Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The 2001 Census recorded 4,348 Romani-speakers with Austrian nationality and 1,925 with other nationalities. However, the official estimate for the Roma population is 10,000–20,000, while Romany sources estimate the autochthonous community at 20,000–25,000. In addition, there are new immigrants. The Roma are the only ethnic group which is officially recognized throughout Austrian territory.
The Burgenland Roma are mainly rural. The other Roma groups – Lovara (horse traders), Kalderas (tinkers), Gurbet and Arlije – and the Sinti are mainly city dwellers. The majority live in Vienna and eastern Austria. The Roma have their own strong religious beliefs and traditions, but down the centuries they have adopted various Christian denominations and Islam in order for their children to be regarded as legitimate by the authorities. The Arlije and some Gurbet are Muslims; other Gurbet follow the Serbian Orthodox religion. Burgenland Roma, Lovara and Sinti extended family networks were destroyed by the Nazi genocide in the 1930s and 1940s, making it more difficult for them to maintain their traditions. Some Lovara migrated from Hungary in 1956 and so their networks remain intact, as do those of the Kalderas, Gurbet and Arlije, who came to Austria as Gastarbeiter (guest workers) from Yugoslavia in the 1960s.
The Kalderas, Gurbet and Lovara are part of the Vlach-Roma group, whose language is strongly influenced by Romanian. The Burgenland Roma speak Roman, a version of Romani. The Romani language is spoken by an estimated 80 per cent of Roma in Austria.
The Roma Advisory Council to the federal government met for the first time in 1995.
Roma were recorded in Burgenland at the end of the fourteenth century. Their metal-working skills were in demand and they began to settle there in the seventeenth century. They were banned from northern Burgenland and their persecution continued with so-called ‘gypsy hunts’ in the early eighteenth century. They were forced into inter-racial marriage and their children were removed to be brought up by non-Roma families. Nomadic lifestyle was banned, and the Roma were forced to live on the edge of villages in ‘gypsy houses’, which still exist. They made their living as blacksmiths, knife-grinders, broom makers, seasonal farm workers and musicians.
The Lovara came to northern Burgenland in the second half of the nineteenth century and a second wave fled from Hungary after 1956. Sinti left southern Germany for Austria from the turn of the twentieth century until the beginning of the First World War. They worked as travelling salesmen, makers of umbrellas and musical instruments, acrobats, actors and musicians.
From 1928 the Burgenland Roma, Lovara and Sinti were forced to register on a ‘gypsy index’. From 1939 they were interned, then deported to concentration camps, where the majority died.
Those who survived the concentration camps or managed to escape deportation benefited from the post-war economic revival in the cities. They were joined by the second wave of Lovara in 1956 and the Kalderas, Gurbet and Arlije Gastarbeiters in the 1960s. The Kalderas worked mainly in the construction and metal industries, while Arlije were carpenters, electricians and mechanics.
The Roma gained official recognition as a minority group in 1993.
The majority of Roma are city-based and many have assimilated. Most Gurbet and Arlije are Austrian citizens, as are most second-generation Kalderas. Many are self-employed in second-hand trading and other businesses.
As ethnic data is only collected on an optional basis in the Austrian Census, the numbers and distribution of Roma, and thus the analysis of problems of integration and discrimination, are inevitably inaccurate. Government policy for the Roma community is directed mostly at the conditions of the Burgenland Roma, the most disadvantaged group – but they are quite a small part of the total Roma community.
Roma education and media
Roma are disadvantaged in education and achieve lower levels than the general population. A minority complete higher secondary education, and very few go on to higher education. But the situation has improved somewhat for children born after 1980.
In 1993 the Romani community and Graz University developed teaching materials for Romani, which has been offered in Burgenland as a voluntary subject for at least five pupils since 1999/2000. In 2004/05 such classes were held in two primary and one secondary school. Romani associations provide language courses for children and adults.
Since 2000 Roma teaching assistants have been assigned to classes in Viennese schools with a high proportion of immigrant Roma.
A radio station was set up in 1999 by Roma and other minority communities to broadcast in their languages in Burgenland. However, it went off air in 2002 when the government withdrew its financial support. There is no Romani language programme provision by the state broadcaster, ORF.
According to Roma representatives, the Roma Advisory Council to the federal government is dominated by those with political party interests who have little knowledge of the Roma community.
Roma and the Holocaust
The federal government has announced a programme to compensate Roma victims of the Holocaust and to document the community’s suffering during that time. However, a secret vote of the Burgenland Municipal Council of Kemeten in 2003 went against the Burgenland government’s decision that monuments should be erected to the Roma victims.
In 1995, four Roma were murdered in a pipe bomb attack in Oberwart, Burgenland County, Austria. The attacker – who targeted minorities in other attacks – was subsequently jailed for life. Racist prejudice continues against established Roma and new immigrants. A 2005 Council of Europe Anti-Racism Commission report said that many Roma continue to face serious socio-economic disadvantage – especially in education. It also noted that Roma report prejudice and discrimination in their relations with law enforcement officers.
Updated June 2015
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