The Roma (also known as the Romani and widely known among English-speaking people by the exonym ‘Gypsies’) are an ethnic group originating in Northern India. They started migrating towards Europe in the 9th century and settled there at the beginning of the 11th century. Nowadays, they are found mostly in Central and Eastern Europe, Southern France, Anatolia and Spain, with significant presence in the USA and Brazil as well.
Ever since they came to Europe, they have faced discrimination:
“Shortly after arriving in Europe, the Romani were enslaved in many regions, a cultural heritage that continued into the 19th century in countries like Romania. In England, Switzerland and Denmark, the Romani were put to death throughout the medieval era. Many countries, such as Germany, Italy and Portugal, ordered the expulsion of all Romani.“
Their predicament seems to be worsening in Eastern Europe, and I will try to illustrate this with the example of Slovakia.
Their current status in Slovakia
The main problem that impacts all aspects of life is unemployment. Unemployment causes poverty, which also means deterioration in living standards. Currently, more than 90% of Roma are unemployed, and in some villages, the unemployment rate among Roma actually reaches 100% percent.
There are several factors contributing to this unemployment including:
- Low levels of education and qualifications.
- Discrimination against the Roma ethnic group by the majority population, especially by employers (they are typecast as having low work ethic, discipline and motivation).
- Poor living standards and bad health conditions. Roma often live in overcrowded houses with bad hygiene and inadequate sanitary facilities. This significantly affects the health of the residents and their capability to work.
- Persistently high (long-term) unemployment and the associated deterioration of human capital and loss of working habits.
Many people just live off the little money that they receive from the government and often by doing small jobs. A common venture is to collect iron, tin and steel, and sell the metal. Some people just do not have any other choice, and turn to begging on the streets.
As the Roma have been marginalised since their arrival in Europe, they were not helped to acquire education. This has caused the group to become backward and makes their education difficult to this day.
When Roma children start attending school, they often do not speak the language of instruction, as they grow up speaking only the Romani language. However, once classes start, they are expected to speak the Slovak language at the same level as their peers do.
They also experience a lot of bullying from their peers, who may have been raised in a racist environment. Furthermore, children often have to walk long distances from the suburbs to school. These issues compel many Roma children to drop out of school.
Sometimes the children cannot even go to school because their parents feel that it would be better if they worked somehow, even though they would not make much money. Others decide to send their children begging others for money.
Even though the education is free, some kids drop out of school because their parents cannot afford to pay for the essentials they need to study, such as notebooks, pens and books.
Notwithstanding the existence of a law determining all children to have the same right to education, schools have often been known to reject the application of Roma parents to enrol their child on some grounds or the other. These children are then often forced to go to school with children with special needs.
Access to Healthcare
According to Slovak law, everyone has equal right to free health care and all public hospitals are obliged to serve the people, if documents of identification are shown. However, this is not always implemented. As a matter of fact, many doctors reject Roma people or refer them to another doctor, claiming that they cannot help. It seems unfair that Roma people face more difficulty in securing health care appointments.
In addition to the aforementioned problems, Roma people often live in horrible conditions. Sometimes several families live in one apartment, with one family living in each bedroom. Some do not even have proper houses, as can be seen in the picture above. Many of them do not have access to water or electricity. In some villages, everyone uses water from a single well and carries it themselves across long distances. The lack of infrastructure also has an adverse effect on hygiene, as many people do not even have enough water to brush their teeth or shower.
The vicious cycle
The Roma find themselves in a cycle they just cannot get out of. The fact that they do not have good education makes their unemployment more likely and, because they are unemployed, their living conditions are horrible. In turn, since they live in deplorable dwellings, people hold a lot of prejudice against them, which results in racism and in children being reluctant to go to school, where they possibly would be bullied. This state of affairs has been in place for years.
The government has ignored this issue in the past, but current events have made them start thinking about possible solutions. Since 2008, the situation has been more tense as the Roma faced scapegoating for the financial crisis. Many people have been turning to extremism, and one part of Slovakia even elected a leader of the Neo-Nazi party as their governor. However, the government seems unable to handle this tension. There have been several solutions proposed, but not any that would actually be effective. It has gotten so bad that, in 2010, the government even thought of several controversial solutions, such as taking away the Roma children from their parents and forcing them to attend government-run boarding schools, not only to provide them with education, but also to impose Slovak values and culture on them. Luckily, this proposal was criticised by most politicians and never came to practice.
At the moment, many Roma people are taking advantage of their EU citizenship and moving to Western European countries, seeking a better life. However, even there, they do not always succeed. The cycle goes on and on – and never stops.