The Roma are Europe’s largest ethnic minority, with up to 10 million people spread across the continent. Most live in Eastern Europe and communities are diverse, speaking different languages and dialects and following different religions and cultural traditions.
Analysis of the Romani language suggests their ancestors originated in India more than 1,000 years ago and moved through Persia, Turkey and into the Balkans, with secondary migrations branching off into Russia, Scandanavia, central Europe, France, Spain and the British Isles. The term “Gypsy” may come from the early belief that the Roma came from Egypt.
They have been persecuted throughout history and wherever they have lived. Enslaved in Romania until the mid 19th century, they were also forgotten victims of the Holocaust, when up to a million may have died. In Czechoslovakia many Roma women were forcibly sterilised under Communism, while in some parts of Europe Roma children are still routinely sent to special schools. Roma life expectancy is 10-15 years lower than average.
Over recent years a new migration has been taking place, with eastern Roma moving west as members of the enlarged European Union. Tens of thousands are thought to have settled in the UK since 2004, with communities from Romania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and other countries developing as families seek a better life.
While citizens of the so-called A8 EU states now enjoy rights in line with British people, Romanians and Bulgarians, as A2 nationals, face particular challenges. They are hampered by tough UK employment restrictions in place until at least 2013, which leave them with few options other than often menial self-employment.
Poor English, low literacy rates and lack of skills put many Roma at a significant disadvantage in this country, but the picture is not entirely bleak. There are now people in many communities who are starting to thrive in the UK and who are rightly proud of their heritage.
I am interested in documenting these individuals as they balance their Eastern European and Roma identities with their integration into British society.