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Debate: Roma nation

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Should the Roma be officially recognised as a non-territorial nation?

This article is based on a Debatabase entry written by Harriet Jones-Fenleigh. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.


Background and Context of Debate:

There are 15 million Gypsies, or Roma as they prefer to be called, in the world. At least 6 million of them live in Europe, most scattered around former communist countries and the Mediterranean. The Roma have endured pogroms and discrimination since they drifted west from India in the 7th Century. Romany people are at the bottom of every socio-economic indicator. The continuing poor treatment of the Roma is perhaps the most important civil rights issue in Europe and one that has had a direct bearing on European Union accession and regional development. However, the Roma continue to exist as a spectral third-world nation in Europe. The notion of Romanestan, as a landless nation founded on Gypsy culture, has gained ground as a possible solution to the problems of racial attacks, economic deprivation and official indifference. There are a number of possible models available to the proposition in this debate. Demands by organisations like the International Romany Union (IRU) range from calls for funding for Romany Universities to demands for a European Commissioner responsible for Gypsy affairs and even direct representation, with a quota in the European Parliament. A sensible model would be to propose that the Roma are recognised by the EU and UN as a non-territorial nation and given representation equivalent to sub-state nation groups like the Basques and Catalans. This would ensure representation at the committee level of the UN and EU, and direct access to EU structural and development funding.[1]

National identity: Does the Roma have a strong cultural and national identity fitting for independence?


The Roma are a nation: They are ethnically distinct, having descended from low caste Indian ethnic groups assembled as a military force to resist Islamic incursions and their total population outnumbers that of many of the Union’s members. Moreover, the Roma are a culturally distinct entity, with a language (Romany), god (Del), flag (green with a wheel) and a shared tradition of horse trading, pot mending and basket weaving. Further, the Romany have some of the most distinctive cultural and social norms of any ethnic group in Europe including distinct social and sexual taboos, patterns of ritual storytelling and sung oral history. They also have shared markers of gender identity including the consistent use of flower shaped female clothing across the European Roma. These cultural markers of identity transcend the pressured assimilation into dominant local religions in some areas.[2]

There is considerable nationalist sentiment among the Roma: The International Romany Union claims to represent 10 million Roma and has successfully fostered the idea of “self rallying”. In July 2000 the IRU held a congress in Prague where leader Emil Scuka and elders and leaders of over 40 countries called for recognition as a “nation without at state”. The Romany sense of community is so strong that traditional groups still consider contact with Gadje, non-gypsies, as a type of pollution. Sexual contact is still punishable by banishment.[3]


The Roma are in fact extremely culturally, linguistically, and religiously varied with little common basis for nationhood: Only 4 million at most speak any kind of Romany. Nazi persecution coupled with damaging communist paternalism that encouraged gypsies to settle down has eroded much of traditional Romany culture. Many Roma are Orthodox Christian or Catholic and few remain truly nomadic. Three quarters of England’s Roma population have permanent addresses, for instance. All that the Roma have in common is the prejudice of others, and this is not the sound basis of a nation.[4]

Recognising nationhood on the basis of ethnicity is divisive and will undermine the positive trend towards multicultural nation states: This proposal is founded on the ethnic nationalism that is often blamed for Eastern Europe’s brutal history and is likely to increase instability by encouraging groups like the Corsican and Basque separatists.[5]

The IRU should not be considered representative of the world’s Romany people: Of the several hundred delegates who gathered at the Prague congress, few were democratically elected and none came from Hungary, home to the most politically conscious gypsies. Few gypsies in the ghettoes have ever heard of the organisation. Indeed, a reluctance to vote and the difficulty of holding democratic elections and producing an accountable and representative leader for an ill-defined transnational minority is one of the practical stumbling blocks to granting the Roma nationhood. Romany people see themselves indistinctly, if at all. Romany culture is one of patriarchal families and sometimes clans, but never a nation. Even the 17 Romany parties within Slovakia failed to form a national coalition due to mutual dislike.[6]

Persecution as justification: Does past persecution and discrimination of the Roma justify their nationhood?


