Europe’s most persecuted people?

Prospect Magazine

Europe’s most persecuted people?


President Sarkozy’s recent campaign against the Roma people highlights their growing persecution across Europe. As their numbers increase, integrating this group will become ever more important

While fertility rates are dropping to record lows in the new EU member states, Roma numbers are exploding. Photo: Andrej Ban

President Sarkozy’s controversial roundup and deportation of thousands of gypsies currently living in France has been condemned by many quarters—the Pope, the president of the EU Commission and a UN committee. The Roma in question are EU citizens who had every right to move to France, but not to stay indefinitely without a job. Yet despite the high-level criticism of Sarkozy’s move, his policy signals a gathering tempo of persecution of the Roma people in Europe. Last week seven Roma were killed by a gunman in Slovakia, before he turned the weapon on himself. Eight similar killings have taken place in neighbouring Hungary over the past 18 months, and 30 firebombing attacks have been reported. In Rome, the mayor has begun demolishing shanties in effort to push the migrants out of the city. In both Serbia and Kosovo there have been ethnic stabbings of large numbers of Roma, who were driven out by Albanians after 1999 and are not welcome to return. Closer to home, Roma have been driven out of Northern Ireland in racist attacks. These developments should worry us all. As history has shown, the widespread maltreatment of a large, stateless minority can have devastating consequences.

Experts believe that there may be up to 11m Roma people in Europe today, making their population greater than Austria’s or Sweden’s. While fertility rates are dropping to record lows in the new EU member states, Roma numbers are exploding. If the numbers hold, 20 per cent of Hungarians and 40 per cent of the country’s workforce will be Roma in 2050—compared to just 6 per cent in 2006. In the coming decades, the danger is that a large proportion of the EU’s population could effectively end up being deemed second-class citizens.

A report by the EU regional policy division emphasises that “the integration of the Roma is a precondition for sustainable long-term growth in many central and eastern European regions.” Yet today, little demographic research exists in the countries where the EU estimates the Roma make up more than 10 per cent of the population—such as Bulgaria or Romania—or just below that figure, such as Macedonia or Slovakia. Roma community leaders in Bratislava and Sofia have even claimed that the Roma could be in the majority by mid-century, if their high birth-rate and a refusal to use contraceptives continues. Perhaps this fear explains why, as recently as 2003, Roma women were being tricked into sterilisations in eastern Slovakia.

In 200, an initiative by 12 European countries declared this to be the decade of “Roma inclusion,” but NGOs note dryly that the high-point of Roma outreach was in the pre-accession phase of many new member states, especially Romania. After that, persecution mounted, and the socioeconomic facts speak for themselves. In Slovakia the Roma make up just 10 per cent of the population in normal education but 60 per cent in special schools. Less than 4 per cent of Hungarian Roma attend university. In 2009, over a fifth of Roma children in Hungary had been placed in special schools, cutting them off from the mainstream and consigning them to classes for the handicapped. Less than 10 per cent matriculate. These are the numbers of misery.

Europe will continue to see greater Roma migration and persecution unless concerted efforts are made to turn these statistics around. With politicians fixed on budget cutting and rescuing parlous finances, there is a slim chance of that now. As the president of one of the EU’s most powerful nations, Sarkozy has set a precedent that opens room for central European politicians to take more extreme measures. Already Hungarian far-right MEPs in the European parliament have called for a “mass internment” of Roma.

In the early 19th century it was, of course, the Jews who were similarly dispersed, impoverished and undergoing a demographic explosion. Anyone who suggested at the time that the descendants of this fractious, leaderless people would today call a powerful state in the middle east their home would have been laughed at. Yet it was more the tsarist persecutions of the late 19th century than the Holocaust that brought about Zionism. Today, the tentative beginnings of Roma activism have begun in eastern Europe—helped greatly by billionaire philanthropist George Soros’s funding, through the Open Society Foundation, of various youth schemes and rights forums.

