Gypsies across Europe and their public images
  • | | September 17, 2010 09:55 AM

Recent legislation in France has stirred up the immigration debate as gypsies take centre stage, writes Trang Anh from Paris.

>> France\'s criminal dilemma

Gypsy woman with child in England (late 19th century)
Gypsy girls in Spain (early 20th century)
Roma models in Vogue, 1992

In recent weeks, human rights organizations, anti-racism groups, and labor unions have been taking part in public protests against President Sarkozy’s new measures to deal with the problem of crimes associated with immigration.

In the past, France was viewed as the most desired destination for nomadic people due to the generous welfare system. However, France has been suffering from a high increase in crime and the public image of one group in particular, the gypsies, has become a negative one for many.

Nomads have been making their way to Paris for a long time. In the 1400’s, shortly after their arrival, they were told by the locals to leave. Begging for sympathy, they started telling stories of discrimination and of being expelled from their native land.

Most nomads in France originated from Romania, and became known as the Roma. They continued to travel throughout France, becoming wandering entertainers and tradesmen. A number of women became popular dancers, singers, and fortune tellers.

Currently there are at least 1,800 Roma living in Paris. The general public often refer to them as gypsies.

Twenty years ago, French municipalities were required to provide camping areas for all "les gens du voyage" arriving in France. These campsites were equipped with electricity and water supplies. Being granted refugee status, each family started receiving regular welfare assistance from the government. They were also encouraged to find local employment.
Once they were settled, a number of Roma men and women became active musicians, playing at outdoor concerts or in small groups. To supplement the welfare incomes, many started working as general labourers, street cleaners, dishwashers, gardeners… A few Roma set up their own businesses, dealing with scrap metal or horse trading.

Typical Roma women and young girls dress themselves in very colorful clothing, accompanied by head scarves and golden earrings and bangles. Vogue promoted the image of Roma women and children by featuring them on its cover in 1992.

In recent years, more people arrived from Eastern Europe illegally and in very large numbers. They began setting up camps for themselves in deserted areas, green fields, parks, and other public places. They live without running water, electricity or proper sanitation.

The nomadic culture does not have any written language or literature. Roma parents usually do not encourage their young children to receive any formal education in the adoptive country. Idle teenagers regularly hang out in the villages near their camping grounds. The majority of the Roma have no meaningful work or jobs. Crimes committed by some include prostitution, pick-pocketing, car theft, house burglaries, and other types of vandalism.

According to a documentary by BBC, thousands of Roma children are forced to be in the streets to beg and to steal. In Paris, young gypsy girls often run after tourists asking them to take their photographs and then demanding money in an aggressive manner. “While they are distracting you, one of their friends might dip her hand into your bag,” one tourist commented.

Adult female criminals also spend a lot of time in the streets, carrying a child or being accompanied by other children. In Paris, they are frequently present at major tourist attractions, including the Louvre Museum, the Eiffel Tower, Gare de Lyon, and Gare du Nord. Their targets are tourists.

A tourist who had been robbed by a gypsy in Paris wrote to the press: “The police do not do anything. There are no warnings on the Metro or other public transport. The French government has done nothing to prevent this type of crime. By doing nothing, they are in fact encouraging theft.”

In Madrid, instant cash machines are the gypsies’ main targets. At the bank machine, the card holder is distracted at the crucial moment by a stranger, allowing a child to dive in, grab the money and run away. A 13 year old Roma girl named Daniele was interviewed and she admitted that she could easily make 300 euros from a single robbery without any risk of being punished. Many Roma girls become street prostitutes.

Italy has a large number of Roma, estimated to be about 150,000. Both legal and illegal Roma families occupy camping grounds on the edge of Rome and Naples. Unlike those in other European countries, many Italians are openly hostile to them.

In Russia, the nomadic population is widely spread throughout the country. Nobody knows the exact number. Since the majority resist assimilation and continue to live on the margins of society, they do not benefit from any state support. A tourist visiting St. Petersburg wrote, “Groups of annoying and aggressive gypsy women and children may surround you in certain city parks and streets supposedly begging - in fact they are simply thieves.”

In Great Britain, gypsies are arguably the most hated minority. The British police recently caught an organized criminal group called the “Stately Home Gypsy Gang” after they stole 80 million pounds of valuable antiques. There are five members of the notorious “Johnson’s” family who targeted wealthy homes. During a period of twenty years they committed at least one hundred offenses involving priceless antiques.

Following is a popular gypsy song:
Gypsies, tramps and thieves
We’d hear it from the people of the town
They’d call us gypsies, tramps and thieves
But every night the men would come around
And lay their money down

The Roma people have a difficult and tragic history. They were subjected to racial discrimination and persecution, even before the systematic measures of extermination by the Nazis (1933-39), who judged them to be racially "undesirable". Most of the Roma in Germany at the time, about half a million, were murdered at the order of Hitler. About one hundred Roma are living in Germany today, who are fearful of revealing their background to the public.

Everywhere they go, Roma or gypsy families are usually seen and treated as outsiders of normal society. A common refusal to assimilate, a carefree lifestyle, and their popular images as tramps and thieves leads them to be seen as unfit for employment in most structured settings in their host country.

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