Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving

Book Reflections – Roma and Gypsy-Travellers in Europe by Angus Bancroft

You may be wondering why an Australian is interested in Roma people. Like many others I look with confusion at the Romani beggars in Trondheim who sit outside begging in an inhospitable climate and sleep in a campervan in Svartlamon. Where do they live for the rest of the year? Why do they come to Trondheim? Should I give money to beggars? I don’t have answers but I’m challenging prejudices with my reading. 

Like many people I love Gypsy music but it’s quotes like this from the Financial Times in 2015 that pull at my heart strings

So many people have left (the Romanian village Zece Prajini) here to look for work in the west. Many now work as cheap labour on farms or in factories because there are no jobs in Romania. We know we are not welcome. It is like the Mexicans in the US: we do the dirty work that no one else wants to do and still you hate us… Being a Gypsy is hundreds of years old stigma. We become the target for all that is wrong with this world. Many of our people are very good people. Of course, like anyone, we have bad people too. But for some reason only the bad examples are talked about.

So, I’m on a reading journey to learn about Roma people. I started with Roma Café by István Pogány. Next I read an accessible journal paper by Yaron Matras about Romani language. Here I’d like to reflect on the interesting book Roma and Gypsy-Travellers in Europe: Modernity, Race, Space and Exclusion by Angus Bancroft.

Despite the contribution Roma and Gypsy-Travellers have made to European life, across the continent they are reviled as scroungers and parasites, as incorrigibles and, in the words of former Slovakian Premier Vladimir Meciar, ‘social unadaptables’

Bancroft presents cases from the UK and Czech Republic. I leant many things from his balanced writing style. Apparently it’s unknown whether the Gypsy-Travellers of the UK are ethnically linked to the Romani of Central and Eatern Europe. In Britain in 1505 state authorities referred for the first time to a category of people as ‘Egyptians’ and later called Gypsies and Tinkers.

The Gypsy-Travellers of the UK are increasingly restricted in terms of open spaces because of the strong controls on public and private space in Britain. In Central and Eastern Europe, Roma are excluded from society, the workforce and subject to populist violence supported by police indifference.

Apparently citizenship is a modern concept that started after the French Revolution and was based on place of birth. But in 1981 Britain introduced the right of blood basis for citizenship instead of place of birth. In 1993 the Czech Republic established citizenship law that excluded many Czech Roma. Considering that Pogány said that >90% of Czech Roma have been settled for several generations that is cruel.

Racism (towards Roma) in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe is understood in Western Europe as an example of the backwardness of those states, whereas it is in fact intimately associated with their modernization.

I was reassured by István Pogány in Roma Café when he said that he would avoid using jargon and instead use more accessible language (which he did and it worked well). Bancroft did not and it meant that some sections of statements like this went over my head:

The problems European modernity creates for Roma and Travellers demands the remaking of a self-critical, open and reflexive modernity which will avoid both the ethnic fundamentalism and cultural essentialism of post-modern neo-tribalism, as well as the bureaucratic and universalist exclusions of classical modernity.

Bancroft introduced me to many concepts from sociology that I haven’t previously come across. One of these that I’d like to reflect on is the term hyperghetto. Apparently ghettos in the original European sense (not during the Holocaust or pogroms) contained vertical layers of a society, as in a middle class, and a microcosm with many of the institutions which parallel the rest of society. Modern hyperghettos by contrast are emptied of many of the institutions and quasi-social structures that we take for granted, e.g. banks.

The hyperghettos are separated from the rest of society and contained by interdictory spaces and buildings designed to filter people.

The nation-state of the past filled its cities with monumental spaces; libraries, council chambers, concert halls etc. designed to impress the individual with the power and wealth of the city and the nation. In contrast, the globalised city is a community to be sold, rather than admired. Hence spaces are built to withstand certain types of individual… types of interdictory space… include slippery space, which is designed to be unreachable from certain approaches; prickly space, space that cannot be occupied for any length of time due to features like sprinkler devices installed to soak loiterers; and jittery space, which is continually monitored and observed by surveillance technology.

With the collapse of totalitarianism in Eastern Europe, the media in Western Europe frightened their people with stories of huddled masses flooding in. In 1991 when Romanian police watched a mob destroy the homes of Romani people, some fled to Germany. Some Romani asylum seekers were housed in a village where Neo-Nazis violently protested with the support of the local Germans until the government relocated the asylum seekers. Late in 1992 the German government paid the Romanian government  £30 million to take the asylum seekers back and rebuild homes for them. There is a lot of evidence that the money wasn’t used for that. Not all of the unsuccessful asylum seekers had been thoroughly processed by the German government.

It was interesting to read about British, German, and Canadian responses to applications for asylum from Central and Eastern European Romani fleeing racist attacks and severe marginalization in the early 1990s and the role of the media. This is especially pertinent now that more asylum seekers than ever have entered Europe in the past 3 years and the harsh approach taken by Australia to processing asylum seekers claims.

Because I live in Norway, I looked for references to Scandinavia and read that

  • Sweden forced sterilization on Roma from the 1930s until 1970s
  • Because being Romani was seen as possessing a social disease to be cured for the patient’s own good, state sanctioned kidnap of Romani children occurred in Scandinavia.
  • The Norwegian state had a policy of forced separation of Gypsy-Traveller children from parents wherever possible. It was also suggested by one researcher that lobotomies were performed, in mental hospitals in Norway, on them in the 1920s and 30s.
  • Norwegian Roma are reluctant to take on a label of an ethnic group because it will probably lead to increased visibility and may invite further persecution
  • I later read in a journal article called Stories of Pride and Survival: From the Romany People in the International Journal of Narrative Therapy & Community Work, Volume 2007 Issue 2 (2007) by Daabous, Sissel Wilmena that Romani travellers have lived in Norway for 500 years. She is a social worker and said that many children were taken from their Romani mothers. She also said that there are a lot of social problems among the Romani in Norway including drinking, drugs, violence and broken homes.

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