What is Roma Rights?

27 May 2004

Ronald Lee1

As a non-European Romani activist and educator born in Canada and working in the area of Roma rights outside of Europe, I might begin by saying that while I am not working in Europe, I am familiar with the situation of Roma in the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe and with that of the Roma in the EU Member States. This is due not only to my ongoing research, but also from daily contact with hundreds of Roma who have arrived in Canada both before and after the end of communism. Our non-governmental organization in Toronto, the Roma Community Centre, involves Canadian-born Roma, former European Roma long resident in Canada, and Romani refugee claimants who arrived after the demise of communism from the former communist countries, the largest numbers being from Hungary and the Czech Republic with lesser numbers from Romania, Bulgaria, the former Yugoslavia including Kosovo, Poland and other "new democracies." Many of these Romani refugees speak Romani dialects mutually compatible with Canadian Kalderash Roma, while others can communicate in English.

From my knowledge of the situation of Roma in the Americas, including Latin America, the EU countries and the former Communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, I would not hesitate to state that nowhere do Roma have what might be considered equal rights with non-Romani citizens, nowhere are their rights as set out under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guaranteed or fully provided, and nowhere are their interests represented in public affairs. The violation of Roma rights between various countries differs only in degree, not in kind. In some Western European countries, such as Britain or France, the right to camp sites for Romani itinerants and the right to undertake traditional economic practices based on commercial nomadism is not guaranteed and in Britain, persons attempting to maintain nomadic practices may even find themselves criminally prosecuted, for example for violating draconian trespass laws. In the United States, there are no laws against nomadism as such, but Romani commercial nomads are subjected to racial profiling because of their ethnicity by many municipal and State law-enforcement departments.2 In Canada, the standards used by Canadian Immigration (CIC) and the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) to judge the eligibility of Czech Romani refugee claims in 1997-98 are not the same as those used to judge the eligibility for refugee status of Hungarian Roma from January 1999 to 2004, although the reasons for the Roma from the two countries to seek refuge in Canada are exactly the same! Why should the Czech Roma receive 89 percent positive decisions in all claims heard by the IRB Adjudication Board and the Hungarian Roma a pathetic rate of around 12 percent overall?

In Central and Eastern Europe, Roma do not receive the same schooling as non-Romani citizens and are commonly sent to schools for the developmentally disabled. In the US, Romani families are condemned in the media for not sending their children to school, where their parents fear they will be assimilated. In the refugee camps in Italy, thousands of Romani children, whose parents want them to be educated cannot even get to school since no school buses are provided. In many countries, especially in the former communist countries and now in some EU countries, where Roma have managed to somehow gain temporary status, children face massive discrimination in school and soon develop a fear of school. Unless the parents are willing to see their children assimilated into mainstream culture, there is no educational programme for Roma in any country that will guarantee them an education as Roma.

In the former Communist countries, where the formerly independent, self-employed Roma were forcibly turned into members of the "proletariat" by Communist regimes which saw their historic and traditional free enterprise economy as "reactionary", there is now massive discrimination at the workplace thanks to this past injustice and Roma are everywhere unemployed or underemployed. In the USA, Roma who are self-employed as itinerant tradesmen and have been earning a decent living for generations are now penalised, prevented from earning an honest living, stigmatised as "con artists" (people who work frauds by misrepresenting themselves) and "scammers" (swindlers) and even criminally prosecuted by racist members of the law enforcement agencies. These and private consultants hired by them write books and create Internet web sites full of reports where the evidence for Roma criminality is too often based on fictitious novels and movies. The American Romani population is described by self-appointed "experts" as "secretive", thus implying that the population in general has "something to hide". Such ethnic profiling of Roma as criminals is not done with any other minority in the US, but because Roma are not generally viewed as an ethnic group in the US but as "gypsies",3 this is a gray area for US civil rights organisations. In many cases, these sites report news about Romani suspects who have been implicated in certain crimes but who have not yet been arrested or convicted and in some cases are innocent or who later are acquitted.

