“Roma in Romania” – Valeriu Nicolae

© Valeriu Nicolae, 2002, all rights reserved. Published in The Romani Diaspora in Canada: History, Culture & Equity Issues, Editor, Ronald Lee et al., 2003, Canadian Scholars Institute Press, Toronto, Canada. Required Course Reading for Spring Seminar, NEW 343H1, University of Toronto.

How long before we kick the whole lot out? ran the headline of a 2000 article in the UK paper The Sun, on the topic of Romanian Gypsy beggars in London. Romania is the country with the largest Gypsy population in Europe. An unbelievable 84% of Romanians declare adversity towards Gypsies in polls conducted by the European Union.

A few days ago an EU politician asked me what more could Europe do to solve the “Gypsy problem”. I answered with the following joke, to point out that so far Europe has done almost nothing to solve the problem:

A very religious man wanted to win the lottery. Every Sunday he would go to the church and pray: “God, I have been such a pious man all of my life. Would it be so bad if I won the lottery?” Years passed and he didn’t win. Week after week, month after month, he would go to the church and pray to the Lord for deliverance but he didn’t win the lottery. Finally one Sunday he couldn’t take it any more. He wailed to the heavens: “God, I have been such a religious man all my life, what do I have to do to win the lottery?” And suddenly the heavens parted and the voice of God boomed out, “Give me a chance. Buy a ticket.”

Since 1990 western Europe has been confronted with a huge number of Eastern European Gypsies seeking asylum. In the last few years Canada and England especially have been the target of Gypsies looking for refuge. Both countries dramatically restricted their visa and immigration policies in response. The majority of Gypsy asylum seekers are forced to return to their countries. But starting January 1st, 2002, Romanians, including Romanian Gypsies, no longer need a visa to travel and stay in any EU country.

I am a Gypsy but I was fortunate enough to grow up in a family capable of ensuring that I was well educated. I did not escape discrimination in school and since leaving, in work, but I have the confidence and experience to take a place in mainstream Romanian society if I choose. I have many Romanian friends: they don’t see me as a Gypsy and they don’t understand why I refuse to enter restaurants where signs with “Dogs and Gypsies forbidden” are or were posted.

History of discrimination

Between one and two and a half million Gypsies (Roma) currently live in Romania (the US Census Bureau estimates over 2 million). The last Romanian census recorded just over 400 000 Roma. The majority of Gypsies are afraid of possible negative consequences if they declare their ethnic identity.

Romanians have a dangerous tendency to think that Gypsies, as well as the other minorities in Romania, are treated well and have always been given the same opportunities as Romanians. This idea is reflected in the rhetorical question frequently voiced and printed in newspapers: “If they don’t like it why do they stay in Romania?”

In reality, Romanian society has a long tradition of discrimination against its ethnic minorities and especially Gypsies. Most Romanians regard Gypsies as a subspecies genetically determined to theft and violence. Some highlights from the recent history of Romania illustrate this clearly:

Before 1864 Gypsies lived as slaves in Romania (and therefore did not actually have the option of leaving). Killings of Gypsy slaves were so commonplace that often they were not even recorded. Immediately after 1864, when a church decree emancipated the Gypsies, Romania experienced the largest emigration in its history: Gypsies fled, afraid of racial persecution.

In the 20th century racial persecution all over Europe culminated with the holocaust. About 500 000 Gypsies are believed to have been murdered in Nazi camps. In Romania, under Prime Minister Ion Antonescu, authorities deported as many as 90 000 (the official estimate is around 50 000) Gypsies to the concentration camp of Bug, in the province of Transnistria, a dumping ground for Romania’s undesirables during the racist projects of World War II. More than one third of the Gypsies sent there perished from exposure, malnutrition and disease (the official number is 19 000). Antonescu considered Gypsies to be “pests” with the same value as mice, rats and crows. At this moment in Romania Antonescu is regarded as a national hero.

