Return to home page

Further information on viewing conditions, site index and the site Google search facility
Frost's Meditations Logo

Roma people - Gypsies

Growing marginalisation of Hungary's Roma

Dominic Hughes - BBC Radio 4

Roma people
Militant Jobbik supporters
Roma people
Jobbik supporters

Dominic Hughes investigates the rise of the far right anti-Roma Jobbik party in Hungary and finds parallels between the Roma and another impoverished community, Australia's Aboriginals.

On the far side of railway tracks, on the outskirts of the city of Ozd, in northern Hungary, is what must be one of the most deprived villages in Europe.

They live in buildings that once provided homes for workers from the nearby steelworks, but conditions are truly dreadful.

Many windows have no glass; tiles are missing from the roofs; some buildings have collapsed altogether. Just a handful of communal toilets and taps serve the whole community.

Under the hot summer sun children play barefoot in the dust, but it does not really lighten up the grim, and if I am honest, slightly threatening, atmosphere.

Perhaps that is not surprising given over recent months there have been a series of attacks on Roma communities - homes burnt, a father and son shot and killed, another man shot dead as he walked out of his house.

So far no-one has been arrested, but many Roma fear they are being targeted by extremists.


Difficult questions

But we are with Barna Budai, a local Roma man who grew up here, and so we are safe.

It could have been very different. Earlier in the day we met the mayor of Odz, Benedek Mihaly.

I was asking him about the rise of Jobbik, the far-right party that campaigns on a platform targeting what their leaders call Gypsy crime.

He was no fan of the party, or the Hungarian Guard, the civilian militia closely associated with them. But he did say he thought the Roma were abusing their rights, living outside the rules of Hungarian society.

The mayor came across as a very reasonable man, trying to find solutions to difficult questions.

But when we stepped outside his office, things took a strange turn. Waiting for us there was Lajos Berki, a Roma member of the local council.

White haired and smartly dressed, he stood up as we approached.

As he did so, the mayor started addressing him in Hungarian - not quite shouting, but clearly telling him to go away while he talked to us some more.

He sort of punched him on the arm and then cuffed him over the head - not aggressively, but as you might do with an irritating younger brother. Only Mr Berki looked some years older than the Mayor.

Mr Berki though did not seem bothered. He smiled meekly and retreated down the corridor.

Internal divisions
The mayor then turned to us and said: "I'm very proud of this one. He has worked for 40 years!"

Later, as we were interviewing Mr Berki, our guide to the Roma village, Barna Budai, turned up. Relations between the two Roma men were clearly frosty.

“ Some of the old bigotries - racism, anti-Semitism - have resurfaced. The Roma in Hungary are not even regarded by many as true Hungarians ”

Barna Budai told us if we had arrived at his village in the company of his fellow Roma Lajos Berki, we probably would not have left in one piece.

Given the angry response of some residents when we tried to film them, I believed him. Why would we have had trouble I asked - isn't Mr Berki a respected member of the community?

Barna Budai laughed. Mr Berki was hated by the Roma villagers, we were told - he was believed to have said some very uncomplimentary things about his fellow Roma to other reporters.

Who knows where the truth lies? But the bitter internal divisions within the Roma community, the abject poverty they lived in, their apparent dislocation from mainstream life - it all reminded me of another story.

A story I covered nearly a decade ago - that of the Aboriginal community in Australia.

For four years I was the BBC's correspondent in Sydney - and this was the one story that really left me feeling it was all a bit hopeless.


Convenient scapegoat

Problems of institutional and individual racism, compounded by a divided and weak leadership from within the community.

A seemingly unbridgeable cultural gulf. Generations left neglected, with high rates of unemployment and imprisonment. A lower life expectancy and educational achievement, more crime and substance abuse.

These are all problems shared by Australian Aboriginal people and Hungarian Roma.

The big difference is in modern day Australia Aboriginal people are generally regarded very much as true Australians.

Aspects of their identity have been adopted into the broader Australian culture.

And even though reporting the story often left me feeling dispirited, at least the Australian government seems determined to try and help.

You do not get that feeling in Hungary. The smothering blanket of communism has been stripped away, exposing ugly fault lines in central and Eastern Europe. Some of the old bigotries - racism, anti-Semitism - have resurfaced.

