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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 101 (Suppl.), August 2006



The Roma:

Social Marginalization and Religious Integration



Ms. Hannelore VALIER

Head Democratisation Department

OSCE Mission to Serbia and Montenegro



Roma in South Eastern Europe

It is estimated that over 12 million Roma live in the world today. There are major Roma communities in most EU candidate countries: 


Estimated number of Roma







Bosnia and Herzegovina


Serbia and Montenegro








Eight countries in Central and Southeast Europe[1] have signed the World Bank and Soros Foundation initiated Decade of Roma Inclusion (2005-2015). An initiative adopted to accelerate social inclusion and improving the economic and social status of Roma across the region. These governments have undertaken a firm commitment to close the gap in welfare and living conditions between the Roma and the non-Roma and to break the cycle of poverty and exclusion. The implementation of the decade goals is a great challenge for it requires the involvement of substantial human and financial resources, political commitment and intra-governmental coordination, as well as the support of non-governmental actors, including the religious communities and the Roma civil society. 

Despite many common traditions, the Roma com­munities today are made up of diverse branches consisting of many different cultures, dialects and languages. As a minority group, the Roma have difficulties in establishing and defending their basic human rights, and they suffer from social and cultural exclusion in most European countries.

It is therefore a common trait that Roma often do not declare themselves as such, but rather “hide” behind the majority community, so that in Serbia and Montenegro the official number of Roma according to the2002 census is 108.000. While it is estimated that the real number is around 500,000; in Bulgaria, according to the 2002 census, the Roma are 4.7 % of the population and according to experts the Roma comprise approximately 7.5 percent of the population in Bulgaria, in Romania non-governmental organisations claim that the Roma population amounts to 4 million people.

Situating the Roma in European History-Most Roma refer to themselves as Rom. In the Romani language, Rom (man) derives from the Sanskrit dom (man). The English term gypsies, derived from the Spanish term gitano (in French, gitan), originates in the erroneous belief that the Roma originated in Egypt, and were exiled as punishment for allegedly harboring the infant Jesus. This ethnonym is not used by the Roma to describe themselves, and is often considered pejorative. Words cigan or gitan do not exist in the Roma language. When asked about their ethnic background, Roma say Me sem Rrom (I am Roma).

It is now generally agreed that Roma originated in the northwest region of the Indian subcontinent - a conclusion derived principally from linguistic science. Despite wide variations among Romani dialects, linguists have been able to trace a common origin in Sanskrit[2]. But if Roma share a common lineage, their migrations produced numerous distinct communities and dialects[3]. The first major migrations to Europe date primarily from the 14th and 15th century[4], and successive waves of migration brought Romani communities to a range of countries over time. Currently the majority of the world’s Roma live primarily in Central and Eastern Europe[5].

These migrations produced a dispersed mosaic of peoples, united by common origins, culture and to some extent language[6], but also distinguished by their diverse historical experiences and the resulting mainstream/majority impact on each group’s culture. Therefore, approaches to Roma policy must be rooted in the recognition of and respect for the plurality of Romani groups.  

Persecution and Rejection: Common Consciousness[7] 

Contemporary challenges confronting Roma cannot be understood without a basic appreciation of their historical experience of persecution and rejection.

Despite popular associations of Roma with nomadism, Roma have been stable residents in European countries for hundreds of years. The Romani communities in Romania and Bulgaria, for example, are traced to groups believed to have settled in the territories now comprising these States between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries[8]. Nevertheless, Roma are still widely perceived and treated as outsiders in many countries where they have centuries-old roots.

The first response of authorities towards nomad groups was generally one of rejection and exile, banishing them from the territory of the State. Later, official policies toward Roma have included enslavement, containment, extermination, and forced assimilation. In the Romanian principalities, Roma were enslaved until the mid-19th century. In 18th-century Hungary, Roma were subjected to measures aimed at eradicating their identity, including by forceful relocation of their children into non-Roma families[9].

