Accurately defining the term “Roma” is a challenging, almost formidable task. There is no universally accepted definition, and the term is often used interchangeably with “Rroma”, “Gypsy”, “Traveller”, “Romani”, “Sinti”, “Ashkali”, “Manouches”, “Kalé” and other titles. This is problematic for a number of reasons.
Firstly, incorrect usage creates and perpetuates harmful stereotypes in society. For example, the media have frequently used the term “gypsy” instead of “Gypsy” displaying ignorance of their cultural identity as a recognised ethnic group. Additionally, some Roma people object to the use of the term “Gypsy” altogether perceiving it as derogatory and inaccurately linked to “Egyptian” where it was once believed Roma people had originated from.
Secondly, the Roma are actually a subset of the broader ethnic group “Romani”. The Romani people originated in the East Indian region of Punjab and migration from this region began in the twelfth century. The Roma have a shared history and distinct customs, language and tradition but have no ties to a particular piece of land.
Thirdly, the Roma are richly diverse. Even in the UK, the Roma have different nationalities, tribal affiliations, lifestyles, living arrangements and immigration statuses which make it increasingly difficult to speak of a uniform group facing the same problems. For example, some Roma have acquired British nationality whereas others are refugees or asylum seekers attempting to navigate the complicated asylum system of the UK. Similarly, some Roma choose to live a nomadic lifestyle whereas others live in permanent dwellings. Having said this, it is broadly accepted by many Roma people that the Roma community share a common set of values and a common history of persecution and discrimination. (Roma Support Group Action Research Report, 2011: 21).
The term “Roma” is used in this article to refer to this subset of European Romani-speaking groups who share this common set of values; it is not intended to be derogatory or over-exclusive in any way.
The Roma in the UK
It is difficult to accurately estimate the number of Roma people in the UK, not only because of the definitional problems just outlined but also because of a general lack of data collection by local authorities and general reluctance among Roma people to disclose their ethnic identity through fear of discrimination. Community estimates in 2009 span from 400,000 to 1 million (European Dialogue, Mapping Survey 2009: 81-82). It is believed that Roma live all over the UK, with a concentration of the population in the North of England, East Midlands, Kent and North and East London.. The Roma Support Group based in London has found that there is more evidence of Roma population in particular Boroughs. For example there are estimates of over 20,000 Roma in Newham amounting to over 8% of the borough’s population (Roma Support Group Action Research Report, 2011: 17).
There are number of difficulties that the Roma as a community continue to face and these will be elaborated upon in subsequent articles. The Roma face educational disadvantages with academic attainment significantly lower than UK national averages (National Curriculum Assessment 2005). They have a significantly poorer health status (University of Sheffield Report 2004) and life expectancy (Roma SOURCE Report 2012) in comparison to the rest of the population. This is aggravated by a number of obstacles impeding their access to healthcare. They also face severe social disadvantages such as poverty, destitution and homelessness as well as employment problems. The Roma in the UK have also been identified as a vulnerable group for trafficking (Trafficking in Persons Report 2010).
Underpinning all of the problems faced by the Roma in the UK is the continuing stigmatisation of the Roma community. They are subject to prejudice and discrimination which impacts on their enjoyment of human rights, results in their economic and social marginalisation, and prevents full participation in society. This discrimination is aggravated by inaccurate media portrayal and a general ignorance of who the Roma are. This creates a cycle of persecution which can only be broken by directly targeting the ingrained hostile attitudes directed towards the Roma and promoting a more tolerant climate in Britain.