Zeljko Jovanovic on racism against Roma and what Roma want

In conversation with Katie Engelhart


Gyula Soporny / Novus Select

On Oct. 19, police in Greece conducted a raid on a local Roma community. There, officers spotted a little blond-haired, blue-eyed girl named Maria. Fearing she had been abducted (Maria bore no resemblance to the darker-skinned man and woman claiming to be her parents), police removed the girl from the home. DNA tests revealed that Maria was not related to her alleged parents. Within hours, news outlets across the continent were publishing reams stories on alleged “gypsy” child-snatchers. Around the same time, authorities in Ireland seized two fair-haired children from family homes—again on suspicion that the children had been abducted. Neither of the Irish children had been—and Maria, though she did not belong to the family she was living with, is indeed Roma. (She was reportedly given up by her Bulgarian mother.) Zeljko Jovanovic is director of the Open Society Foundations’ Roma Initiatives Office. Of Roma ethnic background, Jovanovic conducts research on Europe’s Roma populations and heads advocacy campaigns. He spoke to Maclean’s from Budapest.

Q: On the weekend, you said that reaction to Maria’s story should remind us of “how quickly Europe can still be whipped into a racist hysteria.” What have you seen happening over the last week?

A: We have seen yet more proof that prejudice has not been tackled. We have seen yet another example of how quickly society reacts to the slightest suspicion of Roma crime. We have also seen police misconduct.

In addition, we have seen the story shifting in the media. First, it was all breaking news about a white kid being abducted by Roma. Then, the story shifted to “what is Maria’s story within the overall Roma story?” We learned that both of the families [the family Maria was found living with, in Greece, and her biological family in Bulgaria] are in despair. People now understand the real situation of Roma people.

But that doesn’t mean that racism against Roma will decrease; rather, it’s ongoing and it’s increasing. Next year, European elections will take place—and many predict that more parties will behave in a racist manner toward Roma. This could lead us to inter-ethnic conflict.

Q: Several days ago, you predicted “widespread violence in the days ahead.” Has that arrived?

A: We know that in Serbia, skinheads attacked a Roma family on suspicion that the child with them was not theirs. But we don’t know what is going on overall.

Q: Some people worry the Maria incident has set back the Roma integration process. They speak of a “witch hunt” against Roma people.

A: It’s too early to judge that. But I don’t think that Maria’s case is a setback to progress made—because progress has not been made anyway. Overall in Europe, the socio-economic situation for Roma is not getting better. All the research done by the UNDP [United Nations Development Programme], for example, has shown no progress in the education of Roma, in employment, in housing, etc. The department did a report on the situation of Roma 10 years ago—and by comparison, we see no indication the socio-economic situation is any better today.

Q: Looking across Europe, where do Roma people fare worst?

A: Definitely in countries that are economically weaker and less politically stable—predominately, the countries of central and eastern Europe. However, I should mention Italy. In Italy, the encampment of Roma is state policy. The Italian state introduced a policy to build “cultural villages” for Roma. What they do, practically speaking, is spend lots of money to keep Roma on the outskirts of cities, where they are cordoned off behind fences and camera surveillance. These policies keep thousands of Roma outside of social life in Italy, without any prospect for integration or equal access to social services.

Q: This is sort of a crude question to pose, because we are, of course, speaking of many people here—but in your opinion, what do Italy’s Roma communities want? Would they like to be spread out amongst cities and be fully integrated? Or would they prefer to live together, retaining some aspect of traditional living?

A: I don’t want to go too much into the issue of “integration.” We should talk of equal access to public services. Every Roma person wants to go to a doctor when they feel sick. Every Roma person understands that kids need education. The issue is that people try to get those things and get rejected. Basic rights and services are at stake here.

Q: Let’s consider the case of France. Beginning under former president Sarkozy, France engaged in a series of Roma expulsions. The line of the French government was that itinerant camps posed public safety problems. Could that be a valid argument?

A: It’s important to distinguish here. What the French government has done is dismantle the camps of those Roma who migrated from Romania or elsewhere. But let’s not forget the thousands of Roma who are French citizens and who may have been in France for hundreds of years. They are still called les gens du voyage, meaning “travellers,” but in fact many of them don’t travel.

