1. Roma originated in India and encompass multiple sub-groups
The Roma peoples have long believed they have origins in India, and indeed a wealth of evidence suggests the Roma are originally a Hindi people from northern India.
Looking at the Roma language, many words, as well as the grammar used, is virtually identical to Hindi. A 2012 study showed that Roma peoples left northern India about 1,500 years ago.
International Festival of Gypsy Culture | Photo: Prague Guide
Europe witnessed an influx of Roma peoples through the Balkans approximately 900 years ago, and today approximately 10 million Roma live on the continent.
The term Roma does not include one group of people but refers to different sub-groups, including the Kalderash in south-eastern Europe, the so-called Romanichals in the United Kingdom and the Sinti in France, Germany and Italy.
Although there are differences in history and culture between these groups, the Roma share a common language, Rromanes, which has a variety of different dialetcs.
2. Roma faced hideous oppression and abuse even before WWII
The Roma were enslaved shortly after their arrival in Europe and continued to be enslaved in some countries, including Romania, into the 19th century.
Countries such as Italy or Germany ordered the expulsion of Romani people, while England and Denmark sentenced many to death throughout the Middle Ages.
According to various human rights organizations, the Roma faced horrible cruelties in many countries, including children being abducted, women being tortured by having their hands or ears cut off, and their native language being banned, as well as restrictions on marriage with other Roma.
3. They were among the Nazi's first targets
The Nazis considered Roma to have alien blood and referred to them as “racially undesirable." In 1933, German police began rigorously enforcing anti-"Gypsy" legislation, a term no longer accepted by many Romani people today.
A group of gypsies waiting for instructions from the Nazis in Belzec | Photo: Holocaust Memorial Day Trust
After 1936, Roma became subject to a variety of restrictions, including the Nuremberg Laws, the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Progeny, and the Law against Dangerous Habitual Criminals.
Under the Nazi regime, the Roma were subject to forced labor, sterilization, arbitrary internment and mass murder. Thousands were killed in territories of the Soviet Union and Serbia as well as in killing centers at Auschwitz, Chelmno and Treblinka.
While exact figures are unkown, it is estimated that 220,000 Roma were killed by Germans and their allies during the Second World War, or 25 percent of the total Roma population in Europe.
4. Discrimination against Roma continued after WWII
The Federal Republic of Germany determined after the war that all atrocities against the Roma before the year 1943 were “legitimate measures against persons committing crimes” and not acts driven by racial prejudice.
This decision meant that thousands of victims of incarceration and sterilization saw their mistreatment justified.
It took another 30 years, until 1979, for the Nazi persecutions of Roma to be ruled “racially motivated” by the German Federal Parliament, enabling Roma to request compensation and have the horrors they suffered officially acknowledged.
5. The Romani remain an oppressed group today
In many European countries Roma still prefer to stay within their own circles and are rarely integrated into the larger society.
This isolation creates a vicious cycle in which many Roma children do not attend school and families lack access to safe and affordable housing, often living in makeshift metal containers or tents at city borders. Roma often have difficulties finding stable jobs and their access to good quality health care is lacking.
A girl leans on a school back pack outside a caravan at an encampment of Roma families in Triel-sur-Seine. | Photo: Reuters
Illiteracy rates among Roma across Europe range from 10-20 percent, resulting in many Roma not aware of their rights for social services and other government assistance. The resulting poverty brings disease, substance abuse and crime.
Roma are also still victims of neo-Nazi and other racist groups.
6. France expelled 10,000 Roma in 2009
Under a controversial policy backed by President Nicolas Sarkozy, in 2009 France dismantled 300 illegal Roma camps across the country. Romani were expelled back to Romania and Bulgaria.
The next year, at least another 8,300 Romani were expelled.
French police have concluded their dismantling of the largest gypsy camp at the city of Lille, where 750 people lived, hundreds of children among them. | Photo: Reuters
The policy has proved controversial in the European Union, which threatened to take legal action against France over the expulsions, calling them "a disgrace."
The operation has been called a deliberate stigmatization of the Roma to win support among right-wing voters.
“This community crosses time and space with its traditions, and we in Europe have trouble to integrate them. Yet they have preserved their tradition, which is one of survival."