By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM
In late July 2010, French President Nicolas Sarkozy expelled thousands of Roma people from France. The move was widely criticized by the European Union (EU), as the move deliberately targeted one particular ethnic minority for deportation.
More recently, according to Time (Nov. 4, 2013), French Interior Minister, Manuel Valls, also advocated deporting Roma. Reportedly, “…a 15-year-old Roma girl (was) ordered off a school bus and deported with her family back to Kosovo.”
The historical geography of the Roma is fascinating. They often are called “Gypsies” from the erroneous belief that the people came from Egypt. The Roma actually originated in central India, possibly in the modern Indian state of Rajasthan.
Sometime around 250 B.C., the Roma left central India to migrate northwestward to the Punjab region. They mostly likely migrated because of ethnic conflict or political instability in the region. As they pushed further northwest, they arrived in the Middle East hoping to find better lives in big cities such as Tehran and Baghdad. There, the Roma began calling themselves “Dom,” a word that means “man.”
Between the 3rd and 7th centuries A.D., the Roma began their journey toward Europe, probably moving in waves. When they reached Europe, the “D” beginning the word Dom became an “R”, as many European languages pronounce “Ds” like “Rs” with the tongue curled. The word Roma is the plural form of Rom.
At first, the Roma were welcomed in Europe by most local cultures. The Gypsies’ clannishness, nomadic behavior, horse-trading, love for music and dancing, unique language and disregard for local laws, however, caused them problems. Beginning in the 15th century, groups of Roma traveled Europe’s countryside, often living in temporary encampments, owning no land and paying no taxes. As a nomadic population, they had no legal representation in governments and their numbers were unknown.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, some communities passed laws to attempt to assimilate the Roma people. The nomadic lifestyle, traditional Roma dress and use of the Romani language were prohibited. When these measures failed to integrate the Roma, some were subject to ethnic cleansing, had their children taken away or were sold into slavery. Sometimes they were branded or the women had their ears severed.
As a result of this persecution, many Roma migrated eastward. Many landed in Poland, which was considered more tolerant, or in Russia where they were treated fairly if they paid the annual taxes.
In the early 20th century, however, Hitler’s Nazi government labeled Gypsies as “undesirables” and sent perhaps 500,000 Roma to Europe’s death camps, along with six million Jews and handicapped people.
Despite being labeled as “outsiders” in most communities, the Roma culture has remained particularly strong and little has changed throughout the centuries. This continuity, however, has added to the perception of mystery surrounding the Roma.
While maintaining their traditional belief systems and cultures, the Roma have often adopted the religion in the country where they live. In Eastern Europe, most Roma are Catholic, Eastern Orthodox Church or Muslim. In Western Europe and the United States, most Roma are Catholic or Protestant. A growing number of Roma are joining Evangelical movements, even becoming ministers in the church.
Today, the Roma are dispersed with approximately eight to 10 million worldwide. Most of those live in Europe with the largest populations in the Balkan Peninsula. Significant populations are also located in North America, the countries of the former Soviet Union, central and Western Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
Historically, most Roma spoke the Romani language, an Indo-Aryan language. Today, however, most Roma speak the dominant language of their region of residence.
According to the European Roma Rights Center, the five European countries with the largest Roma populations are Romania (1.8-2.5 million), Bulgaria (700,000-800,000), Spain (650,000-800,000), Hungary (550,000-600,000) and Slovakia (480,000-520,000).
The Roma suffer widespread unemployment that has led to poverty, social problems and crime. In the last decade, however, some countries have made concerted efforts to integrate Roma into their societies. They have extended more social services including education, healthcare and housing to the Roma and their children.
That is the reason the news that France has expelled thousands of Roma is disturbing to many. With between 280,000 and 340,000 Roma, France has a relatively high number of living within its boundaries.
French President Sarkozy deported some Roma back to Romania and Bulgaria, saying the illegal Roma camps in France were becoming shantytowns. He also called the camps areas of prostitution, child exploitation and people trafficking.
Since the Roma are EU citizens, however, they have the right to live in France or any other EU country. EU countries can legally deport people only if they are considered a public security risk or a burden on the welfare system. Some government officials apparently believe the many Roma in France fit this description.
And that is Geography in the NewsTM.
Sources: GITN #732, “Times are Changing for Europe’s Roma,” June 11, 2004; GITN # 1064, “Roma Displaced,” Oct. 22, 2010; http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11432737; and “Four Essential Facts About Roma,” Time, Nov. 4, 2013, pg. 11.
Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor. Geography in the NewsTM is solely owned and operated by Neal Lineback for the purpose of providing geographic education to readers worldwide.