By Peter Stanford
It is a measure of the sensitivity of a topic that any nomenclature you use risks causing offence. So, in writing about the two cases of alleged child abduction in Greece and Ireland that have made headlines this week, should I revert to childhood and say gipsies, a word used back then only with negative overtones by my parents and in story books? Or do I say travellers, imitating the young, radical curate in our Catholic parish who brought a group of families, whose caravans were parked nearby, to join us for Mass (and who was pilloried for his trouble)?
Or is it better – as I did earlier this year on a trip to Romania for the Telegraph to investigate the imminent removal of migration restrictions on that country – to opt for Roma, the politically correct collective noun I had gleaned from the EU’s current “Decade of Roma Inclusion” initiative? “Will you stop using that word,” my translator rebuked me. “That’s why the whole of Europe thinks all Romanians are gipsies.”Roma make up fewer than 10 per cent of Romanians and face, as I observed, pretty naked prejudice and hostility in that country. A borderless Europe should, in theory, favour their itinerant lifestyle, yet it seems there are few places that offer any sort of welcome. After another allegation of child abduction levelled against Roma in Naples in 2008, their camps were attacked by a mob. Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, responded by announcing all 150,000 Roma in Italy had to be fingerprinted.
Europe’s estimated 10 million Roma are so called because of their shared Romani language (with many regional and national dialects). “That the history of our people must be sought in our language has become something of a cliché, but to a great extent it holds true,” writes Ian Hancock (Romani name Yanko le Redzosko), a British-born academic who is director of Romani Studies at the University of Texas.
In Germany and many parts of central Europe, the Roma population is known as Sinti. In France, it’s Manush or Manouche. In Britain, some, such as the writer and educationalist Robert Dawson, still prefer gipsy (a word said to derive from a misunderstanding that identified them as Egyptians). Others go for Romanichal gipsies. And then there are the travellers, mainly of Irish origin, who insistently see themselves as a separate group. But this, says the novelist Louise Doughty, herself of Romani ancestry, can be “an artificial distinction” used by those far-Right groups who target Roma.
Even the origins of the Roma are hotly disputed. The standard line is that they are the descendants of a group of nomadic Indians (some say musicians) who travelled to Persia in the fifth century, and thereafter spread out across the lands of the Byzantine empire and into what is now eastern Europe. There are numerous sightings in early texts – the Irish friar Simon Fitzsimons, travelling round the eastern Mediterranean in 1332, writes of a people he calls “Indians… all of whom have much in common with crows and charcoal”. Already, it seems, the Roma were not getting a good press.
The Indian connection, though, is not accepted by all. The overlap between Romani and Indian dialects has been picked away at by Romani academics and often rejected in favour of a more tenuous connection with the East. It is, arguably, precisely such vagueness that has allowed outsiders – gadje, as non-Roma are called in Romani – to project their own stories and stereotypes on to the Roma and, in the process, often demonise a way of life.
“If the words gipsy or traveller were replaced with Muslim, gay, lesbian, Asian or Jew, most decent citizens would not talk in such negative terms,” says Isaac Blake, director of the Cardiff-based Romani Cultural and Arts Company. “We need to respect a long-standing heritage and culture. We need to learn more about marginalised groups, reach out and accept, not base our judgments on ignorance and fear. If we condemn Roma, gipsies and travellers, we are simply keeping the doors open for wider prejudice.”
In a world that penalises discrimination of almost every type, his argument is that society makes a special exemption for the Roma and drags its feet in shaking off the baggage of the past. Friar Fitzsimons writing 700 years ago of Roma as crows (collective name: “a murder”) is hardly a positive image, while his mention of charcoal sets up a colour contrast with white Europeans that resonates to this day. The Greek press has labelled Maria – the young girl “rescued” from Christos Salis and Eleftheria Dimopoulou, the gipsy couple who had claimed her as their own – as “the blonde angel”.
It was the blonde hair and blue eyes of the seven-year-old taken by police from a traveller family at Tallaght, west of Dublin, that caused anonymous callers to the Irish police to suspect she had been kidnapped. Geneticists are clear that two parents with jet-black hair are able to produce a blond child, if they have blond ancestors. How else to explain the number of blond, blue-eyed Sicilians?
The “blood libel” of medieval times – when Christians believed that Jews in their midst were kidnapping young children and sacrificing them so as to eat and drink their blood at Passover – caused pogroms and may ultimately have fed into the Holocaust. Yet it has been shown to have had no basis in fact. Anyone suggesting it today would be ridiculed – even arrested.
Similar myths were told of the Roma for centuries in the same Church-dominated society. They, too, were routinely accused of child kidnap – even though, as Thomas Acton, not Roma but Britain’s first professor of Romani Studies, based at Greenwich University, has argued emphatically: “I know of no documented case of Roma/gipsy/travellers stealing a non-gipsy child anywhere.” And the Roma community, too, suffered appallingly at the hands of the Nazis, with an estimated one million being murdered in concentration camps.
Isaac Blake puts the re-emergence of child-stealing allegations in Greece and Ireland down to both countries’ perilous economic situation. “The revival of the medieval myth around gipsy child-stealing comes when Greece is going through its worst crisis since the Fifties. Ireland’s economy has collapsed utterly. The old, tried and trusted ways of distracting anger, frustration and attention are being rolled out again.”
It may be that this is a European phenomenon, where old suspicions are never quite extinguished. In America, the estimated one million Roma have been largely assimilated into a society that doesn’t carry with it such long memories.Others prefer simpler, more practical explanations for the spectre that has reappeared this week closer to home. Apparently damning evidence in both current cases should be seen in context, according to one British-based Roma writer, who prefers not to be named. He points to his community’s tradition of children living in extended families when mothers and fathers had to travel in search of work; of taking in waifs and strays and giving them a home without asking for formal adoption paperwork; and of Roma women falling in love with blond, blue-eyed gadje. “But we are passionate about our children,” he insists.
Politicians would dispute such claims. Claude Guéant, the former French interior minister, claimed last year that 10 per cent of all crime in France could be attributed to the country’s 150,000-strong Roma community, with half of that being carried out by children who were exploited by adults.
Others argue there is a wider context to the stereotype of Roma as beggars. Roma communities in today’s Europe are at the very bottom of the economic tree, just as they have been for centuries. Around 84 per cent live below the poverty line. EU statistics show that Roma children are over-represented in the various care systems of the continent; the Irish travellers’ rights group, Pavee Point, responds that “the main underlying reasons are poverty and discrimination”.
“Roma, gipsies and travellers are very proud people,” insists Isaac Blake. “They have immaculate homes with cultural rules on cleanliness and propriety. In many communities, traditional courting rules still apply and families bring up their children with a clear moral code. We ask ourselves if mainstream society has something to learn.”