After 1945, the Gypsies did not receive official recognition as a minority, unlike other ethnic minorities in Romania, due to the lack of outside pressure, wide spread public prejudice and the Communist regime’s open policy of forced assimilation of minorities. Public attitude held that Gypsies were the Romanian delinquents. The Communist regime did improve living standards for the Gypsies by including them in the country’s socialized medical, educational, housing, and compulsory employment systems. Despite this, during the Ceausescu dictatorship, Gypsies were the object of discrimination by all authorities. The majority of them were forced to work as garbage collectors, while the rest worked in unskilled, physically difficult and often dangerous jobs. Probably the best aspect of the Communist regime for the Gypsies was that its repressive internal security forces were able to prevent physical violence against Gypsies by Romanians.

The political changes in December 1989 following the fall of Ceausescu’s regime brought a new optimism to the Gypsy community but one short lived. On January 28, 1990, during a violent pro-government demonstration, demonstrators called opposition protestors “provocateurs” and “Gypsies,” implying that only Gypsies, “the scum of Romanian society”, could be against the new regime. On May 18 of the same year, when the president of the National Peasants’ Party (the main opposition party) was attacked by a band of rock-throwing pro-government demonstrators, he referred to them as “Gypsies,” using the same propaganda the government regime has previously used. The participants in both events were almost all ethnic Romanians.

In October 1990 one of the few Gypsy villages in Romania (Huedin) was burned to the ground by more than 1000 angry Romanians. The Gypsy inhabitants were forced to move with no compensation for their losses.

At the end of May 1990 out of 5000 Romanian immigrants in Germany, 80% were Gypsies, and at the end of November, of 270 000 Romanian immigrants in Poland, 90% were recorded to be Gypsies.

In March 1993 Romania deployed riot police to the Argentinean embassy in Bucharest to prevent thousands of Gypsies from storming the embassy in hopes of gaining visa forms because of an immigration opportunity.

On September 20, 1993, in the village of Hădăreni, three Gypsies were lynched by more than 500 angry Romanians after the killing of a Romanian in Transylvania. One of the Gypsy victims had 89 distinct wounds on his body. Fourteen Gypsy houses were burned and five demolished. Despite considerable evidence suggesting that police officers present during the lynching were not only passive witnesses to the events, but in fact played a role in instigating the actions that led to the killing of the three, to date, no members of the police force present have been formally indicted.

In 2000 a poll published by the news agency Agence France-Presse found that three out of four Romanians fear Gypsies and would not tolerate Gypsies as neighbors. In November 2000 the European Commission stated that “Roma remain subject to widespread discrimination throughout Romanian society.” In 2001, 84% of Romanians expressed aversion towards Gypsies in a European Commission poll.

Between 1990 and 2001 more than 100 Gypsy houses have been burned or demolished by angry mobs. Gypsies have been victims of numerous racially motivated crimes. Every report issued by Hate Watch and Amnesty International regarding Romania emphasizes the discrimination against Gypsies in Romania.

Romanian Gypsies are leaving Romania because of abject poverty and discrimination. The Gypsies are not wanted in Romania although they have lived there for centuries and it is their home. Since 2000 Great Britain and other European countries have been confronted with a large number of Romanian Gypsies looking for asylum. However, few or no countries are willing to accept Gypsy refugees.


In the south western Romanian city of Craiova more than 70% of the children in orphanages are Gypsies. In the city of Tirgu-Mures, in Transylvania, 90% of the children in orphanages are Gypsies. The over-representation of Gypsy children in state institutions in Romania is a disaster but the government does not care to investigate the causes or instigate policies to address the problem.

Fortunately, the situation in orphanages in Romania has improved dramatically in recent years due mostly to international media, which by publicizing the abject poverty in Romania’s orphanages forced the government to take measures. Currently, the government allocation for a child in an orphanage is around 50 USD a month, paid mostly from European aid funding. This is the same as the monthly wage for the average Romanian .This amount of money can provide only basic food and shelter for the children; they lack adequate clothing for the winter, school supplies, and medical care, let alone luxuries like books, sports equipment, computers, or toys.

