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Counting Backwards: the Roma 'numbers game' in Central and Eastern Europe

Colin Clark

This paper argues that discrimination, politics and associated factors have led to a situation whereby population figures for one of Europe's most discriminated against ethnic minority groups are unknown, manipulated and contested. In the paper these reasons are critically examined and conclusions drawn on how the "numbers game" has been played in Europe with regard to the Roma.

Terminology. In using the term 'Roma/Rom', I abide with the definition employed by Jean-Pierre Liegeois and Nicolae Gheorghe in their 1995 Minority Rights Group report: 'A broad term used in various ways, to signify:

(a) Those ethnic groups (e.g., Kalderash, Lovari etc.) who speak the "Vlach", "Xoraxane" or "Rom" varieties of the Romani language;

(b) any person identified by others as "Tsigane" in CEE and Turkey, plus those not of East European extraction;

(c) Romani people in general'.

Likewise, I concur with the definition they adopt for "Gypsy": 'Term used to denote ethnic groups formed by dispersal of commercial, nomadic and other groups from India since the tenth century, and their mixing with European and other groups during their diaspora' (p6). However, I also agree with the Social Anthropolgist Judith Okely when she questions 'the non-Gypsy scholar's affirmation of a single Indian origin and homeland as entirely unproblematic' (Okely, 1997: 191).


Let half a million and more Sinti and Romanies live among us. We need them... they could teach us how meaningless frontiers are: careless of boundaries, Romanies and Sinti are at home all over Europe (Gunter Grass, 1992: 108).
Although the Roma everywhere in Europe face continuing difficulties, their current situation in Central and Eastern Europe is an especially precarious one (Project on Ethnic Relations Report, 1997).

200 Refugees = an 'exodus'
300 Refugees = a 'flood'
400 Refugees= an 'invasion'

Such were the typical of the inflammatory terms and equations used in the media when in October 1997 groups of Roma from the Czech Republic and Slovakia attempted to enter Britain in order to claim political asylum and flee the racist persecution so rife in their homeland (Clark, 1997a). Newspapers, both tabloid and broadsheet, employed the 'numbers game' to sell copy and promote a climate of hostility in Dover and Britain generally towards one of Europe's most marginalised and discriminated against ethnic groups (Hancock, 1993; Liegeois, 1994; Brearley, 1996). During October 1997 they were castigated in the press as 'gatecrashers' (The Express, 21/10/97), 'giro czechs' (The Sun, 21/10/97) and 'mere economic migrants' (Mail on Sunday, 26/10/97). How many got in? How many kids did they bring with them? How many claimed benefits? How many shoplifted? Numbers were important during those couple of weeks in Dover, both real and imagined.

This article attempts to account for difficulties in gathering reliable information on the Roma population in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). Why has the 'numbers game' been used so successfully against the Roma in Europe? What is to be gained (and indeed perhaps lost) by having reliable census information and population figures on this particular ethnic minority group? As Paul Gordon has noted, there are strong arguments both for and against collecting 'racialized data' (1996: 30-35). Accurate figures may well help with general 'fact-finding', informing government policy and bringing about social reform, but we need to bear in mind the political context such data is used in, the potential abuse of statistics and problems of definition.

Though concentrating on the situation of the Roma in CEE, it is important at the outset to stress and acknowledge that too often the plight of the Romani population has been used as a Human Rights 'big stick' with which the West can beat the East. Although the situation of the Roma in Central and Eastern Europe is almost unanimously acknowledged to be horrendous by many Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) (e.g., Amnesty International, Helsinki Watch, Project on Ethnic Relations), it is equally true that the established bourgeois liberal democracies of the West have treated Roma living in their own countries with just as much contempt, hatred, fear and loathing as their Eastern neighbours during the last five hundred years (Fraser, 1995). In spite of this shameful record, latest developments show that the doors of the European Union (EU) may not even open to the countries of CEE unless they can 'prove' their human rights record, especially with regard to the 'Gypsy question', is relatively clean and untarnished (The Guardian, 14/3/98). This EU focus on human rights, theoretically, can only be good news for the Roma. One other crucial factor, not fully discussed in the context of this article, is that the Roma do not have a country of their own and are instead scattered throughout Europe and beyond. Different countries count their populations in different ways and it is evident that the figures do not always add up. The creation of a 'Romanestan' state has been discussed at various international meetings since 1971 (year of the first meeting of the World Romany Congress in London) but has never moved beyond the theoretical (Kenrick, 1971). The lack of a "home" territory is a factor of some relevance, but this article will deal with the main issues of discrimination and politics.