The Roma in Hungary are not even regarded by many as true Hungarians.

And as we drove away in a cloud of dust from the crumbling Roma village on the outskirts of Odz, it struck me that as Hungary struggles with the impact of economic downturn, the Roma seem to have become a convenient scapegoat.

And even though there are no easy answers to this complex story, precious few in Hungary seem to be looking for them.



European elections
In Hungary, far right party Jobbik won 15% of the vote and three seats at the European elections. A remarkable success, especially in the light of an election campaign that offered little more than aggressive anti-Roma rhetoric and virulent criticism of Hungary's national government.

Hungarian MEP Krisztina MorvaiAt first glance, newly elected Hungarian MEP Krisztina Morvai should be a welcome addition to any parliament. Beautiful, blond and well educated, the press reports that she has achieved an ideal balance between family life (she is the mother of three children) and a career in politics. But the political positions Morvai advocates do not sit well with the image of the perfect female politician. In recent years, the one-time feminist has progressively changed her political vocabulary and views, a process that recently led her to stand for European elections at the head of the list presented by Jobbik, a party whose sole distinguishing trait has been an aggressive campaign targeting Hungary's Roma minority.

On the eve of the elections, party leader Gábor Vona declared, "Hungary belongs to Hungarians," and pledged that "with Jobbik, actions speak louder than words" — and it's the Hungarian Guard, a paramilitary militia with close links to Jobbik that is expected to implement this promised concrete action. To date the guards' main activities appear to be parading in uniforms similar to those worn by Hungarian fascists in the 1940s, and the organizing anti-Roma demonstrations.

Jobbik symbolThe position adopted by Jobbik and the Hungarian Guard is so extreme, it even blames the Roma people for declining living standards in Hungary, which has been severely affected by the economic crisis.

Sociologist Zoltán Pogatsa has described Jobbik's anti-Roma agenda as follows:

 "They tell people: look at how we are suffering in this economic crisis, while they (the Roma) take advantage of welfare payments from the state. There is a better way to spend the money they receive."


Investigators suspect the Hungarian Guard, which has recently been declared an illegal organization, of collusion in some of the numerous murders of Roma people, which have also prompted criticism of the police, who failed to take action to defend the Roma community. Shortly after midnight on February 23, in the Roma village of Tatárszentgyörgy, an unidentified attacker set fire to a house using a petrol bomb. When the residents of the house attempted to leave the burning building, the attacker opened fire, killing a father and his four-year-old son. Since last November, there have been five murders of Romas, and every week brings fresh news of further attacks on Roma villages. The police have acknowledged that the attacks were organized by the Hungarian Guard. However, this is a view not shared by the new Jobbik MEP, Krisztina Morvai, who in the run-up to elections suggested that the deaths in Hungary were the likely result of inter-Roma feuding.

Three independent organizations worked on the report on the Tatárszentgyörgy murders. Initially, the police refused to investigate the killings, arguing that the deaths had resulted from an accident. Furthermore, the report suggests that the police actually impeded the investigation. Senior police officers subsequently admitted that racism in the ranks was an issue in the police force. The Hungarian Chief of Police, József Bencz, even recently acknowledged that the 'professional' style execution of the attack did in fact imply that the the killers may have been soldiers or police officers.

The Roma have never had an easy life in Hungary, where they currently account for 10% of the population. However, according to government forecasts, on the basis of their higher birthrate the community will account for 20% of the population by 2050. The Jobbik party has made extensive use of these figures. and its members openly advocate the forced migration of the Roma population. A significant proportion of Hungarians view the Roma as criminals (it is estimated that up to 50% of inmates in Hungarian prisons have Roma origins). And although more than half of the population acknowledges that Jobbik is a dangerous party, it wants a "a solution" to the Romani issue.

The success of Jobbik has increasingly been viewed as a cause for concern in neighboring Slovakia, which Jobbik's representatives consider to be a historic annex of Hungary which by right should be controlled by Budapest. For Hungarian Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai, the success of extremists in the European elections is a major problem, in particular in his own country. In the aftermath of the major victory scored by the main right-wing opposition party Fidesz in the European vote, Jobbik has renewed its forceful demand for general elections, which should be held by the end of the year.

