Civilno Hakajengo Miškipe


Vidar Fagerheim Kalsås

Norway – narrating essay


The political mobilization and actions of the Roma and Romani-Tatere communities in Norway after the Second World War, has developed within a changing economic, social and political landscape in Norway. The country moved from building a broad welfare state, based on ideas about economic equality in the first decades after the war, towards increased market liberalisation and stronger ties to the EU towards the end of the century. Part of Norway’s connection to the European community entailed commitment to international conventions on human and minority rights. Amongst those were the Council of Europe’s Framwork Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. During the implementation of the convention in 1999, the Norwegian government recognized five national minorities: Kvens/Norwegian Finns, Jews, Metsäsuomalaiset/Forest Finns, Roma and Romani-Tatere.1 It should be noted that there existed an ambivalence among the Romani-Tatere organisations to the status as a national minority, where some opposed the status while others accepted it.2

This distinction between Romani-Tatere and Roma was based on historical and linguistic differences, and differences in community organisation and interaction.3 The Romani-Tatere are considered to be descendants from migration of Romani to Scandinavia in the 16th century, while the Roma immigrated to Norway during the 1880s. The Norwegian Government`s policies towards these minorities has also differed substantially. While the policy towards the Romani-Tatere was dominated by ideas of assimilation from the second half of the 19th century until the later part of the 20th century4, the policy towards the Roma in the first part of the 20th century can be described as exclusionary, based on the notion that the Roma did not belong within the Norwegian nation-state.5 The differences in communal organization within the minorities and the differences in the state`s policies, has also led to significant differences in expressions of resistance and in political mobilization.

The aim of this essay is to give an account of some of the forms of political action that targeted state policies or societal discrimination, directed from individuals or collectives that has identified as Romani-Tatere or Roma. The account is neither exhaustive nor the only possible way of narrating these events. It is one historical (and one historian’s perspective) account of Romani-Tatere and Roma as political actors in the context of Norwegian minority policy after the Second World War. In order to create such an account, some form of group definition is necessary.6 The distinction between Romani-Tatere and Roma that is expressed above, will therefore also be applied in this essay, with the limitations and simplifications that such definitions entails.

Norwegian minority policy from 1945

The end of German occupation in May 1945 represents both continuity and change, in terms of the Norwegian Government’s policy towards ethnic minorities. The fall of Nazi Germany was also a blow against the dominant scientific theory of racial biology, which had influenced Norwegian policies in the interwar period.7 However, the fall of the National Socialist regime in Germany, did not lead to an immediate change in the overall approach in Norway’s minority policies. These policies have been described as “Norwegianisation”, and in practice continued long after the war. For the Norwegian Romani-Tatere communities, this meant a continuity of the work of the private foundation, the Norwegian Mission for the Homeless (Norsk Misjon blant Hjemløse or NMH), as the state’s primary instrument in assimilating the Romani-Tatere. The foundation’s main tools were Svanviken labour colony, which aimed at enforcing sedentarism, and its orphanages, where children from the Romani-Tatere families were removed from their parents and communities and placed in these institutions, in order to grow-up beyond the influence from Romani-Tatere culture.

The small Norwegian Roma minority had suffered greatly during the Second World War. After being denied entry to Norway in 1934, Norwegian Roma families lived in Belgium and France, under strict state surveillance. With the German occupation of these countries in 1940, the majority of this community eventually ended up in concentration camps in France, and were later sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Only four of the 66 Norwegian Roma sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, survived.8

The Norwegian “Gypsy Paragraph”, a statute denying Roma entry to Norway, remained in place until 1956. The gradual return of Norwegian Roma from Europe, during the 1950’s attracted a growing public discourse around the group, defining them as a ‘social problem’. This led to public expectation that the Norwegian government would address this issue. In the early 1970’s, the Norwegian government formulated a policy document that addressed the ʻsocial problemʼ of the Roma.9 The policy was formulated with a sense of urgency, in which a lack of action could lead to increased crime among the group. But the policy document did also contain some new perspectives, pointing at the need to respect and recognise the unique culture of the Roma.10 The Norwegian Ministry of Social Affairs and the Oslo municipality established the Gypsy-office (Sigøynerkontoret) to coordinate measures towards the group. The Roma’s living conditions were portrayed as critical and the issue of housing was prioritized; the majority were, at the time living in caravans in Oslo. The policy also entailed an educational program and measures for employment.11 The policy was discontinued in 1990–1991, after media coverage that focused on the cost of the measures and the lack of results.

The Norwegian government’s policies towards Roma and the longer-standing communities of Romani-Tatere, following the Second World War, were dissimilar in its articulation and practices. Political actions and mobilisation against these policies from actors within these minority groups did therefore also take on different forms and expressions.