Needless to say, such initiatives should be encouraged, and the picture is not universally bleak for the Roma. In Macedonia, for example, singers like Esma Redzepova are huge stars, and this year’s annual Guca trumpet festival in Serbia, in which Roma dominate, attracted a record half a million visitors. Roma bands are also a welcome addition to many a Balkan wedding and several leading stars earn huge fees jetting between Germany and Australia to play for the Balkan diasporas.

It would be a mistake to think of the millions of Roma in Europe as all wanting the same things or living in the same way. Roma (like Jewish) identity exists on a spectrum of cultural identification. Different groups of Roma practice different religions, speak different languages, and tribal sentiment far outweighs any wider sense of unity. It is also worth remembering that a tradition that rejects the essentials of modernity—a settled life, careers and education—will probably continue to hold the Roma back more than right-wing bigotry and persecution. But for myriad reasons, the journey these communities face in the 21st century will be a tough one. They are waiting for their own Herzl, whose task will be even harder. Perhaps impossible.

  1. September 10, 2010

    Hanifa Deen

    Approximatley half a million Roma were killed by starvation, deportation gassing or other means in the concentration camps of the Third Reich or in Nazi-occupied Eastern European countries. They were regarded as an ‘inferior race’. The full extent of these atrocities has been hidden, for the most part, as the Roma have no powerful lobbies among the international community.

    Nearly seventy years later they are still being persecuted. Shame on French President Sarkozy. I hope the European Parliament applies pressure to stop this insanity.

    Hanifa Deen

  2. September 10, 2010


    Lately,all over the internet everybody seems to post articles describing and claiming how the poor gipsies were an still are discriminated especially in eastern Europe.I would rather ask if maybe this aproach is not somehow wrong.Could be qualified as discrimination the atempt of authorities in european countries to enforce the law?All one hears is about rights.Have you guys forgot that rights come at the price of civic duties?In order to benefit of the advantages that come with the citizenship one has to undertake the duties.As long as some gipsies would not accept to observe the rules of the society and instead try to establish what can be called a”state inside the STATE”with paralel judicial and administrative sistem at tribal level there will be a conflictual situation.Integration means that you have to observe the rules and adapt your cultural customs (selling 12 years old girls into marriage,considering your own children as assets to be exploited for the wellfare of the clan) to the generaly accepted rules of the society you live in.As long as in all these articles facts are not put into this perspective they are nothing more than propaganda of people with an agenda.All violent acts against gipsies were mere reactions of groups of law abiding citizens stuffed by the antisocial behavior of some gipsies around their towns.Nobody in Romania or other country in the region discriminate or exclude anybody for being a gipsy ,but they have the RIGHT to isolate those who would not observe the laws.All over the civilised world they are called deliqvents,fellons or criminals and they are excluded from society regardless of their ethnicity,skin colour or religious belief.If this is discrimination then by definition civilised modern societies are all racists.

  3. September 10, 2010

    W Williams

    It would very interesting for Prospect to do a follow up piece on the Roma Holocaust – especially interviewing the survivors before they are all dead.

  4. September 10, 2010

    Caged Horse

    “All violent acts against gipsies were mere reactions of groups of law abiding citizens stuffed by the antisocial behavior of some gipsies around their towns.”

    Yes, and if only those darkies in America could’ve kept their filthy hands off dem white wimmin, the KKK would never have existed.

  5. September 10, 2010


    Could this article do any more to whitewash the criminality and spongery that is the dominant characteristic of Gypsy culture?

    Isabella Fonseca, Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey

    Caged Horse, observe the chart from the US Dept. of Justice which records the black homicide rate at seven times (700%) greater than the white homicide rate (already inflated because it includes Hispanics), and tell me if “black criminality” is a racist myth or a stylized fact.

  6. September 10, 2010

    Ramesh Raghuvanshi

    Roma or say Gypsy were migrated to Europe from India.They were wandered all over Europe just like vagabond. From very beginning they were treated by white people very badly.Just read the stories of Tolstoy their women were prostitute They had no country,. no education no their own language.Hitler want to killed all of them in Germany.If they are citizens of Europe they must give dignity respect and must integrate them in society.