This erroneous belief that Roma are criminal by heredity was a popular theory in the 19th and early 20th century when both Roma and Jews were considered to be non-Europeans by "race" and criminal by heredity and thus "potential polluters" of the "civilised" European (Aryan) population. When this hypothesis fell into the hands of the Nazis, it resulted in the Holocaust. Unfortunately, the hypothesis is alive and well in the United States, in 2004, among a number of people with neo-fascist views, who are allowed to publish their false eugenic theories openly both in the public media and on American-based web sites. Thus, Roma rights should not be considered just a Central and Eastern European issue nor even a European issue. It is a world-wide issue since, as already stated, in no country where Roma live do they have their rights as guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Of course, the flagrant abuses of Roma rights are most serious in the "new democracies" where "democracy" has been legislated into existence and is more of a word than a historical system of government, and where there is little widespread understanding of democracy as it is known and practiced in countries that have had a long tradition and history of democracy. The concept of multiculturalism, as defined under post-1960s Canadian law, where all minorities have rights to ethnic culture and language as part of the Canadian mosaic is problematic in Europe where the nation states are based on ethnicity rather than on birth or citizenship and citizens not of the national ethnicity are somehow second-class because they are not ethnic Magyars or Romanians, Bulgarians or Serbs. However, the Magyars in Transylvania can look to Hungary for protection against persecution, or the Romanians in Hungary can look to Romania for protection. The Roma, on the other hand, being non-territorial, are everywhere defenseless against persecution.

While the EU countries willingly admit that there is persecution of Roma in these former Communist countries, they conveniently forget this when faced with Romani refugees seeking asylum from persecution who have arrived at their borders and refuse to accept them as members of a persecuted minority group in their countries of origin as defined by their own admission. Canada, on the other hand, with the single exception of its shoddy treatment of Hungarian-Roma refugees, has a much better record and regularly accepts around 50 to 60 percent of Romani refugees from any former communist country other than Hungary.4 To date, no EU country even comes close to this record.

But just what are Roma rights and should some rights be given to Roma because of their culture that are not automatically given to non-Romani citizens of the country in question? This is a difficult question to answer. One might look at the situation of Canada's Native Peoples where Native Peoples on some reserves are granted hunting and fishing rights not available to non-Native Canadians. In many cases these rights have become irrelevant where the reserves are surrounded by urban development and the only potential game left might be squirrels and pigeons. In more isolated areas, these rights are in force and enable the Native Peoples to follow their traditional culture to some extent despite the objections of non-Native Canadians who complain that they have to buy a license to hunt or fish and can only do so in the limited legal hunting and fishing seasons.

But since the rights that might be claimed by Roma would differ greatly from one area to another a standard set of rights cannot really be defined other than the basic rights that every citizen in every country should have under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but which are still not readily available to millions of people throughout the world, including the Roma. Obviously, the Universal Declaration, while it may be an aim to strive for, is not a reality for most of the Third World nor for the Roma in too much of the so-called "civilized world". In countries where this Declaration is generally applied to the non-Romani population, it should also be extended to the Roma. Unfortunately, in many of them, it is not. The application of this Declaration to Roma would certainly help alleviate the problems of unemployment, sub-standard or total lack of housing, equal access to education and other rights enshrined in this Declaration, including equal access to legal protection. The passing of hate-crime laws, for example, such as exist in Canada can eliminate violence against minorities or if not eliminate it, at least ensure that the perpetrators will be arrested and charged under these laws. Such laws have yet to be passed in the "new democracies" and still are not enforced in many EU countries where Roma are concerned.

One problem in this area is that too many national governments do not consider the Roma to be equal citizens of the country despite the fact that the original group of indigenous Roma may have arrived centuries ago. One glaring example of this is Hungary. In 2000, a lengthy report, worthy of George Orwell's Ministry of Truth, was compiled by Dr. Rudolf Joó, then Deputy state secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Budapest, 2000) with the grandiose title of: "Measures taken by the state to promote the social integration of Roma living in Hungary." To see what is wrong with this report, let us create a hypothetical similar report that might be issued by the Canadian Deputy State Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the federal government's work to date and future plans for the social integration of French-Canadians in Canada: "Measures taken by the state to promote the social integration of the French living in Canada." This would be totally unacceptable to French-Canadians who are a founding Nation of Canada and have been here since the early 17th century long before the British Conquest of New France in 1759 (ratified in 1763). It should be equally unacceptable to Hungarian Roma. Roma have been living in Hungary since the 15th century and thus predate the French arrival in Canada by 200 years. If they are not considered Hungarian-Romani citizens in the report dated 2000, will they ever become so? They are not "Roma living in Hungary" like one might describe a herd of migrating buffalo temporarily grazing in Hungary on their annual trek from Austria to Romania but an integral part of the Hungarian population since the 15th century. Here we might see the root of the problem facing the Roma - non-acceptance as equal citizens in their countries of birth by national governments and by most non-Romani citizens.