In 1992 I volunteered at Orphanage number 9 in Craiova with a few Danes from the Red Barnett organization. The orphanage staff working with the 38 orphans, aged 4 to 11, was all Romanian; not one Gypsy worked there although most of the children were Gypsies. The Romanian nurses were reluctant to help the Gypsy kids change their clothes. They would call them names, and beating was a common educational tactic. The incidence of staff stealing from the goods received from different charities all over Europe was so high that the children received almost nothing. I asked one staff member why she didn’t give the food to the children. She told me: “Crows (a derogatory term for Gypsies) don’t need those goodies, they shit too much anyway.” I tried desperately to get local families to take the orphans home on weekends, but few Romanian families would welcome a dark-skinned child in their home. Fortunately at that time there were a few Germans and Danes working in Craiova who were very happy to spend some time with the kids.

Why do so many Gypsy kids end up in the orphanages? In March 2001, in Mofleni, a small village close Craiova, I met a few families of Gypsies living very close to the field where the town dumped its garbage. One of the families was composed of a father, Floriţa, and his two daughters. I found the father on the field looking for scraps of metal, paper and food. By selling scraps he makes around $20 US per month. He said he was planning to steal a chicken in order to get thrown in jail for two years. In that case his daughters would be put in an orphanage and would finally have enough to eat. He is in prison now (end of 2001) and his children are part of an educational project at the orphanage aimed at helping Gypsy children get the same chances as Romanian children.

Another brother and sister are in the orphanage because their father is in prison for stealing a coffin to bury their mother. The village priest refused to provide a funeral for the woman unless they had a coffin although he knew they couldn’t afford one.

Dragos Popescu’s wife died when a deserted house collapsed on her as she was trying to get pieces of wood for heating their house. Dragos was left with four children to look after. He makes a living filling gas lighters, making about $25 US per month. In order to survive he was forced to give up three of his four children to the orphanage: he alternates which child he keeps at home in order to give each of them some attention.

Most of the Gypsy children in orphanages are not orphans, but are there because their parents lack the means to feed them and see the orphanages as a temporary solution. Parents may be unable to find work or make insufficient money to feed their children. Although the unemployment rate in Romania is around 12%, the rate for Gypsies is around 70%. Most Romanian Gypsy families live on less than $30 US per month. Job ads often state that Gypsies need not apply, and when they are considered for jobs, they are usually paid less than Romanians, according to an EU report. Furthermore, they are usually blamed for any problems that occur in the workplace and have little job security. One of the places that Gypsies were able to find work in Craiova was the chemical plant Isalnita. I asked one of the ex-directors of the plant about his famous policy of laying off Gypsies. He replied “it’s easier to let them go…crows can fly but Romanians can’t,” meaning that Gypsies will always find a way to survive through dishonest means even if they don’t have work.

I asked one of Floriţa’s daughters what she wanted to be when she grew up. “German,” she answered. I asked her why she said that. She replied that if she was German no one would call her “crow”. History has a weird irony: during the Holocaust around 500 000 Gypsies were killed by Nazi Germans.

Mass media

The mass media in Romania plays a significant role in perpetuating and disseminating anti-Gypsy stereotypes. I collected the following examples, only a few of those possible, between 1997 and 2001.

“Gypsies are those who kill, rape, steal; who are evil and ignorant” Romania Libera (Online version 2001).

The position of the second most widely read national newspaper, Adevarul (The Truth), is exemplified in C.T. Popescu’s 1998 article “EU Document Full of Nonsense”; the author attacks official EU reports on racial discrimination against Gypsies in Romania. “The capacity to feel indignation in the face of such revolting mystification wears out in time – all you can do is wonder: are those ‘Europeans’ imbeciles or are they just pretending?” C.T Popescu was at that time co-host of one of the top three talk shows in Romania. He spoke at least twice a week on ProTV (the most popular Romanian TV channel) and appeared quite often on other channels.

Most newspaper publish job advertisements explicitly stating that Gypsies need not apply, for example: “Guards Wanted…All Roma Excluded …” (Romania Libera, Cuvantul Libertatii).

