Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Of the estimated 725,000-750,00 Roma (also known as Gypsies, a name many consider derogatory) in Spain, nearly half of the population lives in Andalusia, with the rest residing primarily in Catalonia, Valencia, and Madrid. A large number of Roma arrived in Spain from Romania after 2002.
There are understood to be two main historic groups of Roma in Spain, ‘gitanos’ (belonging to the Caló subgroup – living mostly in the Iberian Peninsula and Northern Africa) and ‘hungaros’. Both groups face poverty and social exclusion, however gitano Roma tend to embody a wider range in terms of their social class and cultural differences. They predominantly live a settled lifestyle, have deeper historical roots in Spain, and are usually well integrated into Spanish society. Some argue that they and hungaro Roma are not part of the same ethnic group, but mainstream Spanish society tends to regard all Roma as gitanos. Hungaro Roma, who originate more immediately from Central Europe, have traditionally lived a more nomadic lifestyle. Some hungaro Roma people have been re-housed in ghettoes and have become commonly regarded as settled gitanos.
The first Roma left north-west India between the ninth and the fourteenth centuries. Their earliest presence in Spain is noted in Zaragoza (Aragon) from 1425 and in Barcelona (Catalonia) from 1447. Some Roma settled in a given place, while others continued to migrate. They often encountered and mixed with indigenous European traveller groups, such as the Quinquis of Castile. Those Roma who stopped or limited their travelling within a region mixed with the local sedentary population. Thus, in Andalusia the local culture, particularly the flamenco music, dance, and style of dress, is profoundly influenced by Roma traditions.
For half a century or more, Roma were well received and some local authorities gave them official protection. But from 1492, with the Christian Reconquista of Spain and persecution of Moors and Jews to rid the peninsula of non-Christian groups, the Roma were included in the list of peoples to be assimilated or driven out.
The first anti-Roma laws in Spain were established in 1499, under Ferdinand and Isabella, when they were given 60 days to find themselves a trade and a master, and forbidden to travel in groups. In 1560 ‘the habit and the costume’ of Roma were prohibited, while in 1611 they were compelled to take up farming on land left fallow by the Moors. Spain was unusual among European countries of the Middle Ages in adopting a policy of enforced integration rather than exclusion. Roma settlements were broken up and the residents dispersed; Roma were required to marry non-Roma on pain of death. They were denied their language and rituals as well as well being excluded from public office and from guild membership. In the seventeenth century Roma were deported to the Americas and Africa. In 1749 a round-up of thousands of Roma was carried out; those who had settled were easiest to locate and incarcerate. The Roma who remained free became a subaltern subclass.
From 1939 to 1975 under the Franco regime, Roma were persecuted and harassed. Since 1975 Spanish government policy has made efforts to address the community’s problems, providing special education programmes, welfare, and social services. Local authorities built housing for hungaro Roma. In the large cities, for example Barcelona, these rapidly became deprived ghettoes. In 1988 the central government launched the Gypsy Development Programme, which was reviewed in 2002. The Roma community was consulted to a greater extent for the review than for the original programme.
Spain is regarded by many observers as a positive example of government initiatives to integrate Roma into society. Spain adopted a 2012–2020 National Strategy for the Social Inclusion of Roma, which aims to coordinate efforts between the central government and autonomous regions in order to engender social inclusion of Roma. Prior to this, the government’s Gypsy Development Programme has had an Education Commission carry out educational initiatives including recommendations to include elements of Roma culture in primary education curricula, to distribute Roma educational materials, and to develop intercultural mediator training programmes. The departments of education of the autonomous regions also fund training and job promotion programmes disproportionately supporting Roma students over age 16. The regional governments of the Canary Islands and Valencia make explicit reference to the Roma population and culture in their education laws. There also exists a government body in Spain that implements housing programmes for Roma.
However, there are still many steps to be taken before equal rights are enjoyed by Roma in Spain – especially those who more immediately originate from outside the country. Many Roma continue to face discrimination in education, housing, employment and healthcare, forcing them to live on the margins of society.
Roma children continue to face discrimination in education, which impacts all areas of life. Only five per cent of Roma children complete upper secondary education. Reflecting the prejudices held by many people in Spain towards Roma, a survey conducted in 2012 found that one in four families would not want their children to attend school with Roma. Many Roma live in slum-like settlements on the edges of cities and are often faced with forced evictions. Substandard housing conditions, segregation and overcrowding, and discrimination in access to private housing remain important issues. However, a lack of data on the ethnic origin of school children and of housing occupancy makes it difficult to assess problems and solutions in education and housing. The main occupations of Roma – mobile trading, shop work, construction, seasonal agriculture, and hotel and restaurant work – are precarious and often on a part-time or fixed-term basis, making it difficult to improve their economic prospects. As a result of this situation, Roma households are 20 per cent more likely to be at risk of poverty than the general population of Spain and twice as likely to be food insecure.