In this century, Roma have been treated as de facto aliens and inherent outlaws in several countries. The extermination of Roma and Sinti by Nazi Germany was preceded by the establishment of a central register in Munich in 1899 to collate reports of Roma appearances and actions taken against them. The man in charge of the register produced a book to assist the police in Bavaria and neighbouring Länder in eradicating what he called die Zigeunerplage (“the Gypsy plague”). Other countries, including Sweden, followed suit, establishing their own national registers. In France, a law enacted in 1912 (and repealed only in the late 1960’s) required itinerants to carry a carnet anthropométrique, an identity document. Many communes posted signs at their borders warning “interdit aux nomades” (“prohibited to nomads”).

In South Eastern Europe (within the Ottoman Empire), for example local landowners and clergy enslaved Roma in what is present-day Romania. The professor of Romani Studies Dr. Thomas Acton commented of Romani history in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries: "When Romani people from Eastern Europe meet Romani people from North-Western Europe today, it is the descendents of the survivors of slavery meeting the descendents of the survivors of genocide."

During the Second World War, Roma and Sinti, along with Jews, were the only ethnic groups slated for wholesale extermination. An estimated quarter to half a million of Europe’s Roma and Sinti were exterminated in the Holocaust, known in Romani as the “Porajmos” - “the Devouring”.

After the war, a majority of Europe’s Romani communities lived under communist regimes. Variations among countries and also across time make it impossible to describe the post-war experience of European Roma in general terms, but certain recurring patterns should be noted in light of their enduring impact on the contemporary Romani experience. Although Roma had received State support for the development of their cultural identity in some communist countries, later on they were often subjected to policies of forced assimilation. In 1958, for example, Czech authorities decreed that Roma were not an ethnic group but people “maintaining a markedly different demographic structure,” and enacted a law to enforce school attendance and settlement of nomadic people by registering them in one place and refusing them employment anywhere else. A subsequent policy sought to integrate Roma through their “dispersal and transfer” from settlements in Slovakia to the Czech lands (whose pre-war Romani population was almost entirely exterminated during World War II). The plan was “to spread them as thinly as possible throughout the Republic”.

Similarly, although earlier Communist policies in Bulgaria had provided support for Romani cultural activities, a decree of 1958 prohibited Roma from travelling. In the ensuing 30-year policy of assimilation, Romani children were forbidden to speak Romani at school, and authorities banned Roma newspapers and associations. From the 1970’s, the term “Gypsy” was abolished and Roma, along with Turks, were required to take on Slavic names.

The weight of this history falls heavily across contemporary Europe. Only in the very last part of the 20th century, a concerted effort has been made to address its individual and cumulative effects. 

Contemporary Developments

Social Portrait - The problems of marginalisation are particularly severe in the central and eastern parts of Europe, where Roma have suffered in the transition towards market economy. The problems they most commonly face are racism and discrimination, low levels of education, high unemployment (50-90%), health standards well below those of the mainstream population, and very poor housing conditions.

In cases of racial violence, victims encounter significant obstacles in their efforts to secure legal redress for these attacks. A notable example is Romania, where Romani communities were victims of a number of serious incidents, in the course of which some Roma were killed while the homes of many others were burned, between 1990 and 1996 – with only a few charges ever being laid[10].

In countries that have substantial Romani communities and whose national unemployment rates are high, Roma tend to constitute a disproportionate share of the unemployed. For example, in fYROM, where the national unemployment rate is estimated at 36%, the rate among Roma is 76.4%[11].

In the realm of education, disturbing patterns are also clear: in many OSCE participating States, Romani children encounter widespread discrimination and rejection, while many of them attend schools that are largely comprised of Roma or are relegated to Roma classes within mixed schools. In its most pernicious form, segregation is also achieved by routing Romani children into schools for the mentally disabled. The extreme poverty of many Roma often serves as further impediment to their children’s attendance at school. Some Romani parents are reluctant to send their poorly clad children to school, fearing they will face derision. Many simply cannot afford to send their children to school.

In the field of housing, a large number of Roma live in illegal or "informal" settlements. This phenomenon is a consequence of social marginalization, lack of employment and social care. Moreover, Roma face the threat of eviction, which further exacerbates the illegal housing problem.

