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Germany has an estimated 170,000–300,000 Roma/Gypsies and Sinti, the majority of whom do not have citizenship. About one-third of Romanis are Sinti, who are settled in various parts of Germany. The majority are homeless and stateless. About 20,000 to 30,000 are new refugees from Romania, Slovakia and the former Yugoslavia. The Sinti language is a distinct version of Romani with German influence.

Historical context

The Roma moved into the German-language area at the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. German Roma called themselves Sinti, which is thought to derive from Sindh in Pakistan.

Initially the Sinti had official protection from the German Holy Roman Emperor Siegesmund, and they were welcomed in many places. But in 1482 Elector Achilles of Brandenburg banned the Sinti from his land and by the end of the century the entire German empire followed his example. Any non-Sinti had the right to hunt Gypsies, flog them, incarcerate or kill them. Emperor Ferdinand (1556–64) softened the Gypsy Laws to exclude women and children from immediate killing. Because the laws were applied sporadically; Roma could survive by moving to from state to state. Between 1497 and 1774 there were 146 anti-Roma edicts. Persecution was particularly brutal in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Roma could be branded, then expelled or executed. Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia ordered them to be hanged without trial in 1725; the brown skin colour would be proof enough. In 1709 the regional assembly of the upper Rhine decreed the deportation or execution of every arrested Roma. The city of Frankfurt allowed the removal of Roma children.

By the end of the eighteenth century the Sinti were tolerated as outcasts and could earn a living as temporary labourers or musicians. Settlement projects failed in several German states. For example in Wuerttemberg, extended families were forcibly separated and scattered in small groups throughout the state. The unification of Germany in 1871 allowed the coordination of anti-Roma repression. In 1886 Roma without German citizenship were deported. In 1896 licences for itinerant traders were suspended. From 1899 the different states set up Gypsy Indexes, the register of Roma families which allowed the Weimar Republic and then the Nazis to systematically persecute the Roma. Bavaria was at the forefront of this campaign. Repression forced Sinti and Roma families into the major cities.

The Roma and Sinti who had German nationality were stripped of their citizenship by the Nazi government from 1935. Roma and Sinti fled from southern Germany to Austria in the 1930s to escape the persecution, but this continued following the German annexation of Austria in 1938. Roma/Sinti along with the Jews and other races considered inferior by the Nazis were the subject of an extermination campaign launched in 1941. Between 200,000 and 1.5 million Sinti and Roma from Germany and German-occupied countries were killed in the concentration camps, in mobile gas chambers and by firing squad in villages and towns. Over 25,000 of the 40,000 officially registered German and Austrian Sinti and Roma were killed by May 1945.

There were some survivors and some of these had their citizenship restored after 1945. Other Roma travelled west into Germany, displaced from the war devastation and shifting borders of central and eastern Europe. Although many settled or remained in Germany, neither they nor their German-born children have citizenship rights.

After the Second World War

After 1945 Sinti and Roma were obliged to register with the local police and the criminal identification service. In 1948 the central criminal department of Baden Wurttemberg issued ‘guidelines for the fight against the Gypsy menace’ to the police. The former ‘Reich Central Office for the Fight against the Gypsy Menace’ was relocated to Munich and continued its work. Bavaria issued new Gypsy and traveller laws based on the old 1926 Law for the fight against Gypsies and Idlers. The Central Office, or Gypsy Bureau, continued work until 1970, when its functions were decentralized. It was responsible for establishing and maintaining personal files on Roma, including names, photographs, characteristc traits and vehicle details, and cooperating with other federal agencies in tracing Roma, administering individual and family files, and controlling caravan sites. The aim was that every contact between Roma and the authorities should be recorded. Characteristic traits included concentration camp tattoos. Personal details included jewellery, animals and other possessions. It was recommended that photos and fingerprints should be kept on file.

