Roma Civil Rights movement


Thomas Acton

Migration and the Roma

Migration can be defined as a one-off movement of human residence from one place to another. Whether it is a pro-active movement in search of resources, trade, new land, labour, or a reactive flight from poverty, persecution or military threat, it disrupts existing traditional structures of civil and political rights and forces a reconsideration, a re-negotiation from first principles, of human status in any area. In this respect, it differs from nomadism, which is a way of life of people who do not live continually in the same place in search of economic opportunities that are geographically limited or temporary, on a seasonal or cyclical basis. Both nomadism and migration are essentially economic phenomena, but they have distinct consequences.

Historically, the cultural impact of the three main forms of nomadism, hunter-gatherer, pastoral and commercial, has been rather different in each case. In particular, pastoral nomads had skills that could be turned to military use and they often built substantial states or confederations, in feudal and early modern eras.1 By contrast, commercial nomads supplied urban-quality goods and services to the countryside or exploited specialised economic niches in the urban environment. They travelled in small, vulnerable groups and could only exist in the feudal and early modern eras if they had strong, committed and armed protectors, patrons or a symbiotic relationship with another, more powerful nomadic group (such as the Bedu and Nawar or Halebi).2

Traditionally, post-feudal European historiography in general and Romani Studies (or Gypsy-lorism) in particular, have confused all of these concepts. Their historical explanations for these phenomena were modelled on the ascendant biological and physical sciences of the era and tended to see both migration and nomadism as racially conditioned cultural choices.3 Gypsy-lorists also projected more modern concepts backwards onto feudal societies, including the relative freedom from private physical coercion that the capitalist state affords, not only to its own citizens but also to some foreigners.4

This confusion shaped European scholars’ theorisation of Romani history from the seventeenth century onwards. Awareness of the western European genocides of Roma in the sixteenth century faded. Later, under the notions surrounding vagrancy prevalent during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and under the scientific racist paradigm ushered in by Grellmann (1783)5, nomadism was seen as a cultural or ‘racial’ characteristic that was sufficient to explain why Roma had ‘wandered’ from the ‘East’ (the Orient). The hegemony of Orientalist6 ideology allowed this racial characterisation to be projected onto the largely sedentary Roma communities of the Ottoman Empire in south-eastern Europe.7 When Roma historians eventually emerged, who questioned this ‘primitive nomadic wandering’ thesis, arguing that the migration from Indian lands, that linguistic and historical evidence suggested8, is likely the result of military actions by the Muslim, Ghaznavid Empire (997 CE to 1040 CE), they were accused of being fantasists, seeking to glorify their heritage through an invented military past.9

We can, however, be reasonably confident that the migration of the ancestors of the Roma from what is now modern India and Pakistan, that took place around or after 1000 CE, was military in character because all migrations in that Eurasian feudal era had to be military in character.

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It simply was not possible for groups of people to establish residence in a place far from their birthplace, unless they took with them substantial groups of people with weapons who were organised and competent in using them. The early Crusades to the Holy Land, for example, were rarely peaceable groups on pilgrimage. Crusades were justified, usually by the incumbent Pope, on the grounds that Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land were allegedly no longer permitted by the Muslim conquerors of Judea and Palestine, or later that the Crusader states were under assault from the ‘Saracens’ (Saldjuk Turks) and Fatimid Caliphs.10

These Muslim and Christian armies were able to establish empires and states, because – as early medieval armies were “. . . as populous as all but major cities, self-contained societies on the move”.11 These forces possessed auxiliaries and traders with the skills to facilitate the establishment of rapid, defended settlements, produce and repair weaponry, erect and dismantle camps, manage equine units, herd cattle, goats, sheep, camels and horses, make and repair clothes and uniforms, brew and bake. Although commercial nomadism cannot be seen as the cause of migration, commercial nomads possessed skills; as blacksmiths and metal-workers, carpet-traders and textile suppliers, horse traders, grooms and animal doctors, ambulatory musicians and entertainers, dancers, cobblers, tailors, weavers and felt-makers, comb-makers and wood-workers, that were either essential or convenient to medieval armies and not necessarily part of the skills of the active fighting units. And all of them, soldiers and traders alike, needed their families to cook, wash, heal, forage, carry and make them comfortable.