The Romani-Tatere communities – fighting assimilation and claiming recognition

Resisting “Norwegianisation”

An emerging mobilisation amongst the Romani-Tatere can be observed in the interwar period in Norway. Godin Hagvald Nikolaysen, who had experienced Norwegian Mission for the Homeless practices, managed to organise some Romani-Tatere within the organisation the Mission for the Neglected (De forsømtes misjon) and challenged the policies of the NMH. Nikolaysen was particularly concerned about the policy of taking children away from their families and attempted to convince the general secretary of NMH, Ingvald B. Carlsen to change this practice. The NMH suppressed this opposition and did not listen to Nikolaysen’s concerns.12 The experience of being silenced, in combination with the harsh policies of “Norwegianisation”, may explain why there were no organised movement for Romani-Tatere rights in the post-war years. However, actions by individual Romani-Tatere were important in the process that led to the eventual end of the assimilation policies.

In 1973, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK), televised the documentary Tatere, made by the filmmaker Vibeke Løkkeberg.13 She had been contacted by the Romani-Tatere activist, Johan Lauritzen, who informed her about the destructive practices of the Norwegian Mission for the Homeless.14 In the documentary, the testimony of Lauritzen and several anonymous Romani-Tatere people, is contrasted with the responses from representatives of the management of the Norwegian Mission for the Homeless. In this way, the documentary manages to unravel the rhetoric of the NMH, and show how their policies had destructive and stigmatising effects upon the Romani-Tatere population.

The documentary led to media attention about the Svanviken labour colony, and this proved the impetus for questions in the Norwegian parliament, the Stortinget. Criticism regarding the government’s policies was led by Torild Skard MP.15 The tabled questions and the following parliamentary debate, led the government to appoint a committee charged with evaluating these policies, and the practices of the Norwegian Mission for the Homeless. The committee delivered its report to parliament in 198016, recommending that the policies be dismantled, and that the relationship with Norwegian Mission for the Homeless should be ended.17 The Norwegian government gradually reduced the financing for the NMH during the 1980’s, thereby ending almost 100 years of assimilation policy, conducted through a private Christian organisation.

Recognition and Reconciliation

During the early 1990’s, the “Norwegianisation” policies attracted a new round of media attention. This time, the media framed the policies towards the Romani-Tatere communities during the 20th century as oppressive and abusive.18 Several Romani-Tatere people stepped forward to give individual testimonies about these former policies and their consequences. Their testimonies highlighted their feelings of injustice for the treatment they had suffered. This was an important impetus for the ethno-political movement that began to develop during the 1990’s. Several differing organisations were established, demanding investigation into the cases of alleged abuse and mistreatment, an official apology issued by the Norwegian government, and compensation, awarded to both individuals and to the community.19 As was also the case in the interwar period, some of the central actors in this early phase of the movement had a background from Pentecostal congregations, where many Romani-Tatere had joined during the 1970s and 1980s.20

One of the organisations was Taternes Landsforening (known as Romanifolkets Landsforening until 2005), established in 1995. This organisation was amongst the most active in demanding an official apology from the Norwegian state and the Church of Norway, which had founded the NMH. Since 1996, Taternes Landsforening has held an annual commemoration at the Stone of Shame, in Ris cemetery, Oslo. The stone is placed close by the mass grave used by Gaustad Psychiatric Hospital.21 The annual event has served as a memorial of remembrance, uniting the Romani-Tatere community through recalling a common historical experience of suffering; but it has also developed a symbolic and political function, reminding the government and the Church of Norway that they need to recognise this suffering and take responsibility for their actions.

Persistent political pressure from the Romani-Tatere rights movement in Norway has led the government to issue an official apology in 1998, and the Norwegian Church to first issue an apology in 1998 and then a revised statement in 2000.22 These official apologies were followed by compensation to individual Romani-Tatere that had suffered.23 Collective compensation followed, in the form of funding for a museum department and exhibition about the Romani-Tatere communities at Glomdal Museum (Glomdalsmuseet)24, and a fund for developing and making Romani-Tatere culture visible (Romanifolkets / Taternes kulturfond).25

At the end of the 2000’s, many Romani-Tatere activists felt that these apologies never were communicated in a way that reached the Romani-Tatere community and that there were still unanswered questions about the period of “Norwegianisation”. This dissatisfaction was articulated in a statement, signed by several of the key organisations in the Romani-Tatere movement, among them the Taternes Landsforening and the Landsorganisasjonen for Romanifolket. The statement was addressed to the Norwegian Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg.26 The statement called for a commission, on the model of restorative historical justice, which could evaluate the abuses inflicted upon the Romani-Tatere. The government did not follow the suggestion of an independent truth and reconciliation commission, but appointed a commission whose mandate was to investigate policies and their impact upon Romani-Tatere communities in Norway, from 1850 to the present day. This commission delivered its final report in 2015, concluding that the policies had “failed” and been “destructive” in their impact upon individuals and families. The report was sent to a consultative hearing later in 2015, to allow a revision in state policy towards the Romani-Tatere communities.

