Approach someone in the street in a town or village in central or eastern Europe and ask them “Where do the Roma live?” In most cases, according to the experience of Larry Olomoofe, a human rights trainer at the European Roma Rights Centre, they’ll point you in the direction of a specific area. Even ignoring the fact that this area is liable to be one without electricity, running water or sewage, it is anecdotal evidence of segregation along ethnic lines.
There are estimated to be between 12m and 15m Roma in Europe. They are mainly concentrated in central and eastern Europe but are present in every single country and, as recent events in Italy have amply demonstrated, the crisis of discrimination also extends beyond that region. Whether they’re called Roma, Sinti, simply Gypsies or any of a multitude of other preferred names, these descendants of migrants from the Indian subcontinent tend to be the most unpopular ethnic group in any given country. After 1,000 years in Europe, Roma’s failure to integrate is mysterious.
Living apart from society and staying on the move are supposed to be the “cultural norms” of Roma, and they have always fostered mistrust from sedentary communities. That has in turn caused Roma to further commit to isolation and their own cultural practices. It’s a classic vicious circle. Today, though, a large proportion of Roma are sedentary, and many of those who do move around only do so because they are constantly evicted from wherever they stop. It is generally poverty that keeps Roma living on the fringes of society in shanty towns, and any preference for that life is generally a reaction to a lack of other options. The events in Italy – anti-Roma violence, ethnic registration and calls for deportations – are the exception in Europe, but severe institutional barriers that keep Roma in poverty are extremely common.