Who are the Romani people?
The Romani are Europe’s largest ethnic minority with an estimated population of 10 to 12 million. The exact origins of the Romani people are unknown but genetic and linguistic research suggests that their roots lie in Northern India. It is estimated that Romani people have been living in Europe around 1500 years but the first records of Romani in the UK were made over 500 years ago in Scotland. It is from these early records that the word ‘Gypsy’ originates, for the word ‘Egyptian’ was used to describe these new exotic strangers.
Since their arrival in Europe, the Romani people have been met with extreme hostility and discrimination. They are arguably the most ostracised and marginalised ethnic minority in Europe and have been inexcusably deprived of their rights to education, health care, accommodation, employment and civic participation. In spite of this, the Romani people have upheld a robust culture and identity that has survived not only attempts of forced assimilation but a Nazi extermination attempt.
Romani in the UK:
There is an estimated 90,000 Romani people living in the UK who can be separated into three main groups: Romanichals (English Romani); Kale (Welsh Romani) and Roma (European Romani). British Romani are usually included under the blanket term ‘Gypsies and Travellers’ which encompasses a huge range of travelling communities, such as Irish Travellers and New Travellers. While intermarriage, cultural similarities, and government policy have undoubtedly created bonds between Romani and other travelling communities, the Romani people remain a unique and distinct ethnic group with their own cultures, history, ancestry and languages.
Romani people are considered one of the most socially excluded ethnic groups in the UK and faced with a great deal of discrimination, intolerance and misunderstanding. Given that the fascinating cultures and histories of the Romani people are mostly neglected by the British education system, the perception of the wider population is instead informed by antagonistic tabloid journalism and politicians and misleading documentaries, such as ‘Big Fat Gypsy Weddings’. That said, there is a great deal of ignorance surrounding Romani communities in the UK and, thus, very little public concern towards their marginalisation.
Their position as a ‘folk devil’, combined with the enormous barriers to education, has left Britain’s Romani population as politically weak. Not only are populist politicians hesitant to support the fight for Romani rights, but there is a lack of a united, organised, Romani voice. Consequently, campaigning and lobbying has mostly been left to activists, supporters and small Gypsy and Traveller organisations.
In recent years there has been an increase in Gypsy and Traveller led organisations and activism in the UK. One only needs to look at the backlash against Channel 4’s ‘Big Fat Gypsy Weddings’ to see that there is a multitude of Gypsies and Travellers who are willing to speak on behalf of their communities and challenge misconceptions and racism. A growing amount of young Gypsies and Travellers are staying in education resulting in an emerging political voice, but still the fight for Romani rights is being led by non-Romani supporters.
It is indisputable that the political and civic organisation of Britain’s Romani population is not developed enough to stage strong and effective collective action and the support from experienced and politically aware outsiders is much needed. Nonetheless, the action organised for this year’s International Romani Day is unresponsive to the concerns of Britain’s Romani population and has instead been shaped by the perceived concerns of an outsider faction of Romani activism.
Perhaps one of the most pressing issues for Romani in the UK is the recent antagonism surrounding the predicted influx of Bulgarian and Romanian Roma expected in 2014. This issue has captured the attention of all prominent political parties, not only in the UK, but across Europe. On top of this, it has received an enormous deal of attention from predominantly right leaning newspapers and it has become a contentious and heated area of concern for the British public. The ramifications for both the present and future Romani population of the UK are huge. Restrictions to employment, health care, housing and welfare are already being proposed which will have serious consequences for Roma migrants. What is more, the debate is fuelling a wave of intolerance, hatred and racism against Europe’s Romani population but in spite of this there has been no mention of this issue in the planned International Romani Day events.
Instead, non-Romani activist have turned the focus away from the issues effecting Britain’s Romani population and have instead placed attention on the eviction of Dale Farm. While the Dale Farm Travellers have undoubtedly been treated unacceptably, is it appropriate to hijack a day meant for the celebration and defence of Romani culture with the struggles of an entirely different ethnic minority? While Irish Travellers and the Romani are faced with similar social exclusion and discrimination, they are ultimately two very separate and somewhat incomparable ethnic groups, especially in terms of heritage, history, size and distribution. It is unacceptable for non-Romani activists to make assumptions and decisions over the unity of these two separate minorities especially on the one day of the year where attention should be placed firmly on issues distinct to Europe’s Romani population.
There is an increasing network of Gypsy and Traveller organisations that have the capacity to reach thousands of members of Britain’s Romani population. It is inexcusable that this network has not been used to establish what issues are important to Romani communities when it offers an indispensable platform for representation. Romani and non-Romani activists alike should be working together to assist and promote the community development and political voice of Britain’s Romani. Action without consensus and numbers is meaningless and is unlikely to be beneficial to the Romani people and will quickly transform International Romani Day into a farcical, unwelcomed, and futile event. It is time for outsiders to drop the ‘Roma Nation Day’ rhetoric, swallow their pride and consider the shortcomings of their current approach. International Romani Day should bring a global Romani family together in consensus, not alienate them with elitism and ignorance.