Roma in Western Europe

Name: Roma, Romany
Alternative names: Gypsies, Manush, Sinti, Travellers, Tsiganes, Zingari
Location: Throughout Western Europe
Population: over 1.5 million (est.)
% of population: 0.45%
Religion: Christian, Muslim
Language: Romany

The Roma or Gypsies are a nomadic and semi-nomadic people whose ancestors left North India over 1,000 years ago and who are now scattered throughout the world. Considered suspect and inferior by Europeans because of their Eastern origins and foreign tongue, the Roma have for centuries been subjected to prejudice and in some cases direct exploitation. In addition to the nomadic and unsettled Roma there are some 70,000 migrant workers in France, West Germany and Italy, most of whom come from Yugoslavia, Turkey and Spain. Change of location is usually a result of economic considerations or official pressure rather than an inherently nomadic way of life. Their distinctive way of life has meant that Romany society is insular in character and centres around the extended family group.

Based on available census figures and previous estimates (taking into account the high birthrate among Roma) and including associated sedentary and nomadic groups, the following figures give the number of Roma and their percentage of the population by country in 1986: Spain — 745,000 (1.95%); France – 260,000 (0.47%); Italy – 120,000 (0.21%); Portugal – 105,000 (1.5%); UK – 90,000 (0.16%); West Germany – 84,000 (0.14%); Netherlands – 40,000 (0.28%); Switzerland – 35,000 (0.54%); Belgium – 20,000 (0.2%); Austria – 19,000 (0.01%); Eire – 18,000 (0.53%); Sweden – 15,000 (0.18%); Finland – 8,000 (0.16%); Norway – 5,000 (0.12%); Denmark – 4,500 (0.09%).

Between 1935 and 1945 at least 400,000 Roma are known to have died at the hands of Nazis. Despite their treatment few received adequate compensation from the West German government, and anti-Roma prejudice has not abated. In almost every country the Roma are prevented from travelling freely and the majority are stateless. The Council of Europe set out proposals for improving the rights of the Romany people in 1969. These proposals included the construction of well-equipped caravan sites and permanent housing in colder climates, the provision of schooling for Romany children, the establishment of national bodies to deal with Romany issues and the granting of citizenship to stateless people wherever possible. Whilst some countries have done much to implement these proposals the majority have made little effort to further the Romany cause.


In France there has been a recent upsurge in the number of Romany groups. In 1983 the Office National des Affaires Tsiganes was created to advise government on policy towards the Roma; however there is still legal discrimination against this minority. Roma are required to carry a travel permit and their movements are limited to specific places of residence. Under the same law, passed in 1969, anyone who cannot prove unbroken residence in one place for three years is disenfranchised. In addition to the nomadic Roma there are more than 100,000 semi-sedentary Roma living for the most part in the notorious bidonvilles or slums.

Romany children must be registered at school wherever they stop but although the authorities claim that a high proportion are being educated the majority are illiterate. Government circulars have been issued to district authorities urging the setting up of caravan sites but not all authorities comply. However, 30 caravan sites have been established since 1970 and two housing settlements have been built at Grasse and Marseilles. In 1972 door-to-door sales were banned thus removing one source of income for the travelling Manush and this may have contributed to the rise in begging and a growing rate of delinquency.


From January 1975 Roma have been able to acquire Belgian citizenship. Government policy has provided for the provision of serviced camping sites for several years and in 1978 the first legal caravan park was opened in Ostend, but so far few local councils have responded positively to government directives and at least 20% have passed bylaws against the parking of caravans and camping. These by-laws make registration of residence — necessary in order to qualify for full citizenship — almost impossible, and prevent Romany children, who make up 60% of the community, from attending school with any regularity. The infant mortality rate is 20% higher than the national average, a situation not helped by residence on municipal refuse tips and unhealthy wasteland.

West Germany

The plight of West German Roma has changed radically since the 1981 Gottingen congress which focused government attention on their problems. A meeting with Chancellor Schmidt brought belated recognition of Roma persecution and genocide by the Nazis, and the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma has received financial support for pursuing individual casework and other matters. “Criminal” records inherited from the Nazi regime and used by regional police bureaux have been destroyed. The Central Council has also sought compensation from German companies for Romany survivors of the Nazi forced-labour programme, of whom about 15,000 are still alive. So far the claims have not been accepted and there is still prejudice against Roma. In 1984 a group of Yugoslav-born Roma who had settled in Darmstadt in 1979 were evicted and driven out of town, their houses and workshops bulldozed and destroyed.


In Italy Italian-born Sinti and foreign Roma are constantly harassed. They are discouraged from camping and established quarters are frequently broken up. In towns they face particular hostility and frequently live in squalid conditions on the outskirts of towns. A recent survey found that over 70% of families had lost one or more children through illness, often of a respiratory nature. Life expectancy is short and less than 3% of Roma and Sinti live beyond 60 years. Begging — especially by Yugoslavian gypsy children — has become a major problem and children caught begging have been forcibly removed from their parents and given up for adoption.

