The Roma, better known as gypsies, are a traditionally nomadic ethnic group, hailing from the northern regions of the Indian subcontinent, presumably from the northwestern Indian states Rajasthan and Punjab. They are a dispersed group of people, with their populations scattered across Europe and even to the United States. Over a thousand years ago, the Roma migrated from India to Europe, where most of them settled around eastern Europe, in countries such as Bulgaria and Ukraine, and eventually, they reached Central Europe, moving in Austria and Germany.
In December, 1993, the Roma was accepted as one of the 6 ethnic groups in Austria. The 2001 Census recorded 4,348 Romani-speakers with Austrian nationality and 1,925 with other nationalities. However, the official estimate for the Roma population is 10,000–20,000, while Romany sources estimate the autochthonous community at 20,000–25,000. Today, about 40,000 Roma are believed to live in Austria. The Austrian Roma divide themselves generally into 5 smaller subgroups, based on culture, dialect and migration history, which are: Burgenland-Roma, the Sinti, the Lovara, the Vlax-Roma (Kalderaš, Gurbet) and the Muslim Roma (Arlige).
The Roma were first recorded in Burgenland at the end of the 14th century. Their metal-working skills were in demand and they began to settle there in the 17th century. However, soon after, they were banned from northern Burgenland and their persecution continued with so-called ‘gypsy hunts’ in the early 18th century. As such, they were forced into inter-racial marriage and their children were removed to be brought up by non-Roma families. Nomadic lifestyle was banned, and the Roma were forced to live on the edge of villages in ‘gypsy houses’, which still exist even today. They made their living as blacksmiths, knife-grinders, broom makers, seasonal farm workers and musicians.
The Lovara came to northern Burgenland in the second half of the 19th century and a second wave fled from Hungary after 1956. The Sinti left southern Germany for Austria from the turn of the 20th century until the beginning of the First World War. They worked as travelling salesmen, makers of umbrellas and musical instruments, acrobats, actors and musicians. Though the Burgenland Roma remain mainly rural today, living in smaller cities such as Oberwart, the other Roma sub-groups, such as Lovara (horse traders), Kalderas (tinkers), Gurbet, Arlige and Sinti moved into the city and the majority of them live in Vienna and eastern Austria.
The Roma remain to be the Europe’s most misunderstood, most persecuted and maligned minority. Since their migration into Europe, they suffered economic, political and cultural discrimination at the hands of both communist and capitalist and both democratic and totalitarian societies. However, given the changing views and increasing human rights movements today, this is slowly, but surely, changing.
It is unfortunately undeniable that the Roma are still subjected to common stereotypes, viewed as beggars and thieves, with criminal organizations backing them out. These stereotypes are further enforced by the government, where officials claimed that there are in fact, plenty of evidence supporting these beliefs. According to Gerald Tatzgern from the Austrain Criminal Intelligence service, about 80% of the beggars in Vienna are Roma. They are placed by criminal organizations at strategic locations in front of supermarkets or shopping streets and at the end of the month, they receive a small percentage of their income, financing the far more affluent lifestyles of their bosses who are part of the Roma community.
They also face difficulties moving up the socio-economic ladder as they are greatly disadvantaged in terms of education, noted by a 2005 Council of Europe Anti-Racism Commission report. Only a minority of the Roma have completed higher secondary education, and very few of them manage to move on to any form of higher education. This prevented the Roma from getting better jobs to support their families and lift themselves out of the poverty cycle that they were stuck in. However, with the changing times and rising human rights movement, some of the Roma started to stand up for themselves and their rights. The efforts of Rudolf Sarközi, to promote the welfare of Roma across Europe should be noted here. Through his efforts, in 1995, he founded an education fund for Roma in Austria, helping families pay for their children’s schooling, expanding the definition of those covered to include any Roma born here or whose parents have worked here for at least five years: “Everybody has access to education today,” Sarközi said, “but everybody has to make use of it themselves.”
As such, for children who were born after 1980, the situation has improved. In 1993 the Romani community and Graz University developed teaching materials for Romani, which has been offered in Burgenland as a voluntary subject for at least five pupils since 1999-2000. In 2004, such classes were held in two primary and one secondary school. Romani associates provide language courses for children and adults. Since 2000, Roma teaching assistants have also been assigned to classes in Viennese schools with a high proportion of immigrant Roma.
Such an improving positive self-image took a long time to develop, and was made possible, Sarközi said, by Austria’s willingness to formally acknowledge the Roma minority – particularly clear, when compared with the rising hostility in Hungary. Initially, Roma were excluded from the “Ethnic Minorities Law” (Volksgruppengesetz) of 1976, which classified the rights of five official minorities. But with the efforts of Sarközi and other Roma representatives, in 1993 Austria became the first country in Europe to officially acknowledge the ethnic group, leading to the establishment of language courses in schools and, most importantly, an advisory board to consult with the government on Roma matters. “We are now accepted as a part of society,” Sarközi said proudly.