  7. September 10, 2010

    Francine Last

    What a fabulous article. I’d so like to know more about these people and how they view the world. I’m shocked by the bigotry of some of the comments (clau2002). People like this don’t seem to ever want to see both sides. I wonder where he is from? It is not a very generous attitude.

    Definitely, if the Roma population is increasing, it makes far more sense to encourage integration on their part, but also understanding and acceptance of their differences (providing they are not breaking any European laws), rather to increase their persecution which seems to be the only likely alternative.

  8. September 11, 2010

    Marco A.

    To show that the comparison between Roma tribes (Gypsies) and Jews is preposterous it suffices to note that: (1) Hebraism constitutes one of two pillars of Western Civilization (the other being Hellenism), and is thus essential (esp. via Christianity) to the survival of Europe as Europe; (2) the vast majority of Roma have lived for centuries parassitic and illiterate lives as criminals (robbers and the like) who are not only entitled but encouraged by state authorities to live a civilized life and own private property (like all other “minorities”), but who prefer to live off of the work of hosting nations; (3) the Roma never had a country of their own (thus they have none to return to), so that the Roma are NOT at all “waiting for their own Herzl”.

    Nor is what we are speaking of here a typical dislocated tribal society such as, say, that of the Apaches from North America. The attempt to “integrate” the Roma is not equivalent to the attempt to integrate any other minority we know of, and to pretend otherwise is to use the tools of political correctness to mask sad facts standing under the eyes of all, left, right, and center.

    Let us then not be brutal against the Roma as they are toward their hosting countries, but then let us neither be duped by recycled appeals to “noble savages”.

  9. September 13, 2010


    There is a balance emerging from the comments seen so far and maybe this is it:

    Yes, Roma merit compassion and respect as do all people.

    They are not blameless; talking about persecution in isolation is dishonest. The sort of thing I have direct experience of include: camping beside an equestrian centre and tearing down fencing for firewood; shoplifting in large groups and laughing without embarrassment when challenged, then returining to the same shop to try again.

    These two aspects are reconciled by integration, for sure, but Roma reject that; they prefer the lifestyle they have. This then leads to oppression, compulsion, deportation and the like.

    The same points can be made of ‘travellers’, New Age or otherwise.

    Looks like the classic dichotomy of rights and responsibilities.

  10. September 14, 2010


    First off, may I commend Ben Judah, who is a young writer to watch.

    This is an extremely tricky issue and political demography is at the bottom of it. I think there needs to be a recognition that there is an antisocial aspect to the behaviour of some Roma which Roma community leaders should forcibly speak up against to counter negative stereotypes. To the extent that Roma population growth is driven by a rejection of contraceptives (rather than economic deprivation) – and this is partly the conclusion of work by leading demographers Sergei Scherbov and Wolfgang Lutz at IIASA’s World Population Program in Vienna – this too needs to be addressed for it will fuel conflict with their host societies.

    In 1900, the Roma fertility rate was no higher than that of their neighbours. Integration and assimilation is possible and must be pursued cooperatively. Naturally some kind of national homeland would be desirable as it would help to show the community how rights and responsibilities are entwined.I am not, however, sure if this is politically possible today.

    The next alternative might be an enclave with a local government dominated by Roma, where they might exercise a measure of self determination and reclaim a sense of self worth. Doubtless some will cry ‘live and let live’. But this is irresponsible romanticism which will condemn the Roma to sorrow and the region to conflict.

    Demographic and multicultural laissez-faire, which seems to be the default approach of liberalism today, is just not a sustainable option with this magnitude of demographic change.