Let me tell you a story from my recent visit to France. I met a young boy, 14 years old, in one of the so-called “travellers camps,” I asked him who he was. He said: “I’m a traveller.” And so I asked him: “Where did you travel from?” He said, “From nowhere; I’ve been here forever.” I replied: “Then how are you a traveller?” He said: “This is what we are called and this is how we are.”

What French authorities did is introduce special ID cards that “travellers” in France had to carry—and use to register themselves every three months with local police. [France’s Constitutional Court repealed some of these requirements in 2012, though travellers must still register periodically.] This was meant to control the movement of Roma—though it imposed other limits too. So even communities that don’t travel anymore are called “travellers” and have special ID cards to control their movements.

Q: One misconception is that Europe’s Roma communities are largely nomadic. To what extent is that true?

A: It’s absolutely untrue. First of all, Communist regimes in Eastern Europe made sure that Roma became sedentary; that was a deliberate policy. In Western Europe, Roma who move are part of small communities in France, parts of the U.K., Ireland. But most Roma in Europe don’t live nomadic lives. I recently heard a statistic that less than five per cent of Roma in Europe still move frequently enough to be considered nomadic. [In 2012, the Council of Europe estimated that “less than 20 per cent of Roma are nomadic.”] And many of them are forced to move.

Q: So your focus is on helping regions to accommodate Roma populations, as opposed to boosting so-called integration efforts?

A: What I’m advocating for is that Roma have the opportunity to sit around the table with authorities, as partners, to discuss the best way forward.

Q: I know that you are yourself of Roma ethnic background. What was your childhood like?

A: I grew up in the western part of Serbia. My family started like many families in Europe: in extreme poverty. What helped a lot is that both of my parents had some degree of education. My mother studied economics at university and my father finished secondary school, before going into business. I grew up mostly in a non-Roma community—but I myself faced rejection and stereotyping many times.

In kindergarten, whenever my classmates would get angry with me, they would curse my Roma background. Whenever I entered a public place where people were not expecting a Roma person to be, people would look at me in a strange way. A few times, people working in restaurants or bars or whatever approached me to leave, because they didn’t want Roma inside.

Q: To jump to the policy level: last year, the EU launched something called the National Roma Integration Strategies. What does that involve, and is it working?

A: European Union member states promised to develop strategies to tackle socio-economic problems faced by Roma—with EU financial backing. However, the governments have done almost nothing to move this forward. Governments have shown a serious lack of political will to move things forward.

Q: What about Roma-led efforts? Have we seen any kind of coming-together of Roma communities across different countries? Any broad political lobbying efforts?

A: Absolutely. We have seen different civil society coalitions come together, and an increasing number of young Roma raising their voices. However, our particular challenge is one of human resources. There are not so many Roma with university degrees that can help to work on this.


Zeljko Jovanovic on racism against Roma and what Roma want

  1. Dears,

    I was reading the conversation and some how i agree with Zeljko .Many times the people in the world never meet the rroma but they speak bad thinks like the popular froze !! THE GYPSY PEOPLE CAN STILL YOU!!, I thing the people need to know about the Rromani people who they are and where come from and why they are so out from the community and the media need to be different on the publication.

    World Rroma

    • As a child, I remember travelling gypsies moving from camp to camp, making living from some trades and stealing from villages domestic animals. In 1950`s I worked with `resettled` gypsies who were digging ditches, under the communist government which made them work, with those who refused were sent to labour camps.Quiet guy is right, when they need wood, they rip the floors, burn windows and whatever else will make fire. And make mess from where they live. But there were two types. Some of the ditch diggeres saw value in education and made sure the kids went to school. Many others, however, brought the whole family to help make them more money, and all what was earned spent on booze. And now they became, in democratic system, a welfare society with no incentive to work for living.They forgot the traditional trades and there is no need for uneducated labour.

      • What you saw was a local crowd…..in one country in tough times.

        • What you write it’s a bullshit! It’s grotesque! Almost everywhere in this world where the gypsy community are, the trouble begin.
          The single country where the gypsy was partially “pacified” in Spain under Franco.
          The rules was simple:
          1. Settle down, educate and have a normal life
          2. If you don’t want, you get a bullet.