If, then, a military contingent of Hindustani character was involved in the military struggles between different Muslim and Christian states prior to the Ottoman conquests of Anatolia and Rumelia, it is likely that members of the diverse commercial-nomadic castes that we can still find among the Banjara/Ghor and others in the Indian sub-continent, were part of that army and retained these auxiliary and trading skills, even after the military contingent ceased to have any operational autonomy. They might have retained early Ottoman technological superiority over European competitors in such things as the working of gun-metal. This might explain why, even though only a minority of Roma were commercial nomads, Romani people dominated this economic niche in many regions, after the beginnings of nation-state capitalism brought about the demonization of ‘vagrants’ and such states enacted genocidal laws against ‘Egyptians’ across western Europe.

The skills and life-cultures of nomadic groups may be preserved and continue to be used, even after the immediate economic triggers have disappeared. For example, if we look at the nomadism prevalent among the rich and powerful in modern capitalist societies, we can see some examples of families, such as the Murdoch media sub-caste, or the Trump property sub-caste, where residential nomadism remains a harsh but valued economic necessity for the kin-group members, to retain control of their economic empires. For the royal family of the United Kingdom, however, the medieval imperative to ‘progress’ around their kingdom in order to maintain control and extract surplus from their leading landowners and nobles, is a thing of the distant past. Nonetheless, nomadism remains a cultural value, evidenced in the regular circuit of the British royal House of Windsor to their various castles, palaces and mansions and is perhaps even more extensive now than among their feudal ancestors. Similarly, a minority of Roma today, like the Trumps and Murdochs still pursue temporary economic opportunities, while for some others their nomadic culture is, like that of the Queen of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, a cultural residue.

Thus, we can see how a particular medieval migration from India and the complex role played by those of commercial-nomadic occupation or heritage, could have stood at the very root of the development of an ethnic identity amongst those who consolidated the Romani language, in the eleventh century CE; unlike most modern European ethnic identities the Romani one was not linked to a particular territory.12 As the Ottomans consolidated power after 1453 CE, the military capacity of Romani speakers became, to a large extent, irrelevant (though not in Ottoman armies, where they remained part of the mehter or military band), as the economically viable Romani sub-castes found other protectors, established trades and guilds, or became employed by the state within the Ottoman Empire.13 Others, in the Christian principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia and on monastic properties throughout the Serbian lands, were reduced to slavery. While slavery was a status with rights within the Muslim core of the Ottoman Empire (including owning and operating businesses, eventual manumission and adoption), it was not based upon ethnicity, unlike in vassal Christian states where Roma chattel slavery existed without any status or rights. It is from these war-torn fringes that we find relics of militarily organised Roma seeking to migrate to western Europe at the end of the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries CE, as they sought to escape enslavement by Christian princes, who increasingly enserfed the peasantry. They presented themselves, or were perceived in some cases, as refugees from ‘Saracen’ conquest, and their leaders sought alliance with local feudal rulers, asking their help in supressing mutiny by their followers.14 In other cases, migrating Roma (most often described as ‘Gypsies’ in the sources) were treated with great suspicion, as spies, deserters and undesirable vagabonds.15 Western observers have commented on the sharp social divide within these groups (a great contrast to descriptions from the seventeenth century onwards). Despite occasional friction, this migration strategy was relatively successful during the last, turbulent century of medieval Christendom.

It failed disastrously, however, as the rise of the nation-state, agricultural capitalism and the bourgeoisie as a political force, revolutionised the social order in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Europe. Xenophobia became the social glue that held the competing kingdoms together internally; all ethnic minorities in Europe; Roma, Jews, Arabs (Moors) and Africans, suffered persecution, frequently legitimised by religious difference. The established Roma leaders in western Europe were either killed or fled back to the Ottoman Empire, leaving their followers to try to survive genocidal measures. In the Ottoman Empire and the Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the recognition by the state, of Roma as organised, taxable communities survived; elsewhere communities were largely atomised, enslaved or exterminated.16 Although non-conformist minorities sought to defend the original values of Christianity, institutional Christianity, controlled by the states, became the prime legitimator of religious persecution, war and national aggression.

Migration within the Europe of nation-states, from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, was limited to religious refugees such as the Huguenots and some political exiles. European economic migration went overseas, to Asia, Africa, the Americas and finally Australasia, initially taking the form of trading exploration and later followed first by religious refugee colonialists and then by military imperialism. These seventeenth and eighteenth-century European migrations to the Americas and later Australia included Roma, who sometimes formed the earliest Roma communities in those continents. Despite their small numbers, this Roma migration is of great historical interest. It is, however, not until the nineteenth century, that mass migration again became a major factor in shaping or changing the economy and identity of Roma communities.