  11. September 17, 2010


    It’s all very well to say we must integrate them, but what is it they have to do? The article is all a white liberal guilt trip until it gets to the bottom line: “a tradition that rejects the essentials of modernity—a settled life, careers and education—will probably continue to hold the Roma back …” JasonM cites Fonseca – she identifies with the Roma and seems unperturbed to reveal their racism towards giorgios and their attitude that we are their legitimate prey. George Borrow, writing in a more level-headed age (mid 19th c), was able to express his affection for his gypsy brothers while seeing with wide open eyes that they were anything but law-abiding citizens. There are no easy answers, but rule 1 must be that the law is the law is the law. In Scotland both carrot and stick have been applied to the Traveller community (an easier case as they’re not ethnically different from the locals) and they’ve largely settled down out of sheer fatigue, recognising that the nomadic way of life is no longer viable. And sadly it really isn’t. The Roma will have to give it up too in the end. Their way of life depends on a partly symbiotic, partly predatory, relationship with a rural peasantry that no longer exists.

  12. September 20, 2010

    Roderick George

    Some interesting comments here.. Personally, I don’t know any Roma – do any of the commenters? I only ask because it’s easy to fall into the trap of either a/ they deserve respect because they’re EU citizens or b/ they deserve discrimination because they’re criminals. It’s no bad thing to have an opinion but in the absence of personal experience, it’s just interpretation. I recall similar things being said about women (too dim to vote), blacks (criminals), jews (new world order), etc.. I’m black – and as a minority, I’m really careful about jumping to conclusions, even if I’ve read reports which confirm my prejudices.

    And Jason M – you’re missing the point. If I have my head in an oven and my feet in a freezer, on average I’d be comfortable. Numerical data is often a very narrow and misleading method for drawing conclusions…

  13. September 21, 2010

    Ganpat Ram

    As an Indian I am proud to see that a people of Indian origin is conquering Euriope throgh a high birth rate.

    Way to go !

    Europe becomes, not Eurabia, buu Eurindia.

  14. September 21, 2010

    Frankie Esmond

    If you want to know more about Gypsies (capital G proper noun) see the University of Hertfordshire Press Romani collection. You can’t understand their present situation without understanding their history

  15. September 22, 2010


    I have worked for 10 years in a voluntary service programme both sending volunteers to work in Roma-related projects in Eastern Europe and having Roma be volunteeers both in those projects and in social and ecological projects in Western Europe. There have been 85 Roma who have taken part. None have been guilty of any offence during their times of service. But four of them were picked up by police in Rome and given a rough time because a neighbour saw them leaving the house of an Italian colleague after eating with him and his family at their invitation and decided that Roma leaving a gadje (non-Roma) house could only be thieves.

    Two weeks ago as a Roma colleague and I crossed the border from Hungary into Ukraine, the border guard said to her, have a good stay in Ukraine – and don’t come back (she is a Hungarian citizen).

    The gadje volunteers see incidents of racism among teachers they work with in schools Eastern Europe, teachers telling visitors that the children are stupid and don’t want to learn (the volunteers find the opposite).
    One volunteer reported a police raid at 6 o’clock in the morning in which 20 armed police showed up in winter in Roma community in Ukraine, rounded up all the men because they claimed a bicycle in a town nearby had been stolen and it was a man from the community who had done so. They waited until the women came and paid for the men to be released. The volunteers said the women said it was better than the last shakedown three years earlier because this time the police didn’t beat them up.
    This is a community where the people historically make mudbricks and weave baskets. They do field labour, work on building sites, whatever they can get. And yes, they do “steal” wood from woodlots or roadsides or parks. When you can’t afford fuel and the winter temperatures are below minus 20, what would you do?
    For a historical overview of how Europe’s treatment of Roma over the centuries has created these deep images of contempt and distrust read Angus Fraser’s “the Gypsies”. Then you may be able to see how after centuries of laws making it a crime to be nomadic -often punishable by death, gypsies might not feel part of the societies they lived within and developed strong defense mechanisms within their own culture. Diane Tong’s Gypsy Folk Tales is a way to see how these mutually exclusive images have become folklore. Read st. George and the Gypsy for the gadje view, and the Priest and the Gypsy for the Roma view.