[top]


Roma People - Gypsies

A woodcut shows Roma (Gypsy) fortune-tellers
Facsimile of a woodcut in the Cosmographic Universelle of Munster - 1552

The Roma People often referred to as Gypsies, are a heterogeneous ethnic group who live primarily in Southern and Eastern Europe, Western Asia, Latin America, the southern part of the United States and the Middle East. They are believed to have originated mostly from the Rajasthan region of India. They began their migration to Europe and North Africa via the Iranian plateau about 1,000 years ago. Traditionally most Roma spoke Romani (Romany), an Indo-Aryan language. Today, however, most Roma speak the dominant language of their region of residence.

Most Roma refer to themselves as Rom. In the Romani language, Rom (man) derives from the Sanskrit dom (man). Alternate spellings of "Rroma" for the people and "Rromanes" for the language, were rejected by the last World Romani Congress, which defined the universal Romani alphabet.

Etymology
The English term Gypsy (or Gipsy), originates from the Greek word 'Aigyptoi' in the erroneous belief that the Roma originated in Egypt, and were exiled as punishment for allegedly harboring the infant Jesus. This ethnonym is not used by the Roma to describe themselves, and is often considered pejorative. However, the use of "gypsy" in English is now so pervasive that many Roma organizations use the word gypsy in their own names.

In North America, the word "Gypsy" is often misunderstood as a reference to lifestyle or fashion, and not to the Roma ethnicity. The Spanish term gitano and the French term gitan may have the same origin.

History of the Roma People
Linguistic and genetic evidence indicates the Roma originated on the Indian Subcontinent. The cause of the Roma diaspora is unknown. One theory suggests the Roma were originally low-caste Hindus recruited into an army of mercenaries, granted warrior caste status, and sent westwards to resist Islamic military expansion. Or perhaps the Muslim conquerors of northern India took the Roma as slaves and brought them home, where they became a distinct community; Mahmud of Ghazni reportedly took 500,000 prisoners during a Turkish/Persian invasion of Sindh and Punjab. Why the Roma did not return to India, choosing instead to travel west into Europe, is an enigma, but may relate to military service under the Muslims.

Contemporary scholars have suggested one of the first written references to the Roma, under the term "Atsingani", (derived from the Greek atsinganoi), dates from the Byzantine era during a time of famine in the 9th century.

In the year 800 A.D., Saint Athanasia gave food to "foreigners called the Atsingani" near Thrace. Later, in 803 A.D., Theophanes the Confessor wrote that Emperor Nikephoros I had the help of the "Atsingani" to put down a riot with their "knowledge of magic"."Atsinganoi" was used to refer to itinerant fortune tellers, ventriloquists and wizards who visited the Emperor Constantine IX in the year 1054. The hagiographical text, The Life of St. George the Anchorite, mentions that the "Atsingani" were called on by Constantine to help rid his forests of the wild animals which were killing off his livestock. They are later described as sorcerers and evildoers and accused of trying to poison the Emperor's favorite hound.

In 1322 a Franciscan monk named Simon Simeonis described people in likeness to the "atsingani" living in Crete and in 1350 Ludolphus of Sudheim mentioned a similar people with a unique language who he called Mandapolos, a word which some theorize was possibly derived from the greek word mantes (meaning prophet or fortune teller).

Around 1360, an independent Romani fiefdom (called the Feudum Acinganorum) was established in Corfu and became "a settled community and an important and established part of the economy."

By the 14th century, the Roma had reached the Balkans; by 1424, Germany; and by the 16th century, Scotland and Sweden. Some Roma migrated from Persia through North Africa, reaching Europe via Spain in the 15th century. The two currents met in France. Roma began immigrating to the United States in colonial times, with small groups in Virginia and French Louisiana.

Larger-scale immigration began in the 1860s, with groups of Romnichal from Britain. The largest number immigrated in the early 1900s, mainly from the Vlax group of Kalderash. Many Roma also settled in Latin America.

Wherever they arrived in Europe, curiosity was soon followed by hostility and xenophobia. Roma were enslaved for five centuries in Romania until abolition in 1864. Elsewhere in Europe, they were subject to expulsion, abduction of their children, and forced labor. During World War II, the Nazis murdered 200,000 to 800,000 Roma in an attempted genocide known as the Porajmos.