The Roma have a tragic history of persecution: They were enslaved in Romania until 1864 and killed in pogroms across Europe until the Holocaust. Sadly, Romany people continue to endure discrimination in the provision of social services, education and jobs. For example, in Hungary and the Czech Republic the unemployment rate among gypsies is over 70 per cent. In Hungary Romany children are banned from “whites only” cafeterias and gyms in some schools. A study in Ostrava, in the Czech Republic found that a gypsy child was 23 times more likely to be placed in a school for the mentally retarded than a white Czech child, even when of normal intelligence. Increasing xenophobia and nationalism in Eastern Europe has resulted in hundred of attacks on gypsies. The institutionalised nature of much of this discrimination suggests that national governments are failing to protect the Roma. Recognising the Roma as a nation would enable them to access funding directly and allocate it to their own community projects. Moreover, representation on committees would allow the Roma to table motions and keep their issues on the EU agenda.[7]

EU enlargement has not brought the compliance with strict laws concerning minority rights that was expected: Despite well-documented ill treatment of the Roma the Czech Republic was put on the fast track to membership. Now a member, the Czech Republic is still doing little according to human rights groups. Most outsiders regard the appointment of an “inter-ministerial commission for Roma community affairs” as “mere window-dressing”. Other EU members such as Spain, Italy and Greece still refuse to recognise that there is a problem.[8]


Centuries of persecution do not qualify the Roma for nationhood: We must focus on forcing Europe’s existing states to respect human rights and encourage organisations like the IRU, which already has an office in Brussels, to lobby to ensure that minority rights are respected in every country. Encouraging political participation by individual Roma is likely to be an effective and less divisive way to accelerate change both in their various home states and Europe wide. There are already 20 Romany MPs and mayors in several countries and 400 local councillors.[9]

An independent Roma may encourage European politicians to shirk their responsibilities to Roma populations in their own countries: Encouraging minorities to see the Romany as a separate nation allows politicians to avoid taking responsibility for their situation. ‘Their nation, their structural funding, their problem’ is the likely response from the host country and the results will be continued discrimination in the countries where they live.[10]

The expansion of the EU has led to improved treatment of the Roma: Slovakia was excluded from the first wave of would-be members due to a poor record on minority rights. The result was the appointment of a minister for “minorities and human rights” in 1998. Moreover, new anti-discrimination legislation passed in 2002, which reverses the burden of proof at tribunals, requiring employers to prove that they do not discriminate on the grounds of race, has made challenging discrimination easier.[11]

Budgetary burdens: Would an independent, sovereign Roma reduce the budgetary burden on host nations?


Recognising the Roma as a nation and thus granting direct access to development aid would reduce the burden on countries with particularly large gypsy populations: For example, Romania has 2 million gypsies, the largest population of them in the world. Currently welfare payments to Romanies are predicted to bankrupt the country by as early as 2020. If the Romanian economy falls apart the Roma will remain impoverished and will become racial scapegoats. Granting nation status would ease the pressure of development projects on governments like the Romanian government, as the Roma would be eligible for funding provided by the EU as a whole.[12]


The EU and UN can earmark money for Roma development projects without acknowledging the Roma as a separate entity:

National governments and civil services are the best people to administer long-term development projects for the Roma: They are aware of the specific needs of the Roma within their borders and can coordinate legislative policy, cultural and education programmes and existing projects with new development schemes to increase the effectiveness of available resources.[13]

Romany schools: Would independence allow the Roma to create a better Romany educational system?


Nationhood would enable the strengthening of Roma schools, which have proved very important to the education of Romanys:Education is the key to lifting the Romany community out of poverty and welfare dependency. According to the charity Save the Children, a third of Europe’s gypsies never attend school. 80 per cent of Greek Roma cannot read and write. Traditional Romany parents reject assimilation and the children that do enter the school system are either shunted off into schools for the backward, or defeated by bullying and the difficulties of being forced to compete in a foreign, gadje, language. Specialist Romany schools like Gandhi College in the Hungarian town of Pecs have already proved successful. Nation status and the access to EU funding that accompany this would help the extension of these existing schemes across Europe without overburdening national governments or provoking the resentment that accompanies national spending on minorities.[14]


Establishing a parallel education system within a nation will continue the marginalization of the Roma: Without a territory of their own the Roma will always remain reliant on the nations in which they live. If Romany children are educated separately and in the Romany language they will become permanently separated from the mainstream, making it even more difficult to effect positive change.[15]



  • This House would recognise the Roma as a nation
  • This House calls for a Romanestan
  • This House would act to protect the Roma

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