Estimates of Numbers

The collection of racial or ethnic statistics is not a neutral exercise involving the simple collection of objective facts. Rather, from the start, it involves decisions of a political nature about what to record, in what terms and in what way, stemming from a particular ideological position (Gordon, 1996: 28).
Compiling data on Roma is tricky. Researchers and international organizations have compiled widely divergent figures, even for countries where a good amount of research on Roma has been done...why the great disparity? (Druker, 1997: 22).

This is a good question and one that demands an answer framed in the context of Gordon's comments noted above. According to one of most reliable and commonly referred to sources, there are between seven and eight and a half million Roma in Europe (Liegeois, 1994: 34). Of this figure, about five million live in the CEE (Barany, 1998: 308). The ongoing transition in this area to a capitalist economic structure has meant that the 'burden' of the Roma "problem" has been a growing concern to politicians and economists in CEE, as well as to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. However, a great deal of apathy has also been apparent when we examine the efforts made at both a local and national level to collect meaningful figures on Roma populations in their regions and countries. Reliable surveys, census data and local authority statistics are hard to find. The 'official' figures (see Table 1) are largely from censuses. Such figures tend to seriously under-estimate the Roma population for a variety of social, economic and political reasons. As an example of this, note the 'official' figures for Romania in Table 1: at the very least they are 'missing' one million Romanies compared to other sources.

Public records, government databases and social statistics generally leave out the Roma altogether or sometimes classify them under 'other'. This classification is symbolic of the way the Roma have been perceived and treated in such countries (Hancock, 1992: 3). Prior to 1989 this was largely due to ideological reasons, in the 1990s it is much more to do with finance. If the figures do not show the Roma to 'exist' then why fund specific social policies directed at them?

How can 'accurate' figures be collected then? International NGOs (especially the European Roma Rights Centre and Helsinki Watch) have attempted to collate data on population numbers. Researchers at various European Universities have attempted likewise (for example, the work of the Centre de Recherches Tsiganes at the Université René Descartes in Paris). The motivations and intentions behind this recent re-found enthusiasm for knowing exactly how many Roma live in Europe is noteworthy. Marek Kohn's (1996) work on the return of the 'race gallery' (using the Roma in Slovakia as his 'case study') shows us the wider context of state and scientific sanctioned racism in Europe and also illustrates the positivistic and essentialist needs of a racially motivated 'science' for gathering quantitative data and thereby 'proving' the 'genetic problem' of a population who just 'breed too much' and are 'out of control' (common expressions amongst the 'gadzhe' (non-Gypsies) in CEE regarding the Roma) (Kohn, 1996: 184-211). To find a solution, as the Nazis knew with regard to the Roma in Germany, Poland and elsewhere during the 1930s and 40s, numbers first need to be known (Kenrick and Puxon, 1995).

Kohn's (1996), as well as Powell's (1994), fascinating work in the former Czechoslovakia, highlights both the common acceptability of anti-Gypsy racism and the reasons for it. Kohn cites perceived higher birth rates among the Slovakian Roma community than the "whites" (i.e. non-Romani), their unwillingness and/or inability to "socially adapt" (quoting the former PM of Slovakia Vladimir Meciar), their poor physical and mental health and the general perception that the Roma are a social problem and "are simply a great burden on this society"(Meciar, quoted in Kohn, 1996: 179). The work of criminologist Chris Powell has illustrated that the common belief that "all Gypsies are criminals" has a lot to do with this vitriolic fear and loathing that the Roma have to deal with on a daily basis. Often, as Powell comments, this belief is simply wrong: so-called "Gypsy crime" is nothing more than petty pilfering to survive in a country where widespread discrimination in social and public life means high unemployment, poor accommodation and social exclusion (Powell, 1994: 108-113).