Like the Jews, they were sentenced to forced labor and imprisonment in concentration camps. They were often killed on sight, especially by the Einsatzgruppen on the Eastern Front.

In Communist Eastern Europe, Roma experienced assimilation schemes and restrictions of cultural freedom. The Romani language and Roma music were banned from public performance in Bulgaria.

In Czechoslovakia, they were labeled a "socially degraded stratum," and Roma women were sterilized as part of a state policy to reduce their population. This policy was implemented with large financial incentives, threats of denying future social welfare payments, misinformation, and involuntary sterilization (Silverman 1995; Helsinki Watch 1991).

In the early 1990s, Germany deported tens of thousands of illegal immigrants to Eastern Europe. Sixty percent of some 100,000 Romanian nationals deported under a 1992 treaty were Roma.

Popuation
Worldwide, there are an estimated 8 to 10 million Roma, most of whom reside in Europe. Although the largest Roma populations are found in the Balkan peninsula, significant numbers may also be found in the Americas, the former Soviet Union, western and central Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.

Countries where Roma populations do or may possibly exceed half a million are Romania, Egypt, Spain, Bulgaria, the United States, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina. Some other countries with large Roma populations are the countries of the former Yugoslavia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Germany, Greece, Italy, Moldova, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia and Turkey.

The Roma recognize divisions among themselves based in part on territorial, cultural and dialectal differences. Some authorities recognize five main groups:

•  the Kalderash (the most numerous, traditionally smiths, from the Balkans, many of whom migrated to central Europe and North America),

•  the Gitanos (also called Cal?, mostly in the Iberian Peninsula, North Africa, and southern France; associated with entertainment),

•  the Manush (also known as Sinti, mostly in Alsace and other regions of France and Germany; often travelling showmen and circus people), and

•  the Romnichal (Rom'nies) (mainly in Britain and North America).

•  the Erlides (also known as Yerlii) (settled Roma population in South-Eastern Europe and Turkey).


Romani Language
Most Roma speak Romani, an Indo-Aryan language likely derived from Sanskrit. Romani is also related to Pothohari. A 2003 study published in Nature suggests Romani is also related to Sinhalese, presently spoken in Sri Lanka. Today, however, most Roma speak the dominant language of their region of residence. Romani is not currently spoken in India.

Genetics
Genetic data strongly supports linguistic evidence that the Roma originated on the Indian subcontinent. Studies of Bulgarian, Baltic and Vlax Roma genetics suggest that about 50% of observed haplotypes belong to Y-chromosomal haplogroup H. Similar studies of the same population with mitochondrial DNA show 50% belong to female mitochondrial haplogroup M. Both of these are widespread across South Asia.

This genetic evidence indicates that approximately half of the gene pool of these studied Roma is similar to that of the surrounding European populations. Specifically, common Y-chromosome (i.e. male-line) haplogroups are haplogroups H (50%), I (22%) and J2 (14%), and R1b (7%). Common mitochondrial (i.e. female-line) haplogroups are H (35%), M (26%), U3 (10%), X (7%), other (20%). Whereas male haplogroup H and female M are rare in non-Roma European populations, the rest are found throughout Europe. However female haplogroups U2i and U7 are almost absent from female Roma, but are present in South Asia (11%-35% approx).

By contrast, male Sinti Roma in Central Asia have H (20%), J2 (20%) and a high frequency of R2 (50%) which is found frequently in West Bengal and among the Sinhalese of Sri Lanka. The M217 marker, which accounts for about 1.6% of male Roma, is also found in West Bengal (Kivisild (2003) et al). Haplogroup L is found in about 10% of Indian males but is absent from Roma (though Gresham et al. does not seem to test for it), and also from West Bengal and Central Asian Sinti (Kivisild (2003) et al).

However, a search of the Yhrd database shows that some Roma populations in Europe have considerable percentages of male haplogroup R1a1. Yhrd gives few matches with South Asian population, but a large number of matches on haplogroup H with Asian Londoners, a populations that has a large proportion of Bengali and South Indian groups.