The report referred to was circulated by the Hungarian Consulate in Canada to Canadian Governmental agencies to convince Canadians that Hungary was planning great things for its Roma, much like a Canadian government report on the homeless in Canada and how great plans are afoot in Ottawa to eliminate homelessness in Canada while people are still sleeping on the streets and are likely to be doing so 20 years in the future. Government reports such as this, without positive action, are little more than so much hot air and accomplish nothing. They are routinely issued by bureaucracies to whitewash the true situation which is that nothing concrete has been done or is likely to be done. Until the "Roma living in Hungary" or Romania, or Poland, or elsewhere in the "new democracies" are considered citizens of Romani ethnicity, nothing will ever be done, since the prejudice is still evident at the highest governmental level by elected government officials who pay lip service to human rights but realise that programmes that go against the wishes of the average voter are not likely to assure them of reelection.

The position of Roma, as a minority, in the "new democracies" is really much closer to that of aboriginal people in former colonial countries such as Canada, the US, New Zealand and Australia, to give some examples, than it is to the ethnic Magyars living in Romania or the ethnic Romanians living in Hungary. These groups have more in common with French-Canadians living in Canada. While Roma, of course, are not aboriginal to these countries, the paternalistic approach taken towards the Roma by these "new democracies" is reminiscent of the treatment of aboriginals in the former colonial countries - beans and blankets rather than self-determination and equal representation in the government.

Since most Roma in Europe have never experienced any political leadership beyond that of the usually self-appointed clan leader or "big man" otherwise known as the baró, sherengero, shero Rom, bulabasha, voivod, etc., political organization at a national level is not part of Roma history. The national governments in the "new democracies" know very well which Romani leaders are the most easily controlled and the most easily bought and play their usual game of divide and conquer while the Roma spend far more time arguing and fighting with one another than devoting time and energy to organising effective self-representation and social activism. Those Roma who do get to become part of the governmental mechanism, albeit at a lower level, then become more concerned with hanging onto their positions and their incomes to dare to rock the boat. Having the model of the aboriginal cultures and their treatment by the governments of their respective countries previously mentioned, these governments of the "new democracies" have an effective and workable model to emulate in order to "keep the natives in their place".

Rights to culture are generally understood to be part of the Universal Declaration and if we include language as a vehicle of culture, then we find that Roma are denied this right almost everywhere they live. If Romani culture and history were to be included in the general school system of countries where there are significant Romani populations, this would go a long way to help eliminate the roots of prejudice and the resulting discrimination and persecution. I have seen what has been accomplished in Toronto to date in this area through our work as an NGO with the Toronto District School Board and ESL teachers and Principals as well as in my own course at New College, University of Toronto and while much more needs to be done, what has been done shows that such a policy would go a long way to eliminating stereotyping and prejudice. Young adult Roma, brought up in these "new democracies" during and after Communism arrived in Canada knowing little or nothing of Romani history and culture. After becoming fluent in English, they began to read books in English about their history in Europe and were amazed to learn what many educated Roma in North-America have known for years. They then began to see themselves and the Roma in a much different light. Their first question was usually: Why is there nothing like this in Romania, Hungary, Poland, or whatever country they grew up in. I might ask the same question. The right to know their own history and culture should be one basic Roma right.

The Romani language or more properly, its modern dialects, have survived centuries of ethnocide designed to eliminate these dialects from the edicts of Kings to Empress Maria Theresa in Austro-Hungary and the former communist governments of central and eastern Europe. Roma have the right to language and in countries where they are a significant percentage of the national population, which includes all of the "new democracies", this should be done on a massive scale. Admittedly, some schools do exist but this is a drop in the bucket to what is really needed. To ensure the survival of Romani dialects as vehicles of Romani culture what needs to be implemented is nationwide education in Romani and acceptance of Romani as a national minority language as is the case with other national minority languages in most of these countries. Efforts should be made to educate young Romani-speaking Roma as teachers who can then work in the national school system.

Romani nomadism, so overplayed by non-Romani writers, is really no longer a major issue in Central and Eastern Europe, where the vast majority of Roma are sedentary, but in those countries where significant numbers of Roma or Sinti still travel to earn a living, it should be addressed and given legal status. In Britain, Gypsies and Travellers cannot even camp on land they legally own. On the other hand, nomadism can be a double-edged sword as we see in Italy where Roma are seen as "nomadi" and forced to live in quasi-legal camps, not allowed to settle despite the fact that most of these Romani refugees are from Kosovo, Bosnia and elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia and others from Romanian settlements and ghettoes who were never nomadic in the first place.