In 1956 the German Federal Court stated that ‘their [the Roma and Sinti] deportation to the concentration camps had not been a persecution out of racial reasons, but a pre-emptive criminal measure’. Compensation and support for reintegration was therefore denied to them. From 1980 German Roma survivors have been eligible for compensation of roughly €3,000 per person, but only the poor can apply and many were too disorganized, illiterate or outside the system to do so.

In 1982 the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma was set up to monitor the community’s situation throughout the Federal Republic of Germany. In 1980 the Rom and Cinti Union and Roma National Congress were set up in Hamburg to improve local conditions, but their role has since expanded. In 1985 the federal parliament held its first debate on issues faced by the community and endorsed an apology for the Nazi genocide. This beginning of civil rights pressure for the Sinti and Roma made the registration procedures less overtly racist at the state level. The procedures were labelled as checks on frequently changing place of residence, and a ‘report service of daily apartment burglary’. From 1981 the federal criminal office kept special records of all Roma and Sinti vehicles and their owners. Until 1985 all marriages, births and deaths of travelling people had to be reported to the criminal police.

In 1997 the federal government gave official recognition to the Roma and Sinti as a national minority and called on the provincial governments to include Roma and Sinti in their provisions for minorities. However, the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma opposed special regulations for Sinti and Roma, which would encourage segregation and discrimination.

In the 1990s Roma/Gypsies from the former Yugoslavia and from Romania and Bulgaria entered Germany as asylum seekers and many were returned to their countries of origin despite the dangerous situation awaiting them there. The 1992 agreement between the German and Romanian governments for the German-subsidized repatriation of Romanian Roma set a precedent for agreements with other East European countries.

Current issues

The criminalization of Roma and Sinti by the state and federal authorities continues despite denials. The pressure on the community is designed to make them move on and in so doing they lose rights to welfare, health care, education and housing. Roma/Gypsies usually do not have citizenship. Many long-term resident Roma in Germany only have temporary ‘tolerated’ status, or duldung, which provides a stop on expulsion and must be frequently renewed. It often includes restrictions on freedom of movement, access to employment and social assistance, depending on the particular state (Land).

There are no publicly available figures on the total number of Roma with duldung status. In 2002, the number of people with this status was estimated at around 227,000, of whom 146,838 had been living in Germany for at least five years and 78,487 for more than ten years. In many cases, children with duldung status speak fluent German and their language of primary education is German.

From the 1990s the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma raised objections to the racist portrayal of Roma and Sinti in many major newspapers and on public television.
In May 2001 the Central Council presented a complaint to the UN Working Group on Minorities concerning the central database of Sinti and Roma personal records that the Bavarian police authorities still held. The community’s case against these records was put before the Bavarian Constitutional Court in 1998, but was still awaiting judgment. In October 2001 the Court ordered the deletion of ‘type Roma/Sinti’ from personal categories of information, and of the collection of data on clan heads and vehicle registration numbers held by the police. However, the Central Council believes these and other records are still kept.

There have been programmes to rehouse Roma and Sinti since the 1980s but these have mostly been carried out without consulting the community. The result has been ghettoes with poor-standard housing and temporary housing with inadequate facilities. Housing segregation enables employers to avoid recruiting Roma and Sinti by their address.

Roma and Sinti continue to be the victims of violent racist attacks and harassment. The Roma National Congress claims that these are sometimes instigated by the police. Temporary Roma housing is sprayed with anti-Roma graffiti. In 2001 a Roma campsite in the state of Brandenburg was bombed with Molotov cocktails and set on fire. There is racist propaganda against Roma and Sinti on the internet. Extreme right-wing groups have desecrated Roma and Sinti memorial sites.

Some Roma and Sinti are integrated into the community and do not admit to their ethnicity because they would be refused work or services if they did.

The European Commission on Racism and Intolerance noted in its 2003 report on Germany that Roma and Sinti who are not German citizens are more vulnerable to racism and discrimination.

With regard to the community’s official minority status some Roma and Sinti organizations urge the provincial Länder governments to ensure that all schools implement the teaching of the Romanes language. They also call for better representation of Roma and Sinti in political and institutional bodies.

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