Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
According to different estimations there are 70,000 – 140,000 (Council of Europe, 2012) Roma and Sinti in Germany. Other estimates have previously suggested that there are around 60,000 Sinti and 10,000 Roma who are German citizens while the total number including non-German citizens has been put at 70,000 Sinti and 40,000 Roma, though there is little certainty around the exact number of the population.
The designation of national minority within the context of the commitments of the Federal Republic of Germany refers exclusively to those Roma and Sinti who are German citizens and is not extended to migrants of Roma and Sinti background living in Germany. The foreign Roma residing in Germany are predominantly socially disadvantaged migrants from Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and former Yugoslavia. The Romany language is officially recognised as a minority language in line within Germany’s commitments under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.
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, 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 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 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, 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 Roma and Sinti families into the major cities.
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 and Sinti along with 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 Roma and Sinti 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 Roma and Sinti 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 by the devastation and shifting borders of central and eastern Europe. Although many settled or remained in Germany, neither they nor their German-born children had citizenship rights.
After 1945 Roma and Sinti 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, characteristic 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 have lacked the means to do so.
In 1982 the Central Council of German Roma and Sinti 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 Sinti rights recognition led to the registration procedures becoming 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 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 Roma and Sinti opposed special regulations for Roma and Sinti, which would encourage segregation and discrimination.
In the 1990s Roma 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.
The umbrella organization of the German Roma and Sinti, the Central Council of the German Roma and Sinti, was founded in 1982. It is a legally recognized representative of this minority in its relations with the state authorities at various levels, as well as with other entities in Germany and abroad. The Central Council of the German Roma and Sinti is involved in the work of the Minority Council of the four autochthonous national minorities of Germany as the representative of the German Roma and Sinti.
One of the main areas of work of the Central Council of German Roma and Sinti focusses on combatting discrimination. From the 1990s, it 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 Roma and Sinti 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. 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.
Roma and Sinti continue to be the victims of violent racist attacks and harassment. Already in its 2013 report on Germany, the European Commission on Racism and Intolerance noted that Roma and Sinti who are not German citizens are more vulnerable to racism and discrimination. Surveys and studies have consistently shown high levels of intolerance in German society towards Roma and Sinti.
Discrimination in the housing market remains a significant problem for Roma in Germany, particularly for the foreign EU nationals of Roma ethnicity. At present, many continue to be segregated from mainstream German society. While there have been programmes to rehouse Roma and Sinti since the 1980s, 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.
The German federal authorities have made efforts to combat manifestations of anti-gypsyism as part of its preventive measures against extremism. One milestone in this sphere was the adoption of the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies up to 2020 by Germany. However, anti-Roma sentiment in Germany remains widespread.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in