  16. September 22, 2010

    J. Stringham

    Those who have commented so far have been either attempting social analysis or giving anecdotes and stories. So, I will attempt to do both. I have been working in a programme for the last 10 years that deals with the situation of Roma in Eastern Europe.

    The 20 years since the end of state socialism have been for many people of Roma ethnicity a downward spiral into a culture of poverty. there are Roma youth today with less education than their parents, with shorter life spans, with little or now work experience.
    As long as state socialism enforced equality and work for everyone, long-standing anti-gypsy attitudes were suppressed. When the walls and barbed wire fell, the underlying attitudes re-emerged. Jobs were scarce for everyone, but it was the Roma who lost them first and it was gadje (non-Roma) who got them before Roma. And some people of Roma origin reacted accordingly, reviving their old stories about untrustworthy, greedy gadje (non-Roma).

    the programme I work in is one where gadje volunteers (the word “gadje” means non-Roma in Romani – roughly the same connotation as “goyim” in Hebrew for non-Jewish) are in Roma-related projects in eastern Europe and Roma volunteer in social and ecological projects in the west.
    The following are experiences of the volunteers.
    An American gadje volunteer is standing on the street talking to a young Roma woman. A trucker stops his truck and shouts at her, “you shouldn’t be talking to a gypsy, you should be beating her”
    Two gadje volunteers are in a Roma community when 20 police arrive and round up all the men. The reason, a bicycle was stolen in a town nearby and the police claim someone from the community stole it. They wait until the women of the community come and buy the men free (there is no serious attempt to look for the bicycle- there probably wasn’t one stolen in the first place). One woman’s reply to the volunteer who asks why they stand for it, “it was better this time than three years ago. this time they didn’t beat the men up.”
    Four Roma volunteers from Slovakia are picked up – and roughed up by police in Rome after leaving the house of the Italian colleague whose guests they had been for dinner. The reason – someone in building nearby saw four Roma leaving the house and assumed that they must be thieves.
    Is it a surprise that when some children a Dutch volunteer is walking with when they see a policeman at the end of the street say to her: “can we take another street?”
    A Roma colleague is travelling with me by train from Hungary to the Ukraine. At the border, the Hungarian border guard hands her back her (Hungarian) passport and says “have a good time in the Ukraine – and stay there.”
    A group of foreigners are visiting a school in Romania. The teacher of a Roma class talks in front of the class about how stupid and lazy the children are. The children protest, but she ignores them. (The volunteers who work in the school say their experience of Roma children is they want to learn).
    To understand why attitude change – especially on the part of the majority society has to be part of the solution read two stories from Diane Tong’s “gypsy folk tales”; for the gadje view – St. George and the gypsy”, for the Roma view “the priest and the gypsy”. For a historical overview of how non-roma have dealt with Roma across Europe over the centuries, read Angus Fraser “the Gypsies”. For some ideas of what the Romani movement is trying to establish as characteristics of world-wide Roma culture, read Ian Hancock’s “We are the Romani People”.
    For statistics on how Roma live in third world conditions in Europe, there are reports from the United Nations Development Programme and the country dossiers of the European Roma Rights Centre – and many other sources of course.
    and if this already seems like too much homework, well, that is a big part of the problem, too many non-Roma people-politicians like Sarkozy and Berlisconi, tourists annoyed by beggars, who want the visible tip of the iceberg problem out of the way, but who don’t want to make the effort to understand what lies below the surface. Yet without it, we will have more half-baked programmes that don’t involve Roma and don’t really change things.

  17. October 4, 2010

    jim evans

    I think the underlying problem here is that we are denied a democratic reasoned debate about how countries France and the UK find themselves entangled in this issue in the first place.

    As I understand the problem Roma people in Eastern Europe became EU citizens when the Blair regime pushed through EU enlargement without any real consultation with British voters.

    So,at a stroke the Nice Treaty granted Roma people the right to move to any EU country, and within a few months of its signing I was accosted by some of them in Worcester here in the UK.

