Roma (Gypsies) originated in the Punjab region of northern India as a nomadic people and entered Europe between the eighth and tenth centuries C.E. They were called "Gypsies" because Europeans mistakenly believed they came from Egypt. This minority is made up of distinct groups called "tribes" or "nations."

Most of the Roma View This Term in the Glossary in Germany and the countries occupied by Germany during World War II belonged to the Sinti and Roma family groupings. Both groups spoke dialects of a common language called Romani, based on Sanskrit (the classical language of India). The term "Roma" has come to include both the Sinti and Roma groupings, though some Roma prefer being known as "Gypsies." Some Roma are Christian and some are Muslim, having converted during the course of their migrations through Persia, Asia Minor, and the Balkans.

Poverty pathologized

Across the world, many Roma families have little or no access to social support. Preventative measures are scarce or non-existent. According to a 2011 report by the European Roma Rights Centre, poverty is often cited as the reason for Gypsy children being removed from their parents. And removal is often the first, rather than the last recourse.

The report cites the harrowing case of one Hungarian Romani family. When their home was damaged in a storm, instead of receiving financial help to make the necessary repairs, the family’s newborn baby was placed in foster care.

In India, these communities are frequently portrayed as uneducated, culturally backward and lazy, predisposed to criminality and to exploiting benefits. In Poland, headlines talk of Gypsies attacking people, of Roma being not poor but liars and thieves.

I have found that, despite not knowing very much about Roma culture, public authorities treat the coping strategies of the most at-risk families as problematic and abnormal, under assumptions that equate Roma culture and poverty with harmful behavior. In Slovakia, charity workers say that the authorities view marginalized Roma communities as a threat to mainstream society.


Damaging stereotypes

The British historian, Becky Taylor, underlines that this oppression has a long history. From their arrival in Britain in the 16th century, Gypsies were actively prosecuted for their costumes and nomadic way of life, which was deemed a threat to British society. The 1530 Egyptian Act aimed to end the “naughty, idle and ungodly life and company” of Gypsies by either forcing them to assimilate or face exile and death. The 1824 Vagrancy Act further criminalized the nomadic Gypsy lifestyle, equating it with harmful behavior and risk.

Stereotypical views held by care professionals still lead to discrimination. Of the 137 child-protection professionals surveyed in a 2018 study in England, half believed that Gypsy, Roma and Traveler children were more at risk of significant harm than any other child. They cite parental neglect rather than poverty as reasons for the commencement of child proceedings.

Recent Roma arrivals to the UK have similarly suffered from being labelled as hard to reach, hard to engage, or uncooperative by social services. Dada Felja, from the Law for Life charity, which supports Roma parents, says that this mistrust stems from the discrimination and racism they have long experienced at the hands of public officials.

Within the assessment and referral process, language barriers, cultural differences in family structure and child-rearing practices, acculturative stress (the stressors associated with being an immigrant or ethnic minority and adapting to the local culture) and isolation are rarely considered.

Research has shown that social workers often do not properly assess Roma children and their families, because they feel ill-equipped or unable to do so. Assessments are crucial to understanding the child’s experience and what support the family might need. They also help to ascertain whether alternative carers could be found within the extended family. Failing to undertake such assessments is a clear indicator of discrimination and structural inequality.

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