          • All human beings are the same. We have the same DNA. Cultures are different, but cultures also change.

            Stop threatening people with murder just because they don’t live the same way you do.

          • EmilyOne,

            The DNA stuff doesn’t semnificate absolutely nothing, the gypsy communites are situated in Europe around 1000 A.D.

            After other 1000 years, they are not able to settle down to be educated, to have a normal life and almost everybody in Europe (and more recently in North America) doesn’t known how to avoid to have any contact with them.

            Sorry, I waste my time with you. Nobody don’t threat anybody, so it’s not necessary for you to go under the bed.

            I wrote about what happened in Spain.

            Which I explain but I observed you don’t understand what I wrote about what happened in Spain during the Franco regime.

            I will repet, maybe you will be able to understand (maybe, I hope)
            The single country where the gypsy was partially “pacified” in Spain under Franco.
            In these times, rules for gitanos was simple:
            1. Settle down, educate and have a normal life
            2. If you don’t want, you get a bullet.

            At the end, you can wrote some “good” news about gitanos in Spain.

            Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romani_people_in_Spain

            According to the website of Fundación Secretariado Gitano (“Gitano Secretariat Foundation”), in the Spanish prison system the Spanish Romani women respresent the 25% of the incarcerated feminine population, while Spanish Romani people represent the 1.4% of the total Spanish population.

            64% of the detentions of gitano people are drug trafficking-related. 93.2% of women inmates for drug trafficking are gitanas.

            13.2% of the total drug trafficking-related inmates are of gitano ethnicity.[6]

            Other link (now from Canada)


          • Actually they come from India, and they have the same DNA as every other human on earth.

            And like every other human on earth they’ve been through tough times.

            Try fixing poverty instead of just being anti-poor

          • I wish to have so much time as you seem you have.
            The part with anti-poor was plain hilarious. I didn’t want to say stupid.

          • I wasn’t able to find that information in the website of the Fundacion Secretariado Gitano but the original source is an NGO called grupo Baranni. Their research titled Criminalisation and Imprisonment of Romani Women in Spain is about the discrimination that Romani women face in the judicial system that leads to their over representation among prison population.

          • Spain has been praised by the level of integration of the Roma population. However, this was not achieved during the Franco regime but with the arrival of democracy and through social policies that achiever greater access to education, health care etc.

        • You are just a fool, Emily. I saw the same camps around 1970 in Romania. Can show you a picture. Two generations of a communist government did not change most of them – just those few that valued the education.

          • There are ghettos and refugee camps and slums all over the world….it has nothing to do with being Roma….just poverty.


          • Emily,

            The theory is the theory, speaking the beautiful words are amazing but remain just simple words
            Actually, the real facts remain real facts.

            I wish for you to have a “nice” rroma community around where you live.

            Why you don’t go and live with rroma comunity if you love them so much? Maybe you’ll love the thrill of a dangerous live.

          • There is no ‘theory’ or ‘beautiful words’

            They are human just like you…..so stop with the hate…that’s disgusting.

          • I don`t hate them. As a matter of fact I feel sorry for them for not being aloud to keep their traditional lifestyle. But keep my distance and where they are present, I watch my valuables. In Sevilla ,Budapest, Prague, Bratislava, Viena etc.

          • They don’t need a traditional lifestyle….it’s just all they have at the moment.

            As far as your valuables….you’d watch them anyway.

          • Emily, you don`t see the difference between a petty crime and organized crime. End of discussion.

          • Organized crime is the Mafia, not a bunch of poverty stricken people.

            You aren’t discussing anything, you’re just expressing hate.

  2. Make me feel sick when I read this article. For the people who doesn’ t known from the first experience about “Rroma” this article can be interesting
    What about working like everybody else?
    What about being an honest people? I known, being honest is very, very difficult concept to understand and grasp by the Rroma comunity.

    You forgot to tell how during the communist regime in Eastern Europe countries the Rroma was obliged to settlle down, have an education. What was the result?

    Everything was destroyed.

    • Just wondering, how do they settle down and find jobs when so many refuse to hire them because of their ethnicity? Likewise, how do they educate their children when school systems systematically shuffle them off to special education classes so as to be able to segregate them from the rest of the population? How to integrate into society when that society does everything in its power to prevent that?

