Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Official publications estimate the Roma population in Greece numbering around 265,000. Most of the Roma are Orthodox Christians and are dispersed throughout the country. Many Muslim Roma live in Macedonia and Western Thrace.
Historical accounts of Roma in Greece have often reflected the community’s stigmatization and contributed to their misrepresentation. Though the origins of the first Roma in Greece are uncertain, with some sources suggesting a presence as far back as the eleventh century, Roma played a significant role during the Byzantine era, fighting Ottoman forces from the mid-fourteenth centry onwards. Under the Ottoman Empire, Roma experienced widespread segregation and stigmatization. Some Roma converted to Islam, though the majority in what is now present day Greece did not. Roma played an important role in the Greek uprising against Ottoman rule and after independence, though this remains largely unrecognized.
As elsewhere in Europe during World War II, Greece’s Roma were persecuted by the Nazis and many were killed in Greece or deported to Auschwitz. . Although exact figures are unknown, 300 Greek Roma are recorded to have been detained by the occupying forces in early 1942. Further mass detentions followed, and only a few of those taken survived. While plans for mass round-ups and transports to Auschwitz were laid aside in 1943 following the interventions of Archbishop Damaskinos and Prime Minister Ioannis Rallis, Roma living in areas under direct German control were killed or sent to Auschwitz. After the war, Greek authorities were slow to move towards recognition of Greek citizenship until 1955, when the first legislative steps to grant Greek citizenship were taken. To this day, however, the special rights for minorities provided for in the Lausanne Treaty, such as the right to education in one’s mother tongue, do not apply to most Roma – the only exception being Roma Muslims who are classified as part of the country’s ‘Muslim minority’.
As is the case in many European countries, the estimated 265,000 Roma in Greece regularly experience marginalization and stigmatization. This is evident in a wide range of areas, from housing and education to access to health care and unemployment. Segregation, whether in the classroom, workplace or wider society, remains pervasive. While there have been some signs of progress to their situation, this remains limited, and the community continues to experience significantly higher levels of poverty and exclusion: 30 per cent lack access to adequate sanitation, and unemployment levels among Roma youth (16-24) are as high as 60 per cent.
Although the government’s National Strategy for Social Integration of Roma focuses on improving the integration and living conditions of Roma, the community still faces high levels of physical segregation, discrimination and negative stereotypes. In October 2015, after a two-year trial, charges against Roma couple Christos Salis and Eleftheria Dimopoulou – accused of stealing a 4-year-old child named Maria – were dropped, when the court ruled that evidence against the couple was inconclusive. This is a significant step forward in the struggle to debunk myths and stereotypes attached to the Roma minority, such as the one that accuses them of kidnapping children.
In May 2015, the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, Mutuma Ruteere, declared that ‘Roma of Greece, while being for the vast majority Greek citizens, continue to face discrimination and remain economically and socially vulnerable.’ The most concerning aspects were highlighted as being housing, social care and health services. As most Roma settlements are not connected to Greece’s national power grid, it is impossible for Roma people to register with local authorities as they are unable to provide gas or electricity bills as proof of residence. For the same reason, Roma children living in informal camps are not able to complete primary school education. A 2015 study conducted by Antigone, an anti-racism information centre in Thessaloniki, analysed the discrimination that can also take place within Roma communities: varying educational attainment, financial status, religious beliefs and cultural practices are said to be key contributing factors, with Roma women facing gender-based discrimination as well.
Many Roma live in sub-standard housing with inadequate water supply and sewage facilities on the periphery of urban areas and on the edge of small towns and villages. Roma have also been subject to racist abuse and violence. In November 2014, three men were convicted of a violent racist attack on a Roma woman Paraskevi Kokoni and her nephew in the town of Etoliko, western Greece, in the previous year. The victim believed that she was targeted because she is a relative of a leader of the local Roma community. This attack did not occur in isolation, but in the context of a series of threats and attacks attributed to members and supporters of the extreme right-wing Golden Dawn party. More recently, in June 2017, an outbreak of anti-Roma violence occurred in Attika following the accidental death of a boy, apparently from a bullet fired in the air by a local Roma: police subsequently had to halt a large crowd of protestors from firebombing the Roma community.
On 2 August 2018, Roma Genocide Remembrance Day was commemorated for the first time in Greece. Community leaders were joined by government and Orthodox Church representatives.
Updated September 2018