The Norwegian Roma: Fighting the “Gypsy Paragraph” and struggling for recognition

Ending the “Gypsy Paragraph”

In 1955, two events put the “Gypsy Paragraph” back on the political agenda in Norway. The first was the denial of entry for a group of French Roma, travelling to participate in a wedding. This led the national press to raise the question of police bias. The second event was the deportation of fourteen Roma who had recently entered the country. Among the deportees were Jeanne Czardas and her four children, the daughter and grandchildren of the Norwegian Roma, Czardas Josef. The deportation was criticised in the press, which framed it as a case of civil rights versus the state. Czardas Josef established contact with a lawyer who appealed the deportation at the Eidsivating court, where the judge ruled that Jeanne Czardas could return, and that the state had to pay for the journey.27 These two events and critical reporting in the press established a discourse that identified Norwegian policy towards Roma as violating basic human and civil rights, leading to the removal of the “Gypsy Paragraph” from the statute books in 1956.28 The Norwegian government’s Migration Board however, continued to operate a very restrictive policy of granting citizenship to Roma.29

The struggle for recognition and reconciliation

The fate of the Norwegian Roma during the Second World War has been largely ignored and remains unknown by the general populace, until quite recently. That Norwegian exclusionist policies from 1934 have also had a contribution to this fate is unacknowledged in the Norwegian historical memory. The exclusion of Roma experiences during the Second World War has ruled out this minority from an important national narrative, the story of Norway during its occupation by Nazi-Germany.30 During the last few years, new research has been conducted and the government of Norway apologized for its past policies and practice. This can be seen in the context of Roma activists gaining recognition as a Norwegian minority, with inclusion in the nation’s history and challenging the history of exclusion.

A motion tabled in the Norwegian parliament in 2012 and a letter from several Roma organisations prompted the government to allocate funds for a national study about the Roma and the Holocaust. The project was awarded to The Centre for Studies of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities in Oslo31, which delivered its report, “Removing Them: The Development of a ‘Gypsy’ Policy and the Extermination of Norwegian Roma” (“Å bli dem kvit. Utviklingen av en ‘sigøynerpolitikk’ og utryddelsen av norske rom”) in 2015. The organisation Sigøynerforeningen Yagori, with the project Le Norveganongi Romengi Historia contributed as advisors to the work. The report not only investigates the fate of Norwegian Roma during the Second World War, but also the Norwegian government’s policy of exclusion of the Norwegian Roma before and after the period 1934 to 1945.

Roma activists had been demanding an official apology from the Norwegian government for some time before the report was published. In the aftermath of the report, Roma activists renewed their demands for an apology and mobilised media attention to bring pressure to bear upon the government about this issue. On the 8th April 2015, widely recognised as International Romani Day (or Roma Nation Day), the Norwegian Prime Minister, Erna Solberg held a speech in which she apologised for the Norwegian policies and the “Gypsy Paragraph”:

I apologise for the racist policy of exclusion that was pursued in the decades before and after the Second World War. I apologise also for the fatal consequences that this policy had for Norwegian Roma during the Holocaust...”32

The Prime Minister’s speech recognised that the Norwegian Roma were victims of both Nazi Germany and its extermination policy, but also of the Norwegian government’s exclusionary legislation. This process of ensuring an acknowledgement of the past has been spearheaded by Roma activists from what is a small ethnic minority of only a few hundred people in Norway. Such recognition, and the Roma voices that have spoken out in the public sphere, have been important contributions to the public debate in Norway, where both older and newer forms of antigypsy prejudice have been expressed in recent years.33

There are however still unresolved issues in the relationship between the minority and public institutions, such as the school system and the Norwegian Child Protection Services.34 Many families have experienced that their children have been put into foster homes and there is a continued distrust in the Norwegian Child Protection Services.35 These issues illustrate that there exists a tension between the framework of national minority rights and the institutions of the welfare state.


As seen from the above, the Norwegian government’s policies have shifted from 1945 with official exclusion of the Roma at Norway’s borders, and an aggressive assimilation policy of the resident Romani-Tatere communities, towards a gradual policy of recognition of Romani and Roma civil and ethnic rights and recognition as national minorities. The changes in the government’s policies have, among other factors, been achieved through the actions of the Romani-Tatere and Roma civil society.

In spite of this development, recent immigration of Roma from Eastern Europe has been met by a public debate, steeped in expressions of antigypsy prejudice, and a society that maintains widely-held discriminatory attitudes and practices.36 The debate has, to a large extent, been framed in terms of begging and criminality, and led the parliament to pass an amendment that made it possible for municipalities to implement local bans on begging. Prime Minister Erna Solberg, who apologised for former Norwegian policies in 2015, has, at the same time, supported a proposal for a national prohibition on begging.37 The current coalition government has promoted an exclusionary rhetoric in which Roma, begging and criminality is mixed together. This highlights a paradox in contemporary Norwegian minority policy. On the on hand, the government has attempted to pursue a strategy of reconciliation towards Roma and Romani-Tatere, which historically has been targeted by suppressive policies; on the other hand, different minority groups are again experiencing a harsh rhetoric and exclusionary practices.

Rights held by: Vidar Fagerheim Kalsås | Licensed by: Vidar Fagerheim Kalsås | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: RomArchive