      • That`s what a one party system of communist government in Central Europe tried hard to enforce for two generations. It failed.

      • FYI.

        During the communist regime, in the Eastern countries:

        – the Rroma was forced to send their children at school.

        – the Rroma was provided Identity acts as they (the Rroma) avoided to register their children.

        – For the Rroma families to have a proper was provides flats to have a normal life.

        – Education was free from kirgarden till the PH.

        – During 40 years, everything was done to integrate the Rroma in society.

        Almost none of the measures doesn’t work, they return at their own life style, destroying everything.

        Finally, I’m fed up with all kind of comments from Emily or you because is evident you didn’t spend not one minute to live in one of the former comunist countries.

        So, if you love them so much, invite them at your house and provide yourself with what you think it’s necessary,

        • Amen.

  3. An interesting documentary is Gypsy Child Thieves. It’s sickening how some in that culture use children to steal and marry girls off at 13 yrs of age. I can’t say I know much about other types of Roma, since I only come across the thieves, but they’re plentiful enough in Europe to stoke the prejudice against them.

    • The age for marriage was 12 in Ontario when I was growing up. Some religious groups marry off girls at 13, 14 even now.

      • It doesn’t make it right. Any culture that would do that deserves disgust.

        • Really? Well then you’ve condemned such devout christians as the Amish, Mennonites, Hutterites etc.

          • My comment stands. I don’t understand your implication that it’s right under certain circumstances. You mustn’t be a mother.

          • Actually I’m a grandmother. Early marriage has been around for thousands of years, happily blessed by the church.

            It’s not confined to the Romanis….it’s right in your neighbourhood.

          • It’s not in my neighbourhood, for sure, and I don’t understand your sanctioning it. As far as I know, many of the Roma are Christians, so I don’t understand your differentiation on this point. Any marriage at that age is forced and abhorrent. I don’t care if they’re muslim, christian, or hindu. I’m saying that the Roma culture that is evident in Europe is abhorrent. They are criminals. I’m sure there is another aspect to the Roma culture that is not obvious and I made that point in my original post.

          • Start over.

            You have no idea what’s in your neighbourhood….and I said nothing about sanctioning it.

            Just stop blaming Roma for things that everybody else does.

          • “everybody else” does not marry off girls at 13 yrs old and I have a statistically accurate idea that it does not go on in my neighbourhood given the demographic of my neighbourhood. I am not blaming the Roma; I’m pointing out the roots of the prejudice and that is what is visible in Europe. Again, I declared that there was likely another group identifying as Roma that do not behave in these abhorrent ways, but that they were not visible.

          • Yeah they do. People in many countries and with many beliefs, marry off girls at young ages. It’s not rare, or confined to one ethnic group or religion.

            And they could be living right in your subdivision.

          • “[T]hey could be living right in your subdivision.”

            Yes, child abuse is everywhere.

          • So are grown adults who are in arranged marriages….and have been from an early age.

          • In Canada, child marriage is, by definition, a criminal act. Children who are below the age of consent to sexual acts and the minimal marriageable age can’t be married. Making children marry would be an act of child abuse.

          • Lots of things are criminal acts….but people do them anyway.

          • Then why are you acting offended when people say that cultures which supposedly condoning these criminal acts shouldn’t be criticized?

          • I’m not offended in the least, and certainly child marriage is a bad thing…..however we criticize other people for things we do ourselves. We need to practice what we preach.

          • Is there any evidence suggesting child marriage is particularly common in Canada? The evidence would seem to suggest that Canada _does_, in fact, practice what it preaches in regards to child marriage: it’s illegal, it’s seen as an immoral thing, and it doesn’t happen.

          • LOL well people don’t usually advertise that they are committing criminal or immoral acts. Religious groups live in isolated communal arrangements and outsiders have no idea what goes on there. Immigrant communities carry on their traditions and no one is aware of them either. A man can have a wife….and several female ‘cousins’….some of whom are very young….hard to know, hard to prosecute. Occasionally something comes out into public view….like the young girls married off to older men in Bountiful and being trafficked to the US….or like the car full of women drowned in the canal. For every one we hear about though….there are likely dozens of others.