    Whatever the merits of the various arguments about Roma rights and responsibilities within the EU, surely British people need a much more fundemental truth and reconciliation programme in which the political class are held to account for their behaviour since we were bankrupted by the Second World War and became an effective satellite of the USA.

    When did we last see thousands of British people marching down Whitehall demanding to : be further enmeshed in the EU,more friendly with USA/Israel,at war in Iraq or Afghanistan,demanding mass immigration,etc.,etc.

    I suspect people are being made reactionary and exclusive by the unnerving sense that we are on a political mystery tour and have been for years.That our claim to be any sort of meaningfully open tranparent society is risibly untrue.That our political class are part of a global middle class centred in the USA and whatever policies we might want introduced “our” so called political parties simply ignores us once they are in power, and follow the dictats and interests of Washington and Wall Street and its offshoot the City of London.

    The Roma are here by right….but they have that right because Wall street and George Soros want access to and control over the old Soviet Union.

  18. June 16, 2012

    Mark Johnston

    I am a British citizen who has lived in the Czech Republic for 10 years. The situation here is very odd for an outsider; daily there are reports of corruption in government and according to official statistics corruption here is now on the same level as Namibia and falling – worse than Botswana and other 3rd world countries. But the vast majority of people seem to miss one crucial aspect – all this corruption is carried out by white people here. People are angry but little is done. Compare that with reactions to alleged crimes by Roma – a few weeks ago a 15 year old boy claimed he had been attacked by three Roma youths. Next weekend 3000 people turned out to show their support for ´´little Peter´´, including hundreds of fascists who tries to attack the Roma area. But it turned out ´´little Peter´´ had lied – he had injured himself trying to show off to his friends and had been too afraid to tell his mummy. The police proved it and he admitted it. So, understanding only too well how society works here despite his tender years, he claimed ´´gypsies´´ had attacked him. So – white crime = public disgruntlement. Roma crime which actually never happened = nearly a pogrom (and I don´t use that word lightly; ´´attempted pogrom´´ is that phrase that has been used by the Simon Weisenthal institute amongst others to describe similar events in recent years). And this is not an isolated incident; I know of at least 10 other instances in the last year where white ´´vicitms´´ have claimed to have been attacked and then had to admit they had lied. But the media generally reports the allegations luridly and the recantations scarcely at all. So hatred is growing and growing.
    The sad facts are that (for all the talk above by people about ´´responsibilities as well as rights´´, Roma people have little chance of meaningful employment for the simple reason that most white believe the reputation uncritically and do not want to employ them. The education system is abused so as to put as many Roma kids into special schools as possible, which then denies them any chance of a good job. Even if they try. Because, yes, of course there are many that have given up. But I have only been here 10 years, not grown up in this society and, frankly, were I Roma, I too would probably have given up. This is a beautiful country in some ways. It is also a country that is on the verge of medieval pogroms that any student of Jewish history would recognise immediately. At the moment the only difference between the middle ages and the modern era here is the existance of a line of Riot Police. Jewish victims in the past didn´t have that advantage. Roma people at the moment do. But it is only a matter of time….
    Czech schools have failed to teach what racism is, the truth about the past (the fact that the two concentration camps for Roma people here where about 500 men women and children died were staffed entirely by Czech police is never never taught) and fail to teach imagination skills (according not only to me, but EU reports too) so inter-race relations are almost guaranteed to be a disaster. Which they are. EU attempts to rectify the situation start from the wrong starting point (you have to educate people what racism is before you can eliminate it) and simply serve to convince most whites here that ´´foreigners don´t understand us – they don´t know what it is like to live with THEM!´´ and thus reinforce prejudices not eliminate them. And so (according to all surveys) between 80 and 90 per cent of Czechs say they don´t want to live near Roma, employ Roma or have their children in school with Roma – and then go on to complain that Roma live in ghettos, are unemployed and poorly educated, without for a moment thinking that the actions of 80 or 90 per cent of whites might have any connection with these situations.
    Mark Johnston

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Ben Judah

Ben Judah is a Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. His is author of "Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin" (Yale) 

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