It does appear that the only feature common to all estimates of Roma numbers (see Table 1) is that they are being gathered with various agendas in mind. Some of these agendas make self-protectionist sense, others are more sinister. Essentially, I argue that the inconsistent, misleading and inaccurate figures exist for two main (and connected) reasons: Discrimination and politics. Each of these two elements to the complex 'numbers' equation must be unpacked and accounted for. Estimates made by governments and Roma organisations themselves differ enormously for these reasons, each of which contribute to Roma under-reporting. Various datasets need to be analysed (e.g. at the European Roma Rights Centre, Amnesty International, Minority Rights Group, OECD, Minorities at Risk Project, Project on Ethnic Relations, The Soros Foundation etc.) and some conclusions drawn as to why Roma population figures are amongst the most debated, discussed and contested in Europe.


Ever since our arrival in Europe, we Roma have been victims of society's animosity. Banishment and pogroms, as well as mistreatment and discrimination, have always been part of everyday life for the "Gypsies" (Kawczynski, 1997: 24-25)

It is clear that the Roma are one of the most persecuted ethnic minority groups in Europe today. Their nomadism, economic opportunism, and supposed "otherness" prompted dominant sedentary cultures over a period of many years to attempt to exclude, contain or assimilate them (Liegeois and Gheorghe, 1995: 8-9). Their very existence was seen as disruptive and as a threat. Racist stereotypes and myths developed to justify the persecution, concentrating on accusations of idleness, theft, witchcraft, child abduction and parasitism, to name but a few (Hancock, 1985; Hancock, 1987). Ian Hancock, a Romanichal Linguistics Professor at Texas University has also noted how deeply ingrained anti-Gypsyism is in European tradition, evident in folk tales, beliefs and proverbs (Hancock, 1991: 4; Hancock, 1997: 37):

The Gypsies are coming, the old people say. To buy little children and take them away...

In the 1990s this persecution has taken new ground in the Central and Eastern parts of Europe. With the collapse of "socialist fraternity" came the release of far-right and ultra-nationalist sentiments, especially towards "dark-skinned 'Gypsy-looking' persons" (Gheorghe, 1991:831-833). As shown recently, those Roma who attempt to escape the hatred and fear are not guaranteed any kind of sanctuary in the West: "we do not want Gypsy refugees here" they are told by Home Office Ministers via tabloid press headlines. European Roma communities have had to endure many such hardships in different parts of the world. These have included:

forced evictions from homes; expulsions from villages and towns (often with the support of local Mayors); physical assault and murder by skinheads, policemen, neighbours; exclusion from public places; widespread legal discrimination; unduly harsh prison sentences and extortionate fines for petty offences; and endemic racial abuse (Brearley, 1996: 3).

One of the many other tragedies that could be added to Brearley's list is state-supported sterilisation programmes. Many Roma women have gone into hospital for minor operations only to return home sterilised (Kohn, 1996:200). The 'gadzho' fear of Roma as "breeding machines" has led to such extreme actions: "if we don't deal with them now, they will deal with us in time" as Vladimir Meciar put it in 1993 (Kohn, 1996:179). It is, however, the racist assaults and violence towards the Roma that has attracted the greatest (but still shallow) attention from the media. Levels of attacks are increasing but are at least now being recorded and monitored if not always followed up by the appropriate authorities. For example, the Czech non-governmental organisation HOST has recorded some 1250 racially motivated attacks towards the Roma between 1991 and 1997 (ERRC, 1997).

It is very important to appreciate that this is not just the work of extremist neo-fascists. Opinion polls have consistently illustrated the strength, potency and acceptability of anti-Gypsy sentiments in Central and Eastern parts of Europe. One poll, conducted by Freedom House and the American Jewish Committee covering Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland, produced a reverse-order ranking which listed preferences for the ethnic or racial identity of one's neighbours; it read: Gypsies 78%, Arabs 66%, Blacks 53%, Asians 50%, Russians 37% and Jews 27% (Hancock, 1993:8-9). Three years later the Czech paper 'Prognosis' reported a poll that indicated 77% of Czechs had a "negative view" of the Roma and 30% thought they should either be deported or isolated in ghettos (Kohn, 1996:183).

What is perhaps even more worrying than the actual attacks is the way in which governments and the European Union have responded to such events. Rather than attempt to deal with the root causes and manifestations of anti-Gypsyism, organisations like the Council of Europe have deflected the issues and have instead turned their attentions to other matters. I have argued elsewhere that the European Union has been almost obsessed with promoting culturally inappropriate gadzho education methods for Gypsy children rather than focussing on the rather more immediate problems they face of racist, state sanctioned violence and discrimination in housing, employment and health care (Clark, 1997b).

