Saturday, November 30, 2019

Who are the Gypsies?

It’s election time again. That means the all too familiar image of a “get tough” government ministers such as  Home Secretary Priti Patel announcing a “crackdown” on Gypsies and Travellers who has promised to change the rules on trespass, which is currently a civil law offence, a step that would criminalise any encampment of more than two vehicles, potentially resulting in Travellers being arrested and their property seized.

The document outlines plans to give police new powers to arrest and seize “the property and vehicles of trespassers who set up unauthorised encampments, in order to protect our communities”. It could be the biggest crackdown on Gypsies and travellers by any government.

Although they have been living in our own continent for over eight centuries,  this is a question still widespread among European people, as an inexplicable enigma. In their  travels - often running away from the hostility of who, not knowing them, fear them and doesn’t  want to be their neighbours - when Gypsies arrive in a city and decide to settle in a district, people  immediately watch them with open hostility. In those eyes full of distrust and fear there is always  the same question: who are you?

Over the centuries Roma people have been defined by many names. Their assumed Egyptian origin is the reason of the name “gypsies”. Historians and linguists now agree on the Indian origin of Roma people. The Romani (or Romanes)  language is a neo-Aryan language related to the ancient Sanskrit, and it is now spoken, in different  dialects, in several Asiatic and European countries. It is undeniable that Roma have been subjected to prejudice and slander, sources of discriminatory  attitudes and violent persecution. Since their arrival in Europe, they have been received with  suspicion and irrational fear. Observing their nomad life, their  ethnic traditions and their religious costumes, they were assumed people with no law and no moral  code. They were supposed worshiping Pagan Gods and devoting themselves to divination and  witchcraft. It was said that, as the  Jews were responsible of Jesus’ death, the Gypsies, excellent smiths, forged the nails used to crucify  him; for this reason they were damned people, doomed to travel forever, without any homeland. Roma, as reported in the ancient chronicles, were greeted by European citizens with initial  suspicion mixed with curiosity, but soon their appearance, their clothes, their mysterious language  and their customs aroused irrational fears, followed by intolerance and rejection, as it still happens today.

In England, in 1530 the first laws  allowing the expulsion of Roma motivated only by their race were introduced. King Henry VIII was  not in a good mood that year, when the Pope forbade him to marry Anne Boleyn and demanded her  expulsion from the court. It was the straw that breaks the camel's back: Henry VIII declared himself  head of the Church of England and married Anna. It was one of those "epochal" changes, and it gave way to the Lutheran Reformation. However, this innovative spirit did not light the king when  he faced the issue of Gypsies. To correct what he considered an emergency, he forbade the  transportation of Roma to the UK, imposing a fine of 40 pounds for the master or the ship-owner  who would have disobeyed the decree. The penalty for Roma immigrants was the hanging. Some  years later, in 1547, Edward VI of England, after the death of his father Henry VIII, listened to his  advisers and changed the laws concerning Roma. The new rules, however, were equally ruthless, but the death penalty was cancelled: Gypsies had to be arrested and branded with a V on their  chest, and then enslaved for a period of two years. If they tried to escape and were caught, they were marked with an S and made slaves for life. On July 25th 1554, the day of  the marriage between Mary Tudor and Philip II of Spain, the terror of the Inquisition materialized  for the gypsies living in England and Ireland. Bloody Mary's commitment to restore Catholicism  also targeted Roma living in the territory of the kingdom. An act was issued which established the  capital punishment not only for Roma but also for anyone serving in their communities. Eight years  later, under the reign of Elizabeth I, a new law was enacted, under which the Gypsies born in  England and Wales had to leave the country, or waive their traditions and dissolve their  communities. All others Roma would have had suffer the confiscation of land and property and the  death sentence. In 1596, during the reign of Elizabeth I 106 travellers were sentenced to death in the city of York, with no indictment out of belonging to a race hated by the authorities and the public. Nine sentences were executed, while the  others managed to prove that they were born in England. Executions on the basis of race continued  until 1650, the year after the execution of Charles I, when the era of Oliver Cromwell began and the  English interregnum, first with the republic called the Commonwealth of England, then with the  Protectorate of England, Scotland and Ireland. Despite the atmosphere of political and social  change, that year a Roma was executed in Suffolk, while others were deported to America.

Scotland,  that in 1540 had allowed Roma to live within the country while maintaining their traditions, had a  sudden afterthought and the following year enacted laws against the Gypsies. In 1573, the Gypsies hiding in Scotland were ordered to get married and develop a  stable working activity, otherwise leave the country.

From nine to twelve million Roma are currently living in Europe. In Romania the estimated Roma  population is between one million and a half to two and a half; in Bulgaria from 700,000 to  800,000; in Spain - where they are called Gypsies or Kale - around 600,000; in France half a  million. In 2006, about 160,000 Roma lived in Italy, then reduced to less than half due to the  indiscriminate evictions and the institutional persecution, which forced them to seek refuge in other  countries, causing in the meantime a high degree of mortality within the settlements. Roma from  Eastern Europe constitute about 85% of the total, Kale - or Gypsies - 10%, Sintis (in France called Manouche) 4% and Romanichal in UK 0.5 %. In Europe Roma are primarily sedentary, although  the persecution often oblige them to a form of forced nomadism. The stereotypes on Roma community during a thousand years are always the same: they are  children rapers, thieves, lawless and dirty people etc. Most European citizens are frightened by misinformation concerning Roma people, and the role the  media play in this case, cannot be considered negligible. For centuries the marginalization and mistrust towards Roma people have not changed and Roma communities are quite always and everywhere discriminated, ghettoized and kept away from  citizens, mass media and often from public administrations also.The decades spent in this situation of neglect have brought communities to a complete isolation  causing distrust and rancor towards the host countries.

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