One of the main areas where basic Roma rights are ignored is the law. At present, in most countries, there is a law for non-Roma and a law for Roma. All too often Roma are seen as "guilty in principle". Innocent Roma are all too often rail-roaded into confessing to avoid beatings or when families are threatened if the suspect does not confess to a crime he or she did not commit. Numerous reports dealing with specific countries published by the European Roma Rights Center deal effectively with this issue but I and many others are eagerly awaiting the booklet on Hungary which has not yet appeared. But it is not only in some former communist country in central and eastern Europe whose legal and penal system is reminiscent of that shown in the movie Midnight Express which shows the brutal treatment of an American student incarcerated in a Turkish prison for possession of drugs, as far as Roma are concerned that we find Roma denied justice under the law.

The United States is becoming another country where American-Roma are too often racialised and criminalised under some municipal and State laws and are not able to obtain the same access to a fair trial as most other Americans because, being identified as "gypsies" (the word Roma is unknown in the US except among scholars, some Government agencies and the Roma themselves), they are automatically seen as "guilty in principle" and thus prejudiced in the eyes of the court. Itinerant Roma tradesmen who have worked honestly have been arrested and forced to repay money they earned to the homeowners they allegedly "swindled" because they were identified as "gypsies" and thus assumed to be "guilty in principal". Such reports have appeared on the Internet on the sites dealing with the alleged "Gypsy crime wave in America". The booklet about the US justice system and the Roma also still remains to be written. Added to this, there are some countries in Latin America where according to Internet reports by Romani activists, Roma do not receive the same rights under the law as non-Romani citizens. Some of these abuses were discussed at the Forum of the Americas for Diversity and Plurality in Quito, Ecuador in 2001 by the Romani delegates from various Latin American countries, Mexico, Canada and the USA. Here, it was estimated that there are at least three million Roma of various groups in the Americas. This now raises another question. Are Roma to be considered a European population whose rights should be guaranteed by the European institutions or are they a world-wide minority whose rights should also be guaranteed at the international level?

While the situation of Roma rights in Europe has been described in many books, reports and in documentary films, that of the Roma in the Americas for the most part remains undocumented. What has been published to date is mainly material dealing with the culture and lifestyles of certain North-American Romani groups. Data on Roma in Latin America is mostly non-existent in English. There are also an unknown number of Roma of various groups in Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, former European-Roma now living in North-Africa and elsewhere including Russian Roma who have been living in China since the Communist era. The large Romani population of Turkey also suffers from lack of human rights and this has not been well-documented either. If all these totals are added up, it might well be that one-third of the world's Romani population lives outside of Continental Europe and Britain. This being the case, Roma can hardly be considered to be a strictly "European minority".

Another area of Roma rights not often discussed is the situation of Romani women. While this is more of an internal issue for the Roma themselves to resolve, we are still faced with the forced sterilization of Romani women in former communist countries and still practiced in Slovakia and allegedly in other non-EU European countries, including Hungary. Another area of abuse is forced prostitution of Romani women and girls by the European underworld. Not only Romani women are victims of this but little seems to have been done to even document this abuse let alone combat it.

One of the most tragic examples of denial of Romani rights is the situation of the Romani orphans in Romania. The vast majority of these orphans, victims of Ceausescu's policies, are children of Romani parents. I have met a few of the lucky ones who were adopted by Canadian parents but most of them remain in Romania, unadopted and neglected, suffering from AIDS because of unsterilised hypodermic needles, underfed and with no hope for the future. The orphanage authorities press Romanian children on the would be adopters and tell them not to adopt Roma children usually saying they are "thieves by heredity". North-American Romani families who have tried to adopt these Romani children have not been successful and the racketeering involved in the Romanian adoption system by Romanian lawyers, adoption officials and even some government employees is a disgrace and warrants investigation and massive condemnation from the world community.

These are just some of the main issues that I see as Roma rights but there are obviously many others. Much has been done to redress some of these and much remains to be done. But no matter what laws are passed at the national level, what programs are implemented, which former communist countries manage to join the EU, in the end, it will be we Roma who redress the situation. We must learn to work together and with non-Romani organizations that are sincere in their aims to help us obtain these rights. As the old Romani adage says:

And 'ekh than te beshas, ame zuriávas
And 'ekh than te na beshas, ame meras

Standing as one, we shall grow stronger
If we do not stand as one, we will die out.