An April 11, 1997 article in the popular daily paper Cronica Romana reported that “of the 1,091 arrested, 623 are Gypsies.” The official report signed by Chief of the Bucharest police stated “the crimes were committed by 5,566, of which 623 are Gypsies.” The article in the paper misreported the total number of criminals but not the total number of Gypsy criminals, suggesting that a much higher percentage of the criminals were Gypsies that was actually the case. Just a few months later the same newspaper published an article explaining that “the buyers find out how the product should be used from the peddler who, [to judge] by the colour of his skin, does not have the face of a trustworthy person” (Cronica Romana, Aug 19, 1997).

Evenimentul Zilei (largest daily circulation in Romania) published an article with the bold title: “In Hungary, Gypsies Believed to Be Genetically Inclined to Become Criminals.” The Romanian article does not explain that the Hungarian source was criticizing the racist mayor of a Hungarian town who said that “Roma are genetically criminal” and that the Hungarian article went on to say that “the Gypsies are persecuted by the authorities.” The Romanian writer offers no comment on the headline and his article does not dissociate itself from the theory proposed by the Hungarian mayor.

In March 2000 the Romanian press went berserk in just one day in reaction to the so called “Romanian Gypsy beggars invasion “ of London (which proved to be based on about 20 beggars–very few compared to the total number of beggars in London).
The following headlines appeared in popular Romanian newspapers: “Romanian Gypsy ‘lords’ in London,” “British press continues the soap ‘Gypsies insolence beats up the English calm’,” “The English prime minister tells Gypsies to say good bye to the ‘promised land’,” “Romanian Gypsy so-called ‘political refugees’ forced their English neighbors to leave,” “Romanian Gypsies fill England with fear.”

In February 2001, Mihai Tatulici, one of the best known Romanian journalists, making hundreds of TV appearances on almost every Romanian channel), wrote that the illnesses of the Romanian society (corruption, violence, abuse, scandals…) are “Gypsy like” (Privirea).

During the month of September 2001 a monitoring report published by a Romanian agency owned by a Romanian magazine (which according to European Roma Rights Center had already published a few racist articles) reported that from 176 articles published in the most important newspapers about Gypsies, 58.98 % were tendentiously negative (Academia Catavencu, 23 September, 2001).

Most newspaper articles regarding Gypsies are on the front or last page of the paper, often with banner headlines. The prominent position of the texts suggests the importance of the issue in current Romanian society; the Pavlovian aspect of seeing articles on Gypsies mostly in the criminal sections is a significant component of the accomplished result.


In 2001 the Romanian Ministry of Education required each county in Romania to fill out reports on the situation of their Gypsy pupils. Out of the 42 counties, 15 ignored the request without consequences, 16 wrote less than 50 words, and just one report was longer than 150 words–that of Bucharest, the capital where the Ministry is located.

Gypsy children start school with huge disadvantages compared to their Romanian peers. These disadvantages are compounded as they move through the school system, and in the end less than 4% of Gypsy children finish high school and under 20% finish their compulsory education (up to the 8th grade).

From early childhood Gypsies are isolated in their communities. They are not accepted as playmates by Romanian children who are taught by their parents that Gypsies steal, carry lice and fleas and stink. Some of them develop physical and mental handicaps due to the abject poverty in which they are forced to live; eating from garbage bins, living in houses without running water or electricity.

When they first leave their communities to go to school (at the age of 7) Gypsy children feel handicapped, shy and discriminated against. Most have problems with adapting to the new environment and resort to a pattern of violence. Some are kept in the same grade for two or three years. Many are considered to be retarded and are sent to special schools where they also do not fit in, or where their parents refuse to send them due to the social stigma. Teachers in schools with a large number of Gypsy pupils tend to be under-qualified: the better teachers refuse to work in these schools even though unemployment is high among teachers.