Finally, due to extreme poverty and lack of education[12]but also inadequate legal systems, Roma in the Balkans lack personal ID documents. Without civil registration, they have no access to education, health protection, social care, employment, or elections. Recent reports from Romania, Serbia, Albania, fYROM show that tens of thousands of Roma remain unregistered and are therefore de facto stateless This situation was worsened by the Kosovo conflict which caused displacement of the Roma population throughout the Balkan region but also into Western Europe.

Ethnic Distance - Roma, as mentioned earlier, suffer from persistent discrimination, which makes any integration policy very difficult. A 2002 survey among non-Roma in Serbia, shows how deep the social, ethnic and racial distance towards the Roma is.

  • Between 55% and 79.5% of survey participants (depending which ethnic group) are unwilling to get married to a Roma person;
  • Between 13% and 24% of survey participants would not have a Roma person as a friend;
  • Between 16% and 59% of the examined would not accept a Roma person as a neighbour;
  • Between 6% and 16% of survey participants would not like to live with Roma in the same State;
  • Between 30% and 40% of the examined would not accept direct blood transfusion from a Roma.

It should be mentioned that, in some cases, Serbs express a greater distance towards Albanians and Muslims but this is far from comforting since other national minorities exhibit a high degree of intolerance towards the Roma. 

Balkan conflicts and Roma displacement

Internally Displaced - A major population displacement occurred in the Balkans in between 1991 and 1999 as a result of armed conflicts. As a consequence of such conflicts a big group of Roma become internally displaced region wide, meaning in all countries established after dissolution of SFRY.

As with the overall size of the Roma population, it is difficult to present coherent statistics on the number of Roma displaced people in the region or in Serbia and Montenegro.

The Roma from Kosovo, of which most live in Serbia, have faced an especially sad fate. Their economically and socially difficult position deteriorated dramatically in June 1999, after the NATO intervention, when, according to UNHCR reports 40,000 - 50,000 Roma were forced to leave their homes in Kosovo. Fearing retaliation from Kosovo Albanian returnees, the Roma sought refuge in Central Serbia, Vojvodina and Montenegro. According to the same reports, Roma IDPs are concentrated mostly in central Serbian (Nis and Kragujevac) and in southern Serbia (15,000), in Belgrade (10,000) and in Montenegro (in Konik camps 5,000). However, in the April 2000 UNHCR report, the official figure for Roma IDPs living in FRY is approximately 20,000. Data provided by the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences' (SANU) Commission for the Research of Roma Life and Customs has broadened this numerical gap even further. According to their estimates there were approximately 137,000 Roma living in Kosovo before the NATO bombing: currently only 15-20% remain in Kosovo. From the ones that fled, SANU estimates that some 14,000 are in the Vranje/Bujanovac region in southern Serbia, 30,000 found refuge in Belgrade, 10,000 in Vojvodina and 20,000 in Montenegro, while information for some 30,000 persons is not available. The SANU Commission has tried to justify the discrepancy between its findings and those of UNHCR by emphasising that the majority of the Roma IDPs from Kosovo is unregistered and thus "invisible", receiving no humanitarian assistance.

The majority of Roma IDPs are not properly registered with authorities because they are lacking basic documentation such as citizenship certificates and identity cards. The lack of personal documents prevents Roma IDPs from enjoying all other rights, in particular health protection, housing, education and employment.  

Because of the lack of adequate documentation Roma IDPs are not recognised as IDPs and are not entitled for any form of assistance the state is providing to other IDPs in the country.

Many of this group of Roma have found shelter with friends or relatives, who themselves have very limited means of survival often live in unsanitary settlements; are without employment or health insurance; and have difficulty providing for food, clothing or heating. It can also be safely assumed that the majority of these Roma IDP children are not attending schools.

The Roma community tries to become party in the Status Talks on Kosovo, since they fear that there might be otherwise forgotten.

Refugees - During the 1990, a large number of Roma from the former SFRY, in particular from Serbia fled to Western European countries. Germany alone currently hosts more than 100.000 individuals from Serbia and Kosovo. The asylum requests of these people have been largely rejected and most of them will face (forced) repatriation.