Fear of identification as 'Roma'

My family always tried to appear Romanian. Especially during the war it was much better not to be a Gypsy. Actually, it has always been better not to be a Gypsy (unidentified Gypsy woman from Bucharest, quoted in HWR, 1991:15)

One of the main reasons why official and NGO statistics are so inaccurate is because they rely on Roma self-identification. The pervasiveness of anti-Roma racism and discrimination means that most Roma families are understandably reluctant to reveal their ethnicity to officialdom for fear of reprisals. In many CEE countries the freedom to proclaim one's identity only came post-1989: for example, in the Czech Republic and Slovakia it was the 1991 census that first had 'Romany' as an ethnic category. Unsurprising, only 114,116 chose to tick that particular box and official figures have not increased much more than this since 1991 (HWR, 1992: x). This figure should be contrasted with a clutch of others that suggest a population figure close to treble this number. In the face of intense and repeated discrimination, stereotyping and prejudice it does not pay to declare yourself as Roma.

A report written by Mark Braham for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1993 mentions one Romani woman who refused to write her own or her children's ethnicity on the census form fearing they might be subject to harassment, attack or their house being burned out, such as the incident at Hadareni in Romania in 1993 where Roma homes were torched and three people killed (Braham, 1993; Brearley, 1996: 29). Indeed, an Amnesty International report two years earlier listed a nine page 'catalogue of injustice' which warned of rising ethnic tensions and nationalism in Romania with the Roma being principle targets (IRR, 1995; Verdery, 1993: 187).

Another 'fear factor' that causes Roma to shield their ethnicity from outsiders is the continuing legacy of 'O Baro Porrajmos' ('The Great Devouring' - Roma Holocaust). Grandparents today recall the numerous censuses which were conducted during World War Two in order to identify and locate Roma groups for Nazi concentration camps such as Auschwitz, Dachau, Mauthausen and Ravensbrück (Kenrick and Puxon, 1995: 125-150). Again, estimates vary enormously regarding how many Roma were murdered between 1933 and 1945. Most reliable estimates suggest half a million, though some figures have gone from the ridiculous (zero - 'it never happened' according to the revisionists) to the exaggerated (anything from 3-4 million upwards). It can be seen that in relation to the Porrajmos the political and economic significance of numbers are also important and contested. The number of both victims and survivors has a crucial bearing on any future compensation award that might eventually be paid out by the German government. At the time of writing progress is being made but no end is yet in sight (The Guardian, 6/4/98).

What is very clear to Roma in Europe is the fact that the gadzhe search for the 'final solution' to the 'Roma problem' is determined and ongoing. In Britain, English Romanichals, such as Peter Mercer and Charlie Smith of the Gypsy Council, talk about the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, 1994 in this light: to criminalise nomadism in the UK is to literally 'ethnically cleanse' Gypsies (Hawes and Perez, 1996: x-xi).


For those who insist that Gypsy political effort and the reunification movement are non-existent, and that as people we are unable to achieve such goals, or that such activity is "Un-Gypsy-like", the true situation clearly demonstrates otherwise (Hancock, 1991:148)
(I>...the political clout of Romani communities remains small in all East European systems (Barany, 1998: 309)

In the political vacuum that was created post-1989 in CEE a plethora of Romani political and cultural groups were formed. By 1993, in Hungary alone, there were nearly one thousand local and national Rom organisations (Brearley, 1996: 24). Only three years later, according to some reports, this number had dropped to below 250 and not one of these Roma groups had a representative in the Parliament (Barany, 1998: 318). It seems clear that the numbers of such groups have reduced somewhat and any degree of power has been elusive.

The variety of political groupings in CEE is encouraging though. In Bulgaria the leading party is the Democratic Union of Roma; in Hungary there are a variety of different parties covering the ideological spectrum B Phralipe, the Hungarian Gypsy Party and the Democratic Alliance of Hungarian Gypsies; In Romania the Democratic Union of Romanian Roma, Romani Crisis and the Ethnic Federation of Roma are three of the largest parties. In the Czech Republic following the "velvet revolution" of 1989 various Rom organisations were formed, such as the Foundation for Hope and Understanding and the Romany Democratic Congress, though sadly the RDC has had little success in elections due to factionalism, lack of funding and apathy.

