Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Roma in Finland belong to the eastern Kale group and settled at the end of the sixteenth century. Numbering about 11,000 they live mostly in urban areas. Although some of Finland’s Roma still speak their Kale dialect of Romani, most speak Finnish.
Roma first settled in what was then the Kingdom of Sweden-Finland in the early sixteenth century. In the seventeenth century, Roma were forced to relocate to the eastern part of the realm, which now forms Finland. At the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, the official policy was to assimilate Roma into the Finnish population. Roma children were frequently separated from their parents and the Kale language was banned. But since the 1960s, the goal has been to integrate Roma into Finnish society whilst still respecting their wish to maintain a distinct identity. In 1995, an amendment to the 1919 Constitution guaranteed the Roma, along with Sámi and other minorities, the right to retain and develop their own language and culture. Accordingly, the Kale language in Finland now has the status of a non-territorial minority language and Finland’s Roma community is recognized as a national minority under the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.
Since the 1960s Roma have campaigned for better housing and for instruction in the Kale language. The Finnish Gypsy (since 1990 ‘Romani’) Association was founded in 1967, and an Advisory Board on Gypsy (since 1990 ‘Romani’) Affairs has operated since 1956 in conjunction with the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health. In 1992 the Unit for the Development of Romani Education and Culture was set up by the Finnish National Board of Education to promote Romani language and culture.
Unemployment continues to be a major issue of concern to Finnish Roma mainly due to their generally low level of education. The living conditions of Roma remain poorer than for the majority of Finland’s population. Since the 1970s, the Finnish government has tried to facilitate the acquisition of homes by Roma families through housing allocations and low-interest loans. Despite these efforts, Roma housing conditions have not improved much and Roma still face discrimination in the housing market.
In addition to widespread prejudice in employment and housing, the Roma also face discrimination in access to restaurants and other licensed premises. Prejudicial treatment occurs even though the Finnish Penal Code criminalizes incitement to racial hatred and racial discrimination. The Roma population continues to face significant levels of hate crimes. The Finnish authorities have tried to address bullying of Roma children in schools through, for instance, rap music television campaigns targeting young people to reduce negative stereotypes. The authorities have also supported KiVa anti-bullying programmes, following a methodology initially developed by the University of Turku. The UN nevertheless expressed concern in 2017 that bullying of Roma and migrant children persists in Finnish schools.
In 2009, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health set up a working group which drafted the first Finnish National Policy on Roma. The purpose of the policy is to promote the equal inclusion of Roma in Finnish life. An EU assessment in 2014 noted some positive steps, for instance with regard to Roma teacher training and increased presence of Roma children in early education; however, the EU Commission noted that more needed to be done in terms of assessing results.