In addition, the highest number of current asylum seekers in Germany originate from Serbia (representing 20 % of the total number of asylum seekers arriving in Germany, while 10 % are from Turkey), of which ca. 40 % are Roma. Therefore it can be safely estimated, that at least one third of the failed asylum seekers to be repatriated to Serbia are Roma, amounting to 30.000 individuals[13]

These people have often sold everything they possessed before leaving Serbia, and when returning face numerous problems: no place to live, an economic situation which will not provide for employment, children who often speak only Romani and German and are therefore not able to enrol in Serbian schools, a lack of documentation which would entitle to social assistance, etc. 

International Concern

Today, the Roma issue has become a special concern of the international community and many commitments have been undertaken:

  • Most of the Balkan countries either designed or adopted national policies on Roma in order to address the issue in an institutional manner.
  • In the process of EU accession, the European Commission provided significant funds to candidate countries to address Roma issues. The first three years of the EU programs targeting Roma showed an increase from €11.7 million in 1999 to €13.65 million in 2000 and € 31.35 million in 2001.
  • In 2003, the OSCE Permanent Council adopted the OSCE Action Plan on Roma and Sinti, which sets the measures to be undertaken by the respective participating State and OSCE structures.
  • In 2004, the World Bank and Fund for an Open Society initiated the "Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015". In the framework of this initiative, eight Central and East European governments committed to systemic measures in four key areas (education, health, employment and housing).

There are many other international institutions, organizations and agencies working on Roma issues and support for Roma is still growing; the international community can now be said to be a partner in the process of integration. 


There are very few serious studies available on the religious life and customs of Roma, but a religious profile could be presented very generally as the following[14]:

  • Roma tend to assimilate into the majority religious community in the surrounding they are living.
  • Roma are represented in most religious and confessional groups, Christianity (Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and recently more and more Protestants), Sunit Islam and Shiit Islam; 
  • In Europe, they are Christians of all confessions, and the number of Protestant Roma is steadily increasing;
  • In the Balkans, Orthodox Christians prevail, but Roman Catholics and Protestants are also present in increasing numbers. Among them, a growing number of Roma in Romania belong to the Pentecostal church, in Bulgaria seem to prevail Baptists and in Macedonia a growing number of Roma are becoming Jehovah Witnesses. Roma in Bosnia, southern Serbia and Kosovo there also Sunit Muslims, while Shiit Muslims are sparse. Especially in Kosovo the Dervish Movement is of importance.[15] 

Since the Second World War, a growing number of Roma have embraced Evangelical movements. For the first time, Roma became ministers and created their own, autonomous churches and missionary organizations. In some countries, a majority of Roma now belong to Romani churches. This unexpected change has apparently greatly contributed to a better image of Roma in society.

Evangelical Romani churches exist today in every country where Roma are settled. The movement is particularly strong in France and Spain. There are more than 1,000 Romani churches - known as "Philadelphia" - in Spain, with almost 100 in Madrid alone. In Germany, Polish Roma are the most numerous group and their main church is in Mannheim (Germany). Other important and numerous Romani assemblies exist in Los Angeles, Houston, Buenos Aires and Mexico. Some groups in Romania and Chile have joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

There are three Islamic communities registered in Serbia and the president of the Islamic Community of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja in South Serbia Mufti Nedzmedin Sacipi talks about the plans to build a Roma mosque and to create a “Roma Isalmic Community’, since there is a considerable number of Roma residents in Bujanovac who are Muslims and they are distinguished from the majority Albanian muslims.[16] 


Despite stereotypes, ethnic distance, racial violence and social problems faced by Roma, the pattern of their survival has been the leading light throughout the centuries. However, the international community is still working towards improving the social integration of this community. At the same time, the Roma are successfully achieving a higher level of religious integration, and their perception and understanding of religion removes boundaries in inter-cultural communication.

The principle of equal treatment for Roma is currently the main aspect of the integration process, which is driven by Roma organizations in partnership with national and international authorities. The maturity of democratic societies and their ability understand and respect the social, cultural and religious diversity needs to be strengthened. In the Balkan region, this principle has still not been achieved, but intensive progress has been made and there are numerous opportunities for the institutional treatment of Roma-related issues. 


