from an original position of unfreedom. On the one hand, efforts to beat back the stereotype fail; seem quixotic; ricochet back onto the contester. On the other hand, the accused pariah has little hope of hiding - passing - without severe compromises to dignity. The individual accused/suspected of being of the pariah category is faced with a dilemma in which the most evident path of dignity leads out through a ringing affirmation of the identity of which she is accused, one which claims the accusation and endeavours to render it "owned" and positive.


The primary purpose of the latter half of this essay has been centred around the following claim: Roma rights benefits when high-profile Romani activists and organisations take on internal-community human rights issues, jointly with their anti-discrimination and anti-racism efforts. Roma rights is harmed when we - the now broad and growing coalition of groups working to end racism against Roma in Europe - avoid these issues. Roma rights has reached the stage in which, when these issues are actively addressed publicly - and jointly with efforts to name and redress problems of intense racism and racial discrimination - all can benefit. The opposite approach - challenging racist abuse while equivocating on internal community issues - is a dead end.

Roma have made very significant advances in recent years, by advancing justice claims. Indeed, Roma rights itself is established on justice claims, claims that resonate deeply and across otherwise insurmountable divides. The justice and equality agenda pursued by Roma in recent years has the potential over time to transform and alter the societies of Europe for the better, and to improve the lives of all persons - Romani and non-Romani - living in them. These justice claims - and with it Roma rights itself - are undermined by efforts by prominent Roma to deny legitimacy to the idea that there may be particular human rights issues arising from and in Romani communities. Roma rights advances are cut short, frustrated and reduced by a discourse which seeks justice on the one hand, but argues for exemption from culpability on the other.

Some of the refusals to address human rights issues in Romani communities are motivated by defence of traditional community practice; there are many segments of the community that do not want to give up the practice of child marriage for example, and ground this refusal in a defence of community norms. This essay does not address the legitimacy or illegitimacy of such defences. But the silence and equivocation - and indeed even hostility - on the part of many activists to the scrutiny of internal community human rights issues derives heavily from a blanket response to negative stigma. And this indeed constitutes the victory - for the time being at least - of stigma and oppression over human rights. Finally, this essay is not a defence of those who would seize upon human rights issues amongst some segments of the Romani community to promote racial hatred or other evil ends. Thus, for example, on 7 July 2007, the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) distributed a public release distancing the Agency from information apparently distributed by Italian MEP Roberta Angelilli imputing to the FRA a report that "mainly Roma children" were involved in the "200-million-Euro business" of child begging. In the highly-charged anti-Romani atmosphere in Italy, the information was evidently primarily intended to heighten moral outrage for anti-immigration purposes.


  1. Claude Cahn ( is Head of Advocacy Unit of the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions. He previously worked for 11 years for the European Roma Rights Centre. The author is grateful for the comments of Valeriu Nicolae on a draft of this essay. All errors are solely those of the author.
  2. Although actual decline over several post-Communist censuses is not an absolute trend region-wide. For example, the 2002 Romanian census documented 535,140 Roma, up from circa 450,000 Roma in the 1992 census. The figure of 535,140 is nevertheless around 1,000,000 persons less than some estimates and 2,500,000 persons less than the estimates at the upper end of the range.
  3. See: Elsewhere in the same official site, the figure is 189,984 (See: Similar to the Czech Republic, the Hungarian census also counts persons speaking Gypsy languages (Romani or Beash) by "mother tongue". In 2001, this was 142,683 persons.
  4. E/C.12/HUN/3, para. 78.
  5. The power of the census-taker in this equation should not be under-estimated, however. In Hungary, the 2000/2001 census was carried out via in-person surveys. The census authority used extensively local volunteers or contracted persons. These were not always above putting pressure on respondents to provide agreeable and pleasing answers (including ones which would downplay the total Romani population in Hungary).
  6. One example is the European Roma Rights Centre document "Forced Arranged Marriage of Minors Among Traditional Romani Communities in Europe: Submission by the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, as part of deliberations toward the next annual report of the Special Rapporteur to the UN Human Rights Council, according to Commission on Human Rights Decision 2004/110 and Human Rights Council's decision 2006/102", 15 November 2006.


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