  1. This article was first published in Social Research, Vol. 70, No. 1 (Spring 2003).
  2. Some Romani activists have opposed the reference to a “Roma problem” and consider the very phrase tobe based on racist premises. Indeed, from the point of view of the Roma themselves, Roma are not a“problem”; the gadje racist society is.
  3. See complete results of the census by the Bulgarian State Statistics Institute at http://www.nsi.bg/Census/Ethnos-final-n.htm.
  4. For example, the so-called tinkers had already lived nomadic lives on the British Isles long before the arrival of the Roma in 1430. The tinkers were also Gypsy-like tribes, whose occupations (typically metal work) were similar to those of the Roma. They may also have been of Indian origin and, merging with the Roma who arrived in the fifteenth century, constitute today the Gypsy Traveler groups. Their language is so strongly anglicized that no interpretation to or from English is necessary; and the physical appearance of the Travelers is undistinguishable from that of the British, perhaps because of some mixing with the local inhabitants in a limited territory. Even today, many people in the United Kingdom and Ireland are surprised to hear that Traveler (or even Gypsy) is an ethnic identity designation and that Travelers consider themselves a separate ethnocultural group. There is a widespread misconception that “Traveler” and “Gypsy” stand simply for a lifestyle. This is reflected in the frequent spelling of the latter with a small initial “g”.
  5. Episodes of feudal personal dependency similar to enslavement were characteristic of other countries as well. In sixteenth-century England, King Edward VI passed a law according to which recaptured Gypsies who had previously been branded with a “V” sign had to be branded with “S” and enslaved for life. Some Gypsies were used as a slave-like labor force in the Spanish and Portuguese fleet; Gypsies were state property in Russia during the reign of Catherine the Great, as well as in Scotland (Hancock, 2002: 26–28).
  6. On the origins of romanticizing stereotyping, see Ascherson: The Greek tragedians, when they had invented the barbarians, soon began to play with the “inner barbarism” of Greeks. Perhaps part of the otherness of barbarians was that unlike the civilized, they were morally all of a piece – not dualistic characters in which a good nature warred with a bad, but whole. The “Hippocratic” doctors, the unknown writers of the Greek medical treatises wrongly attributed to the physician Hippocrates, asserted in Airs,Waters, Places that Scythians and all “Asians” resembled one another physically, while “Europeans” differed sharply in size and appearance from one city to another. Barbarians were homogeneous; civilized people were multiform and differentiated. The Greek tragedians thought this might be true about minds as well as bodies. If it was, they were not sure that the contrast between Greek and barbarian psychology – the first complex and inhibited, the second supposed to be spontaneous and natural – was altogether complimentary to the Greeks. Somewhere here begins Europe’s long unfinished ballad of yearning for noble savages, for hunter-gatherers in touch with themselves and their ecology, for cowboys, cattle-reivers [thieves], gypsies and Cossacks, for Bedouin nomads and aboriginals walking their songlines through the unspoiled wilderness” (1996: 82–83).
  7. An authorization under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act, signed by Home Office Minister Barbara Roche in April 2001, specified seven ethnic or national groups whom immigration officers were empowered to refuse entry to the United Kingdom outright on the basis of their race or nationality. These included Afghans – even while Britain was at war with the Taliban regime and denouncing its abuses against the Afghan people – Kurds, Tamils, Somalis, and Roma. The European Roma Right Center has since conducted a study involving “white” and Roma Czech citizens of similar circumstances and found a marked difference in their treatment at the Prague airport. The United Kingdom secretary of state admitted in court that this was a policy designed to prevent asylum seekers from reaching the UK, where their claims would have to be properly considered. We believe this clearly contravenes the Geneva Convention on Refugees and risks driving people toward less open and legitimate means of entry. Our six clients in this case all went to the Prague airport to catch flights to London during the course of July 2001. All had valid airline tickets. All are Czech nationals – and so did not need a visa for travel to the United Kingdom. Yet all were singled out for extended questioning apparently by reference to the color of their skin. They were prevented from traveling to the United Kingdom.
  8. See the information on a workshop organized by European Roma Rights Center in Igalo, Montenegro, in September 2002, on the theme of “Personal Documents and Threats to the Exercise of Fundamental Rights among Roma in the FRY” http://www.errc.org.



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