The voluntary organization Opera Nomadi has attempted to mediate between local authorities and Roma to provide education for Roma children, but although some 60 special classes have been set up, tens of thousands remain outside the schooling system. Activist groups are calling for the modification of housing laws to include caravan sites. They are also demanding financial assistance to those towns willing to give permanent shelter to Roma, and recognition of Roma as a linguistic minority, which should improve their constitutional status.


Spain has the largest Roma population in Western Europe. There are about 600,000 Roma and also 150,000 Quinquis who lead a similar nomadic lifestyle. An Interministerial Commission has found that the average life expectancy of a Rom is 43 years; half the Roma working population is unemployed; 80% of Roma adults have never been to school; and only 50% of Roma children are receiving schooling. Local authorities have been encouraged to provide housing for Roma, most of whom are living in shacks on the outskirts of cities. Some municipal authorities have responded positively but the population as a whole has reacted unfavourably and there has been violence directed against the Roma. In Zaragossa there was serious rioting for almost a week as a result of an announcement by the municipal authorities that 36 Roma families were to be temporarily housed on part of a housing project. In Segovia province a mob of several hundred led by the local mayor forced a family to leave their home which was then bulldozed.

Some advances have been made: a Roma member of the Spanish parliament (Cortes), Juan de Dios Ramirez, has successfully campaigned for the removal of anti-gypsy legislation enforced during the Franco era, and by 1981 there were 124 government-subsidized centres for Romany children attended by some 4,000 pupils. Whilst these reception classes are much needed, another 100,000 Romany children are still without schooling of any kind.

The Netherlands

The Netherlands has taken a lead in the provision of well-serviced caravan parks for indigenous nomadic families, although policy towards stateless and foreign Roma remains strict. Implementation of the 1968 Caravan Sites Act has involved the setting up of large trailer-home parks and small family units. Some of the larger centres are equipped with social activity buildings, and over 70 special schools, adult education classes and kindergartens have been established. The Netherlands is seen by Roma as an example to be emulated in its efforts to accommodate its Roma population.


Very few of the nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples of Britain are actually Roma. The majority are of Irish extraction and are known as Travellers. The position of Travellers in Britain is poor and steadily deteriorating. The 1959 Highways Act, which legislated against roadside camping, and the general policy of “moving on” adopted by local authorities has meant that at least 5,000 children are receiving no education and a further 20,000 are receiving inadequate education. In 1984 a report by the Save the Children Fund stated that the infant mortality rate amongst Travellers is 15 times higher than the national average. Under a ruling of the High Court in 1985 county authorities are obliged to provide sites for Travellers but there is much popular opposition to such sites and there have been cases of caravans being removed from official sites. The Department of the Environment has advocated the provision of a chain of 10 stopping places with up to 40 pitches each for some 250 families, and the building of 60 small sites for a further 300 families, but it will be hard to implement these proposals.

Eire (Ireland)

The Traveller population has doubled in Eire in the last 20 years. Forced evictions and hostility have continued despite the government urging of immediate provision of sites. In 1980 a Supreme Court ruling stated that before evicting families local authorities must offer a suitable alternative site. Over 630 families are now living in the Dublin area alone, most of them on illegal sites from which they are frequently moved on. Less than half the children of these Travellers are receiving education of any sort; infant mortality is three times the national average, and life expectancy is half the national average. There are several self-help groups but widespread prejudice remains a barrier to real change.


The Swedish government has shown generosity in accepting into the country hundreds of Roma expelled from Poland. These Roma are being treated as refugees because they left Poland carrying only exit permits, and they have been assisted to find jobs and housing in Sweden. Many Finnish Roma have also entered the country in recent years. Despite government policy the public attitude to Roma is one of ill-will which has on occasion expressed itself in violence. The Finnish Roma have formed their own association in Stockholm and many have been housed in municipal apartments and housing estates. Romany is taught in several special schools and there are Roma teachers and social workers. Although Romany immigrants have received government assistance the needs of the older nomadic Tattare have not as yet been recognized.


The 35,000 Swiss Roma have fared better in recent years than in the past when there was a long-standing policy of forcibly removing children from their parents. Under this scheme, started in 1926, some 700 children were housed in orphanages and juvenile detention centres. The scheme was abandoned in 1973 after individual dossiers were passed to the press, and the government is now attempting to repair some of the damage is has caused by reuniting children with their parents. Local authorities are now beginning to set up caravan sites although there is still harassment of nomadic families. An annual cultural festival organized by the Romany association has strengthened a sense of unity among the Roma. The International Romany Union’s UN office is based in Berne and this has assisted their cause politically and socially.

(For Greece, see Roma in Eastern Europe)