All these genetic studies indicate a South-East Indian origin of the male Roma population. Haplogroup R1a1 occurs around 35-45% in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent, but only 10-15% in the southeast. On the other hand, Y-haplogroups H, R2 and J2 increase in frequency towards the southeast. R2 occurs arond 20-40% in West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh (Bamshad et al. 2001, Kivisild et al. 2003, Sengupta et al. 2006, Sahoo et al. 2006). H and J2 occur 20-30% in South and East India.

A study recently published in Nature journal associates the Roma with Sinhala, and must be viewed from this genetic profile of Romas. Sinhalese are mostly descendants of East and South Indian communities.Luba Kalaydjieva's research has shown that the original group appeared in India some 32-40 generations ago and was small, likely under 1,000 people.(Ref: Origins and Divergence of the Roma (Gypsies), David Gresham, Bharti Morar, Peter A. Underhill, et al, Am J Hum (2001); The Eurasian Heartland: A continental perspective on Y-chromosome diversity, Wells et al.)

Roma Society and Culture
The traditional Roma place a high value on the extended family. Virginity is essential in unmarried women. Both men and women often marry young; there has been controversy in several countries over the Roma practice of child marriage. Roma law establishes that the man's family must pay a dowry to the bride's parents.

Roma social behaviour is strictly regulated by purity laws ("marime" or "marhime"), still respected by most Roma and among Sinti groups by the older generations. This regulation affects many aspects of life, and is applied to actions, people and things: parts of the human body are considered impure: the genital organs, because they produce impure emissions, and the lower body.

Fingernails and toenails must be filed with an emery board, as cutting them with a clipper is taboo.

Clothes for the lower body, as well as the clothes of menstruating women are washed separately. Items used for eating are also washed in a different place.

Childbirth is considered impure, and must occur outside the dwelling place. The mother is considered impure for forty days.

Death is considered impure, and affects the whole family of the dead, who remain impure for a period of time.

Many of these practices are also present in some Hindu cultures such as those of Bengal and the Balinese.

There are very similar practices found in Judaism. However, in contrast to the Hindu practice of cremating the dead, Roma dead must be buried. It is possible that this tradition was adapted from Abrahamic religions after the Roma left the Indian subcontinent.

Religion
Roma have usually adopted the dominant religion of the host country while often preserving aspects of their particular belief systems and indigenous religion and worship. Most Eastern European Roma are Catholic, Orthodox Christian or Muslim. Those in Western Europe and the United States are mostly Catholic or Protestant. Most Roma in Latin America are Orthodox. In Turkey, Egypt, and the southern Balkans, the Roma are split into Christian and Muslim populations.

Roma religion has a highly developed sense of morality, taboos, and the supernatural, though it is often denigrated by organized religions. It has been suggested that while still in India the Roma people belonged to the Hindu religion, this theory being supported by the Romani word for "cross", trushul, which is the word which describes Shiva's trident (Trishula).

Since World War II, a growing number of Roma have embraced Evangelical movements. Over the past half-century, Roma have became ministers and created their own churches and missionary organizations for the first time.

In some countries, the majority of Roma now belong to the Roma churches. This unexpected change has greatly contributed to a better image of Roma in society. The work they perform is seen as more legitimate, and they have begun to obtain legal permits for commercial activities.

Evangelical Roma churches exist today in every country where Roma are settled. The movement is particularly strong in France and Spain; there are more than one thousand Roma churches (known as "Filadelfia") in Spain, with almost one hundred in Madrid alone. In Germany, the most numerous group is that of Polish Roma, having their main church in Mannheim. Other important and numerous Romani assemblies exist in Los Angeles, Houston, Buenos Aires and Mexico. Some groups in Romania and Chile have joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

In the Balkans, the Roma of Macedonia, Kosovo (Southern province of Serbia) and Albania have been particularly active in Islamic mystical brotherhoods (Sufism). Muslim Roma immigrants to Western Europe and America have brought these traditions with them.

See also:
Roma children exploited in Glasgow ring
Hard times for Roma

Readers please email comments to: editorial AT martinfrost.ws including full name

Note: martinfrost.ws contains copyrighted material, the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available to our readers under the provisions of "fair use" in an effort to advance a better understanding of political, economic and social issues. The material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving it for research and educational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material for purposes other than "fair use" you must request permission from the copyright owner.
Return to home page
top