Most Gypsy families have no money to buy books, notebooks or pencils. The children do not have the benefit of attending preschools like most Romanian children. Parents themselves are usually uneducated and do not understand the immense value of education for their children. Parents usually take girls out of school at the age of 13-14 to get married or to help their struggling families. Families are often fragmented: the husband is somewhere in western Europe trying to find work and send money home. Other families are forced to travel in search of means of survival.

Those who speak the Gypsy language (Romanes) in their families have little or no vocabulary in Romanian when they start school. Few schools exist where Gypsy children can be taught in their own language in the early grades. Even if such schools were more widely available, Gypsy parents prefer that their children be taught in Romanian, thinking that this will improve their chances of fitting into Romanian society.

In the last few years I have been working to demonstrate that given the same opportunities and support, Gypsy children perform as well in school as Romanian children. With the assistance of a few kind Americans, a private company in Craiova and several Romanians, in 1996 we managed to start a highly successful educational project. We provided 30 children (28 Gypsies and 2 Romanians) living in a village near Craiova with basic necessities: clothes, food and after-school tutoring and assistance with their homework. Previously, these children would not attend school during the winter because they didn’t have shoes or warm clothes. With adequate clothing, these children were happy to attend school all year because the classroom was warmer than their homes (one of the families would actually sleep with their horse in order to keep warm). Several young local teachers volunteered their time for tutoring the children, and an American professor provided some basic English classes. At the present, 2 of the children involved are students at the University of Craiova. A further 12 are high school students. The rest of them are still in school and above average in their grades. Unfortunately, both of the university students regard immigration as their only chance.

Police discrimination

“They told me ‘that’s the law’ when I asked them why they beat my father. I think the law is to kill us.” (Maria Ignat, a 10-year-old Gypsy girl, in a conversation with me after her father was badly beaten by the police as a break-in suspect. He was later proven to be innocent.)

When violent abuse of Gypsies occurs police frequently fail to undertake action to investigate allegations. When crimes are committed in any community, Gypsies are usually the first to be blamed and as suspects are treated badly and often subject to physical abuse by police officers. In both of these ways police fail to provide the same services and protection to Gypsy citizens as to ethnic Romanians, and in many cases actively discriminate against them.

One common pattern is that an investigation is formally opened but in fact never takes place. Officers entrusted with investigating anti-Gypsy crimes often fail to engage in key elements of investigation. In some instances, where investigation does go ahead, prosecutors intervene to block proceedings. For example, on August 11, 1990, following a period of increased hostility between Gypsy and non-Gypsy residents of Caşinul Nou, in Transylvania, and amid accusations that local Gypsies had engaged in theft, approximately 400 predominantly ethnic Hungarian villagers chased out the entire Gypsy population and burned and destroyed their houses and property. The entire Gypsy community faced a very real threat of being lynched. In the aftermath, approximately one hundred and fifty people were left homeless. Local police officers were involved in the events, and to date no one has been prosecuted. Immunity from prosecution is nearly guaranteed when the suspected culprits are police officers. Few lawyers wish to take on the defense of Gypsies, and they are usually defended by lawyers with less than 2 years experience.

In Craiova each year there are at least 4 complaints about illegal arrests and violent police beatings of Gypsies. In February 2001 four of the teenagers taking part in our educational project were beaten by the police as suspects in a case of theft from a local store. Two of them were hospitalized. Although the allegations were proved to be wrong, it was impossible to persuade the media to cover the case or to obtain the names of the police officers who arrested the children.

Romanian politicians

Throughout Europe a German brand of soap called 8X4 is well known. In 1999 I attended a reception given by the Romanian consulate in Strasbourg. The reception was organized for the Romanian interns within the Council of Europe and the European Court of Justice; in fact, the young Romanian political elite. At the reception one young diplomat made a joke: ”What are 32 Gypsies good for? You can make 8X4 soap from them.” Incredibly, most of the people present laughed. That diplomat was not kicked out of the Romanian foreign service. In fact, a few months later he was made one of the cabinet directors within the Romanian government.