With apparently little political means to express their interests and concerns, Roma in CEE will sometimes identify themselves as members of another minority that does have more power and resources (Druker, 1997). One example of this process is in Slovakia where sometimes Roma will identify themselves as Hungarian due to the relatively good standing of the Hungarian minority. This process of >manipulating= identity illustrates the skills at adaptation, on their own terms, that Roma have when their backs are against the wall. Indeed, their adaptability has been called upon often in European history (Fraser, 1995).

On one level the future does seem a little brighter for Romani politics in Europe, despite what Zoltan Barany (1998) has recently suggested. Rom activists and intellectuals are beginning to work together to create a network of groups and organisations which can tap into the corridors of power in the European Union in an effort to improve the social, economic and political situation of Roma in Europe (Gheorghe, 1991: 840-844). The work of the International Romani Union (IRU) stands out in this regard, though at least one Romani commentator has accused it of being a "paper tiger", undemocratic and not playing "any significant role in the Romani community" (Kawczynski, 1997: 28). Real political progress and victories have been slow but at least Gypsies are now recognised as an ethnic minority in countries such as Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia (Brearley, 1996). Indeed, even Barany (1998), despite his pessimism, does acknowledge the political success of the Roma in Hungary and Macedonia, pointing to the way the state in both these countries has sought to encourage Roma mobilisation efforts. However, we must acknowledge that the power base of Romani politics in many Central and Eastern European countries is still localised and rather fragmented at a national level (Barany, 1995; 1998). The wider European platform appears to offer the most hope for Romani campaigning, especially if CEE nations are eventually admitted to the European Union (Kenrick and Bakewell, 1995: 74-75).


It is discrimination and politics that lead to Roma under-reporting in censuses and surveys in Central and Eastern Europe. The plethora of divergent population figures on the European Roma are explained by inconsistencies both between and within countries on methods of counting and the political and economic ideologies that drive the counting process. For many national and local politicians it is just too much of a temptation to "forget" about the Roma by ignoring them in census counts. If they don't "exist" then their needs can be denied: they do not require grants, services or "special needs" funding because they are "invisible" or "look after their own". A case of counting backwards?

The fact that the Roma are without a geographical homeland of their own and are scattered throughout most European countries are also issues worthy of attention. It is understandable that estimates of the numbers of Roma differ but we must appreciate and recognise the reasons why the differences exist. For Roma to try and conceal their identity to gadzho census officials in a hostile environment is surely a reasonable survival mechanism? For Roma political activists to attempt to bolster and inflate population figures to illustrate the potential political clout of Roma in particular areas is also understandable. For government departments and local authority officials who are facing budget reductions in a wider context of economic adversity the temptation to "cut corners" and "forget" about a politically weak minority when it comes to adding up numbers is also, surely, a relatively excusable offence? Or is it? I would contend that it is certainly not excusable when it leads to the type of situation we have in CEE today where large numbers of Roma are routinely discriminated against, harassed, intimidated and abused solely on the basis of their ethnic identity. It is easier to excuse and overlook such actions when numbers are unknown. Although it is convenient for many if the Roma were to carry on hiding in the cracks of an inefficient bureaucratic system or disappear under the relative protection of another ethnic identity this is not always possible and is not the way forward. I would argue that the time has come for the Roma to stand tall and assert their identity and demands given the necessary international protection to do so and without fear of local reprisals.

With the leadership of umbrella organisations like the International Romani Union, steered by dedicated Rom individuals like Ian Hancock, Ron Lee and Peter Mercer, a positive vision for the Roma in Europe's future must be just around the corner. Yet, last year (1997) was the "European Year Against Racism" and nothing seemed to improve for the Roma during those twelve months. The 'numbers game' is still being played on the European political stage and things do not appear to be getting any easier for those Roma families caught at the sharp end.


Thanks to Robert Hollands, Peter Selman, Chris Powell, Margaret Gibb and Jay Ginn for helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper.


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Colin Clark
Claremont Bridge Building
University of Newcastle upon Tyne
Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7RU
tel: 0191 222 7494 x7494 Fax: 0191-222-7497
email: Colin.Clark@ncl.ac.uk
Web Page: http://www.mailbase.ac.uk/lists/traveller-acad/


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