The expulsion in mid-2010 of Roma — so-called “Gypsy” — families from France has rightly caused outrage. Yet this is nothing new in Europe or in many other parts of the world, for the Roma, also known as Sinti, are the most widely persecuted group anywhere. Theirs is a history of banishment, slavery, forced assimilation and sterilisation, deportation and attempted extermination.
They have been hounded, banished, tortured and murdered for centuries. And, proportionately, they probably lost more men, women and children to the Nazi holocaust than did those people classified as Jews. Known to the Roma as Porajmos — The Great Devouring — the Nazi extermination programme gassed and otherwise murdered as many as 500 000 Roma, an estimated 60 per cent of the population then in Europe.
That this is little known is probably the result of the Romani belief that one should not discuss the dead. The belief system of the Roma, however much of an overlay of other religions there may be, still persists and contains spiritual concepts about an afterlife and reincarnation, with an often heavy accent on the dangers from evil spirits. One does not, in effect, disturb the dead. So there are no Romani campaigns around the Porajmos.
Yet the Roma, like Jews and Africans, were one of the three groups of people categorised by the Nazis as “inferior races” that should be annihilated. There were only a handful of individuals classified as African or “Negro” in pre World War II Germany, mainly the offspring of liaisons between German women and African-American servicemen after World War I. But there were thousands of what in Germany were known as Sinti and hundreds of thousands of Jews.
The Sinti were, in many ways, more easily identifiable than Jews, many of whom, certainly in Germany, had assimilated to a large degree into the wider population. The Roma/Sinti, although most had adopted aspects of the religions and culture of the various countries in which they found themselves, preserved — and continue to preserve — a separate identity in terms of language and fundamental beliefs. Many, well into the last century, were also nomadic.
The horse-drawn “Gypsy caravan”, the , the traditional vehicle and home to the Roma, still tends to be associated with these communities that first arrived in Europe, probably from north-west India, nearly 1 000 years ago. A series of migrations saw groups of Roma/Sinti living in and traveling through much of Europe. Today there are communities as far afield as north and south America and Australia.
The Romani language in various forms — it is influenced by the regions in which different communities found themselves — is still retained, as is the practice of providing a child with three names: a secret name known only to the mother, the all important Roma name and an “outside” name used in all dealings with those outside the Romani community.
These factors, coupled with a nomadic tradition and a deserved reputation for independence, ensured that most Roma remained on the margins of whichever society they found themselves in. Mystery surrounded them and, to a degree, Roma cashed in on this, with women becoming known among the Gadja (non-Roma) as fortune tellers. Significantly, perhaps, fortune telling is not practiced among the Roma themselves.
By having a reputation for acknowledging only their own rules and apparently having little regard for borders or established authority, the Roma have always been an easy target and the recorded history of their persecution goes back to the Middle Ages. Now there has been a flurry of publicity about the latest deportations, yet these are only the latest indignities suffered by the Roma in western Europe in recent years.
In fact, there has hardly been any let-up in persecution in one or other region. When I met an official Romani delegation at the World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2002 I gained my first real insight into the difficulties and threats facing these people in the modern world.
It was there, for the first time, that I heard of the Ashkalija, the group of “Albanian” Roma who, in order to try to survive, had publicly renounced their heritage and assisted in the persecutors of other Roma. This was a parallel to the Judenrat and other Jewish collaborator groups established by the Nazis. Massacres and mass rapes from that period are well documented and many of the Roma who had settled in Albania and the province of Kosovo, fled to other parts of Europe.
A similar exodus followed ongoing persecution in Romania. These are among the families now being “returned” to their “countries of origin”.
Although there was little publicity about the fact, it was in Italy in 2008 that the latest wave of western European anti-Roma action began when the rightwing government in Rome declared a “nomad emergency”. Attempts were made to fingerprint the country’s estimated 150 000 Roma and, last year, the seven “camps” occupied by the Roma on the outskirts of the Italian capital were effectively sealed off; xenophobia flared and, in Naples, three Romani settlements were burnt to the ground.
The existence of these segregated camps dates from the late 1980s when the Italian government established them, ostensibly on the grounds that the Roma were “nomads” and the government was “protecting nomadic cultures”. This was a spurious excuse and there are many examples of settled Roma who have become well-known in various fields, especially music. Great guitarists such as Django Reinhardt and Jimmy Rosenberg and the keyboard player, Joe Zwinui among them.
But in straitened economic times scapegoats tend to be sought by confused and frightened communities. And there are always politicians ready to exploit this. As a result, various groups of migrant workers pay the price of deportation, a price that that is the least the Roma continue stoicly to pay, just as they have done for centuries.