This example is not an exception. Since the end of the communist regime Romanian politicians of all political orientations have felt free to make racist comments about Gypsies in public settings. A popular means of criticizing other parties is to accuse them of being Gypsies or having Gypsy associations. For example, during the 1996 presidential elections the opposition party used a poster showing current President Iliescu standing between two Gypsy leaders.

In January 1995 Romania’s foreign ministry attempted to dissociate Romania and the Romanian people from Gypsies. The ministry decreed that the Romanian Gypsies should be called “ţigani” rather than “Roma” as the latter name “was likely to be confused with the Romanians” (Decree H(03)/169 and 5/390/NV, 31 January 1995). Imagine the reaction of Michael Jordan, Colin Powell, Bill Cosby, Alice Walker and other Afro-Americans if President Bush decreed that Afro-Americans should be called “Niggers” in order that they not be confused with Americans. And in 1998 President Constantinescu, when asked to tell all of Romania’s minorities happy new year in their own languages, replied that Gypsies and other minorities should speak Romanian.
In August 1998 Corneliu Vadim Tudor, senator in the Romanian parliament, reportedly stated that his program for running the country included “isolating the Gypsy criminals in special colonies” in order to “stop the transformation of Romania into a Gypsy camp.” When Tudor ran in the 2000 presidential elections he received 28% of the vote—the second highest number, although he is regarded by the international community as an extremist and his newspaper Romania Mare is considered the most nationalist in Romania, openly attacking the Hungarian and Gypsy communities especially. During the elections Romania Mare printed a Christmas carol with lyrics stating that the Romanian people were asking Tudor to “get rid of Gypsies, Hungarians and Jews”.

In a country where politicians feel free to make openly racist statements in public, how can we expect the general population to know any better? For those Romanians who would like to elect a non-racist representation no options exist.

Roma Politicians

Discrimination among Romanians against Gypsies is bad enough—unfortunately further problems can be found within the Gypsy community itself. Currently the Gypsies of Romania (and Europe) have no one able to represent their rights in an intelligent and unbiased way. Until 1999, the Gypsies of Romania were led by Ion Cioaba and Iulian Radulescu. Their political speech was inane and their appearances on national TV disasters proved their lack of education, poor command of the Romanian language and lack of tact. Ridiculously, they presented themselves with the self-appointed titles of “king” and “emperor” of the Gypsies.

Within the already frail Gypsy political elite nepotism and corruption are rampant. For example, “King” Cioaba’s son and daughter were given positions as representatives of the Gypsies for no reason besides their family relationship and despite their obvious lack of education. Often Gypsy leaders use invitations to conferences in North America as opportunities to send their relatives to a place where they can apply for political asylum.

Those Gypsy politicians currently working within the Romanian government are accused by other Gypsies of being corrupt: rather than working together, they work against each other.

Another aberrant idea held by many Gypsies is that only Gypsies can work to improve the situation of Gypsies. (This idea is often used in the struggle for comfortable representative positions within the Council of Europe and other organizations.) Many non-governmental organizations working for Gypsy rights, such as Romani Criss in Bucharest, prefer to employ unqualified friends or relatives rather than qualified but non-
Gypsy activists. While obviously efforts should be made to find qualified Gypsy employees and more importantly, to create an environment where Gypsies can gain the necessary qualifications, there is no logic in refusing help from sympathetic and experienced human rights activists simply because of their ethnicity—this is a form of discrimination in itself.

* * *

I am not you, not like you and not happy being treated like scum in my own country, town or house, not happy hearing you talking about my people as if they are some kind of pest you have to put up with.

I am not part of you, I may have worked for you, I may have been forced to learn your language instead of mine, I may have carried your identity tags and pretended to be an integrated citizen, but now I am telling you I am not part of you and I have no intention of becoming part of you unless you become an accepting and open-minded society.

And Romania, if you want to become an accepting and open-minded society, go and buy that lottery ticket. I am waiting with hundreds of thousand of Gypsies, Hungarians and other minorities to have the chance to join in your society as equal Romanian citizens.

By:Valeriu Nicolae
Romanian-Romani Educator