Roma: Indigenous Peoples Needing Specialized Human Rights?

A fantasy of a gypsy caravan
This scene was created by and is licensed under CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

Roma are often linked in the English language to wanderers in the British Isles and Ireland, described as ‘gypsies’, ‘travellers’, or ‘tinkers.’ Are they Europe’s indigenous people? It’s a difficult question to answer, since the term ‘indigenous’ leans towards a notion of ‘first-comers’ or ‘original peoples.’

When European immigrants have historically arrived as strangers in a strange land, they have encountered considerably different kinds of people. This European perspective seems a fundamental key to the use of the term ‘indigenous.’

Roma “are the largest ethnic minority in Europe . . .” as described in the article linked below. But Roma are not merely defined by other Europeans, Roma are Europeans. As well, Roma are not a people defined by occupancy of land, i.e. ‘first settlers.’ Indeed, their recent history at least has been one of wandering.

Because of this footloose status, Roma have inherited a stature akin to that of people described as indigenous. They share an ‘otherness’ that at best more settled populations might consider worthy of protection and nurture. Or, at worst (and all too frequently) as human trash.

The behaviour towards Roma often reflects, as with indigenous peoples, a cynical relationship of civic, regional and even national convenience. How bad can that get?

Here’s an example. In 1954, Canada needed Canadians living in the arctic islands to establish the country’s claim of sovereignty in that region. So the national government kidnapped a community of indigenous Inuit from northern mainland Quebec. They were moved to Cornwallis Island in the centre of what today is generally considered to be the Canadian arctic. The move was promised to be temporary, with a return upon request in the fullness of time to their Quebec native hunting lands.

Flag-flying Canadian citizens worthy of respect now lived on the arctic islands of the western hemisphere. That supposedly validated Canadian sovereignty. Alas that very same set of individuals — understood to be indigenous Inuit — have received only the trash treatment. From that forcible relocation in 1954 until the present day, the promise of repatriation has never been honoured.

Does such a travesty of justice find any parallels in Roma experience? Is their ‘travelling’ not a single uprooting such as the Quebec Inuit? Instead, is it one of continuous displacement (move along now!) as a convenient rationalization as well as a forcible encouragement to Roma that they naturally prefer wandering — a life of displacement, preferably somewhere else?

In Romania today (to finish off a sentence begun earlier) Roma ” . . .often live in precarious housing conditions.” That’s something they share with the Canadian Inuit.

Are there lessons here to be shared and learned about government treatment based on broad civic convenience on one hand, and ethnic minority human rights on the other1?

A city in Romania is trying to establish permanent housing arrangements convenient to and equitable for not only the broad population of Romania as but also its precariously housed Roma population. Can the city of Reșița offer useful strategies to help new world indigenous, old world traveller, as well as middle-east diaspora newcomers, to honour all its residents with a human right to adequate housing?

Read more at Euractiv: A Romanian city’s individualised housing strategy for Roma


  1. For an example read more in Head TopicsNunavut officials barred from sending Iqaluit woman away for long-term care<