          • So, in other words, child marriage in Canada is a criminal act so unpopular that people who impose it on their children have to hide it, pretending it does not happen?

            OK. That leaves Canada, and Canadians, in a good position to criticize child marriage among other populations. Right?

          • Exactly what I’ve been saying. We can’t be criticizing other people for doing the same things we do.

            We need to practice what we preach.

          • But we do. The small minority of Canadians who do these things have to do so at risk of legal and public sanction.

            The argument you’re making seems to be that unless we’re perfect we can do nothing. That’s a self-serving argument for paralysis and not bothering to improve anything.

            Canada isn’t into child marriage. This is something we can be proud of.

          • LOL it happens every day.

            The point I’m making is that we should mind our own business.

            Improve by all means…..here. Leave others alone.

          • “The point I’m making is that we should mind our own business.”

            If the sufferings of others mean nothing to you, fine. If they do, well, _no_.

          • We can’t tell other people what to do and how to live….that’s how wars get started.

            Unless they ask for our help….leave them alone.

          • I take it that you don’t believe in human rights, then? OK.

          • I don’t believe we were appointed world police.

          • Everybody else does – you mean child thiefs and beggars, generations on welfare living of the child support only, making quickly messy slums from a decent accomodations provided by governments???

          • You’ll find that all over the world, in all kinds of groups. It’s connected to poverty and lack of education.

            Don’t blame the Roma for things that others do as well.

          • If you look carefully, you will see the difference.

          • What I see is a racist called dani02.

          • Sorry, I am not racist. But I do not like social parasites, white,brown, whatever colour. And I am for a social net – but no freebees.

          • Yes, you are a racist….you are condemning an entire people based on your prejudice…..with no understanding whatever about the group you hate.

            A social net is by definition a freebie.

      • Child marriage is generally considered to be ethically quite wrong nowadays.

        Roma have been subject to terrible persecution. Roma continue to be subject to terrible persecution. Opposing the persecution does not mean condoning everything associated with Roma culture. If, in fact, child marriage is common, this is something wrong.

        (And yes, it’s still wrong if Amish and Mennonites and Hutterites do it. Do they? One site indicates that the Amish tend to get married in their early 20s.)

        • Child marriage is considered wrong by some….and is perfectly routine for others. The world is a big place.

          • Here in Canada, the age of consent is 16 years, raised from 14 in 2008.


            Going to marriage, marriage is possible in Canada at the very earliest at the age of 15 with judicial consent, 16 with parental consent, 18 otherwise.

            It’s fair to conclude that child marriages are illegal under Canadian law and are considered morally wrong.

            What about generally? Looking overseas, in Europe the age of consent varies around 14-16 (Spain is a significant outlier with 13 being the minimum) while the minimum marriageable age is roughly the same as in Canada. So, there’s a consensus there.

            Looking more broadly still, the only countries where marrying girls 12 or 13 years old would be legal–never mind morally acceptable–would be Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

            The world has spoken. Child marriage is unacceptable. Any parents who marry their children off at such a young age are likely committing criminal acts.

          • Yup, and people get married at younger ages anyway. Polygamy is illegal in Canada and yet we have the town of Bountiful BC….and numerous other practicioners throughout Canada.

            Some children are in arranged marriages before they are born.

            The ‘concensus’ you speak of is recent…..and often ignored no matter the country.

            Not a week goes by in which we don’t hear a story about a child….8-10-12 married off to someone 50-60-70…..

          • “Polygamy is illegal in Canada and yet we have the town of Bountiful BC….and numerous other practicioners throughout Canada.”

            You’re changing the topic. We’re talking about child marriage, something that’s quite illegal in Canada and something that’s seen in Canada and around the world as immoral, not polygamy or same-sex marriage or voting NDP or taking out your green bins too early.

            “Not a week goes by in which we don’t hear a story about a child….8-10-12 married off to someone 50-60-70…..”

            Provide cites. Happening in Canada, elsewhere in the world, how often?

  4. Explain to me MacLeans magazine how your little blurb about lost and found children in Roma communities made it to print For the November 4th issue? Under the good news section? you are contributing to racism and hysteria in the worst way. Obviously according to this interview you had the real story on October 31 st. Way to inspire fear and hate.

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