The technological development at the root of economic change, which revolutionised not only the situation of the Roma but of the whole world, was the invention of the steam engine in the eighteenth century. First, it provided power for the factories, urbanising Europe and giving rise to a continuous process of migration from the countryside to the cities, that has not ceased for the past 250 years. The fact that steam-powered ships could bring cheap American agricultural products to Europe accelerated this process and both undermined the rural, commercial nomadism that sustained west European Romani communities and, arguably, fatally undermined the slave and servitude-based economy of Romania17, as it did that of the southern United States18 and Caribbean.

These economic changes led to massive westward migration, from eastern to western Europe and from western Europe to the Americas and other European colonial territories. Although only the English, Spanish, Portuguese, German, French, Italian and Dutch communities set up colonial states, dozens of other European nationalities were able to establish communities in the United States, which benefited from their racialised ‘white’ status, compared to Native Americans and imported slave or indentured labour from Africa and Asia. As in Europe, Jewish and Roma communities were uneasy, ambiguously rationalised exceptions to the binary, i.e. black or white, racist distinctions of the imperialist era. These distinctions remained conceptually unchallenged until Richard Henry Pratt coined the term ‘racism’ in 1902.19

In Europe, the overlay of sixteenth-century settlement patterns, by nineteenth-century migrations, produced the ‘mosaic’20 of differing Roma communities in Europe. While these communities are aware of one another and interested in their commonalities, they do not necessarily feel any solidarity, except as a dim reflection of prevailing European, racial nationalism. This situation has, however, produced an awareness among Roma that their history must be something more than gadjé (non-Roma) supposed it to be. This mosaic is reproduced in the Americas, as Roma of all communities sought a new life there. There was huge, British Romanichal emigration to North America between 1870 and 1914, a movement whose beginnings Silvanus Lovell observed as early as 1880.21 Yet they numbered fewer than the Vlach Roma and significant Manouche, Kalé (Calo), Khorakhane (Xoraxane) and other communities that established22 themselves in the region.

World War One (1914–18), put an end to this half-century of easy migration; at the same time, however, the disruptions of war led to some specific cross-border movements. The Russian Revolution (October 1917) led to the flight of some Roma capitalists to China, Sweden, France and the Americas. During World War Two (1939–1945), some English Romani migrated to Ireland and a second wave of Roma emigrated to Australasia.23 Service in the US armed forces reacquainted some American Roma with their European relatives and, like Roma serving in some European armies, these soldiers were among the troops who liberated the concentration camps, in Nazi-occupied territories.

In the post-1945 period, alongside the growing general rejection of the racism that had been conventional wisdom before the 1930s, a small number of internationally-oriented Roma became aware both of the world-wide distribution of Roma and of the catastrophic failure of pre-war Roma survival strategies. It is no accident that alongside the home-grown activism born of Holocaust survival and the post-war state repression of nomadism, migrants such as Irish Travellers in England, Romanian Roma in Paris and Polish Lovari in Germany were prominent among the early Roma civil rights activists. The activity of the Comité International Tzigane, up until the First World Romani Congress in 1971, marked the first time in 400 years that Roma had travelled across state borders for political purposes of their own. Although the COMECON countries, apart from China, actively repressed emigration, there was a steady flow of Roma westwards; they benefited at that time, from the status of being ‘refugees from communism’, nonetheless keeping in contact with Roma back home. Meanwhile, within the Soviet bloc, members of the Romani nomenklatura, who often travelled to Moscow for education and training, were able to present their contacts with western European Romani movements, as a possible alliance with helpful progressive forces.24

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This early welcome for east European Roma not only evaporated after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but even the memory of it was written out of the European collective historical narrative.25 Hundreds of thousands of Roma took advantage of existing European and American asylum provisions, to escape the recrudescence of racism and the very real repression of Roma in post-communist societies. Measures to stop them and a strategy to avoid mass migration, following the enlargement of the European Union (2004-2007) failed dismally, based as they were on fantastic misconceptions about Roma migration being a kind of conspiracy organised by people-traffickers and major criminals.26 The United Nations agency responsible, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), in 2003 summed up its perceptions of this state of affairs:

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On 1st January 2002, Romania became associated with the Schengen area, prompting the migration of numerous people to the EU, many of them ethnic Roma. These migrants are often exploited by criminal networks involved in organized begging. The handicapped are frequently the main actors and victims in this human traffic. Freedom of movement in the Schengen area makes it impossible to estimate the number of people involved with any accuracy . . .27

International Organisation for Migration (IOM)