The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has paid very early attention to the Roma population: already in 1990 in Copenhagen the participating States commited to respect the rights of Roma and the organization established in 1994 a contact point for Roma and Sinti in the OSCE Office for Democratic Institution and Human Rights (ODIHR). An Action Plan for the Integration of Roma, this Action Plan was adopted by the Permanent Council (of which the Holy See is part) in 2003. The goal of this Action Plan is to ensure that in the 55 participating States of the OSCE, Roma and Sinti play a "full and equal part" in societies in which they live and to eradicate discrimination against them. The key guiding principle for the action plan is Romani participation in policy making and implementation. The Action Plan is divided into several thematic areas and there are recommendations to key stake holders on issues such as combating discrimination, improving access to education and other socio-economic fields, increasing public participation and increased attention to Roma in post-crisis situations. The action plan also includes activities that the Contact Point for Roma and Sinti Affairs will undertake, including creation of a database of best practices in OSCE participating states.

The OSCE Mission to Serbia and Montenegro, with the support of the European Agency for Reconstruction, will during 2006 and 2007 contribute to the integration and empowerment of the Roma in Serbia by providing assistance to state institutions and local communities in an effort to achieve standardized practice and increase access by vulnerable minorities. 

[1]Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, and Slovakia participate in the Roma Decade.  
[2]See Angus Fraser, The Gypsies, Blackwell, Oxford (second ed.), 1995, pp. 10-22.
[3]Even within countries, there is often a plurality of distinct Romani communities. There are, for example, three major Romani linguistic groupings in Hungary - the Hungarian-speaking Romungros, the Romanian-speaking Beás, and the Romani-speaking Olach.
[4]See Jean-Pierre Liégeois, Roma, Gypsies, Travellers, Council of Europe Publications, Strasbourg, 1994, p. 18.
[5]Nicolae Gheorghe, Roma-Gypsy Ethnicity in Eastern Europe, Social Research, Vol. 58, No. 4, Winter 1991, pp. 829-844
[6]By one estimate, there are some 60 Romani dialects in Europe alone, “obviously related to each other to an important degree, but often mutually unintelligible.” See Fraser, supra (note 18), at p. 12
[7]Adapted from the Report on the situation of Roma and Sinti in the OSCE Area. OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, 2000.
[8]See David M. Crowe, “The Gypsies of Romania Since 1990”, Nationalities Papers, Vol. 27, No. 1, March 1999, pp. 57-67; Elena Marushiakova and Vesselin Popov, “The Gypsy Minority in Bulgaria - Policy and Community Development.” (The latter monograph is part of a larger research project “Possibilities of external intervention in Eastern European socio-economic change: Roma and diaspora migration as examples of the use of development policy as an instrument of migration control”, Berliner Institute for Comparative Social Research, 1993-1997).
[9]To this end, the Habsburg ruler Maria Theresa decreed in 1761, inter alia, that:

- “Gypsies were to settle; to ensure this they could no longer own horses and wagons and would need special permission to leave their villages;

-  The word ‘Gypsy’ should henceforth be replaced with “Új magyar” (“New Hungarian”) or other constructions, such as ‘New Settler’; 

- Gypsies were forbidden to set themselves apart in dress, speech or occupation; 

- In an effort to eradicate the Gypsy ‘race’, marriage between Gypsies was forbidden; and 

-  Finally, Gypsy children over the age of five were to be taken away and raised by non-Gypsy families.” 

[10]See e.g., Human Rights Watch, Lynch Law: Violence against Roma in Romania, Vol. 6, No. 17, New York, November 1994; Helsinki Watch, Destroying Ethnic Identity: the Persecution of Gypsies in Romania, NewYork, Human RightsWatch, New York, 1991. See also Jean-Pierre Liégeois and Nicolae Gheorghe, supra (note 2), p. 20.
[11]Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, The Status of the Roma in the Republic of Macedonia, 1 March 1999, p. 3.
[12]Dailies recently reminded that 75% of Roma do not have primary education. (Glas Javnosti p.11, Danas p.7, 10 April 2006).
[13]The figures are provided by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs
[14]According to Dragoljub Djordjevic, sociologist of religion.
[15]Information from the OSCE/ODIHR Roma and Sinti Contact Point.
[16]Danasdaily, 8 May 2006, page 16.