Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
According to the 2011 census, there were 12,560 people who registered Roma as their primary identification, and 17,049 Roma registering Roma as either their primary or secondary nationality. The actual figure is thought to be considerably larger, perhaps reaching as high as 50,000.
During World War II, the Nazi regime targeted Roma for extermination. Thousands of Roma in Poland, along with tens of thousands from throughout German-occupied Europe, were sent to their deaths at camps including Auschwitz-Birkenau, near Kraków.
During the communist period, Roma were viewed as social misfits and, because of their lifestyle, politically difficult to control, and thus subjected to coercive integration. According to figures issued by the communist authorities, 25 per cent of them responded to offers of housing and employment by becoming sedentary. Attempts were made to set up cooperative workshops based on such traditional skills as copper-smithing.
During the 1980s hundreds of Roma were deprived of Polish citizenship and expelled to Sweden and Denmark. After 1989, like other minorities in Poland, Roma began to reassert their identity. Four Roma organizations were founded in Tarnów, Olsztyn, Andrychów and Zyrardów provinces, along with the nationwide Association of Roma in Poland.
In 1990 and 1991, anti-Roma disturbances took place in Kielce and Mława, towns with significant Roma populations. Subsequent heavy prison sentences and fines imposed on the rioters gave the local Roma population some reassurance. Also during 1991, an extreme neo-fascist organization, the Polish National Front, distributed posters in several cities inciting acts of violence against Roma and demanding their expulsion from the country. These relatively isolated incidents, although condemned by the authorities, indicated the persistence of negative attitudes towards Roma and added to their sense of insecurity.
Throughout the 1990s, Roma rights advocates pointed to the failure of the state to adequately prosecute violence against Roma, an issue that persisted, with the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) criticizing Poland in 2005 for lax investigation and prosecution of violent attacks on Roma.
Poland’s entry into the EU in 2004 was accompanied by a broad range of commitments to address inequality and discrimination against Roma, such as the 2004-13 Programme for the Roma Community. However, these failed to address the underlying issues affecting Roma, who continued to face widespread social exclusion.
Unemployment is high among Roma in Poland. According to a 2014 EU Fundamental Rights Agency report, only 25 per cent of Polish Roma adults could report that they had paid employment as their main activity; this should be compared with a figure of 49 per cent overall. Another key issue is education. In 2013, the Association of Roma stated that half of all Roma children were not enrolled in schools, in part because they and their families feared coerced assimilation. The level of Roma completing higher education is low compared to the general population. In this context, many Roma children are especially vulnerable to exploitation.
The number of Roma children attending special schools – typically designed to cater for children with learning and mental disabilities – is above the national average, at 16 per cent. This is connected to a lack of adequate pre-school provision in Roma communities, leading to many Roma children entering the primary education system with little or no knowledge of the Polish language, as well as gaps in accurate testing of their educational needs. In 2017 the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe asked Poland to review its policies for integration in mainstream education and that provision of multilingual education should be strengthened for different minority groups.
Updated July 2018