The belief that Roma ethnic demography is peculiarly unreliable, is a consequence of the belief that normally statements of the numbers of ethnic groups should be precise. This belief28 is a hangover from the habits of scientific racism, which generally vitiate ethnic demography and wreak havoc on Roma demography in particular. This analysis of the literature suggests that for the UK, at least, it is possible to produce meaningful contextualised estimates of numbers of Roma migrants, treating ethnicity as a non-parametric variable (like voting intentions). Depending on the context in which respondents are asked to identify themselves or others as Roma, we can specify the circumstances under which between 110,000 and 500,000 individuals would identify or be identified, as Roma migrants. This is not imprecise! The 500,000 individuals all exist and if ethics permitted, they could be identified (as indeed they were under a totalitarian racist regime). What varies is the identity question and the circumstances under which it is asked, and we can quantify these circumstances. Such a contextualised analysis has not been carried out at an international level and therefore we can only speculate that different methods would estimate the post–1989 Roma exodus from eastern Europe, at between one and three million.

The 2018 IOM World Migration Report barely mentions Roma and still makes no attempt to disaggregate them. Nonetheless, a 2018 overview for Europe and Central Asia suggests:

In the sphere of social inclusion and integration, specific reference should be made to the mobility of minorities. The need to ensure the protection of Roma victims of human trafficking has also been increasingly recognized. IOM’s migration initiatives in Europe will work towards the promotion of adequate and targeted EU resources to support the inclusion and integration of Roma in Member States and candidate countries in line with the agreed priority areas of the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005–2015 in terms of health, housing, employment and education.29

International Organisation for Migration (IOM)

There is a curious disparity between the IOM’s philanthropic projects for most migrant groups and those for Roma. Generally, the IOM helps groups who are ‘migrant’ in the sense that they have migrated from one country to another. The minimal largesse offered to Roma by the IOM (for example, 120 emergency hygiene kits for Roma flooded out of homes in Bosnia30, twelve apartments in India and a few €1,500 start-up grants for businesses in Niš, Serbia31), however, is directed entirely at Roma who have stayed in their own countries, who somehow count as migrants by being classed as ‘internally displaced persons’. It is as though the IOM has bought into the racist stereotype that Roma are inherently migratory but can easily be bribed to stay put.

Fortunately, the stereotyped illusions of the IOM and the European security establishments have meant that their efforts to limit Roma migration flows have been largely self-sabotaging. While a few hundred ‘traffickers’ have been arrested, hundreds of thousands of Roma families have successfully re-settled, keeping their heads down, often disguising their ethnic identity, working many hours to secure accommodation, sending their children to school and making a better life for themselves. A sample survey of immigrant Slovak and Roma children in the UK32 showed that while 81% of them had been placed in special schools in the Czech and Slovak Republics, in mainstream schools in the UK, they were generally successful, with their overall attainment levels only a little below the averages for all children. There can be few more stunning illustrations of the continuing insidious racism in these countries of emigration and the reasons why courage and the determination of the migrants, have defeated anti-migrant polices.

Nonetheless, the strategies of the European Union and the IOM, though unsuccessful, have not been entirely harmless. The crimes of ‘pimping’ and enforced labour have been cunningly rebranded as a sort of immigration offence called ‘trafficking’, so that while the perpetrators (redefined to include almost anyone involved in unlicensed migration) can be given well-publicised exemplary sentences, the victims can be dealt with by being shuffled back to their countries of origin, out of sight and out of mind. Dozens of children have been abducted from Roma families by police and immigration officers, before being shamefacedly restored to their parents and carers, when professional social workers were brought in33 to properly assess the cases, leading to a situation where Roma, Gypsies and Travellers are fearful of admitting their ethnicity.34

Nonetheless, the energy of these Roma migrants and the struggle for the human rights of migrants, have been key contributors to the emergence both of local Roma struggles for civil rights and the creation, by Roma intellectuals, of a pan-Romani consciousness. This has evolved since the 1960s and has slowly internationalised the struggle for Roma civil rights, despite international organisations, such as the IOM framing Roma migration as a problem, and superficial European politicians, such as Tony Blair and François Hollande, demonising Roma migrants outright. Migration is, in itself, an actualisation of the human right to the pursuit of liberty and happiness, an outcome of the creative force of human desire and a confrontation of the dilemmas of colonialism and post-colonialism. Migrants’ remittances sent home to Roma families, have probably been more useful than EU grants given to possibly corrupt local government office-holders. It is not the ineffectual writings of pro-Roma, gadjé intellectuals and well-meaning bureaucrats, but the struggle of Roma migrants to claim for themselves the fundamental European Union ideal of the free movement of labour, that has cracked the age-hardened structures of Roma subordination, inherited from four centuries of earlier settlements.

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