Seen as dirty vagabonds with odd habits and mysterious origin, who could not be classified into any of the contemporary social levels, Gypsies were not welcomed by medieval Europe upon their arrival from Asia some ten centuries ago. Inhabitants of the countries which they arrived to were initially enchanted by their extraordinary stories, but once the magic of the unknown disappeared, they started to regard them as invaders, delinquents and godless people. Although dispersed and missing mutual contacts or any central government, contemporary Gypsies still retain dialects of their ancient language, keep their own way of life (often nomadic) and remain peculiar. Their marginal position in the society has frequently resulted in all kinds of criminal behaviour and Gypsies tend to be ostracized by the population majorities.
Gypsies are Caucasoid people living in modern times world-wide, but principally in Europe. Out of perhaps twelve million Gypsies scattered all around the world, contemporary Gypsies in Europe constituted a loose ethnic community of estimated 8 million people (1998). Their origin was mysterious ever since they turned up on the continent about a thousand years ago. They were thought to be from Turkey or Nubia or Egypt, or any number of vaguely acknowledged non-European places, feared as Tartar spies, welcomed as Christ's messengers, etc. The most widespread theory was the one that claimed they had come from Egypt. That explains the root of their names in many different languages: Aegyptius in Latin, Egyptien and Gyptien in French, Egypcion and later Gitano in Spanish, Gifty in Greek and Gypsy, also spelled Gipsy and Gypsey, in English. In Hungarian Gypsies used to be referred as Farao nepek, which means the Pharaoh's People. In some places, this Egyptian identity was taken entirely seriously. In the 15th century, James the Fifth of Scotland concluded a treaty with a local Gypsy leader pledging the support of his armies to help recover the Little Egypt (an old name for Epirus, on the Greek-Albanian coast) for them. Another belief, marked by the French term Bohemiens, claimed that Gypsies were original inhabitants of today's Czech Republic. Gypsies were given also other names – Zigeuner (in German and Dutch), Cigan (in Slovak) and Cikan (in Czech), Tsigane or Tzigane (in French), Zingari (in Italian) (all these names are rooted in Greek word thinganein – to touch, which was used in the name a-thingans – the untouchable), and Romany or Romani, Rommany. In the absence of written records, relying solely on the vague information contained in their songs and legends, even many Gypsies themselves believed these stories about their own origin. Recent extensive anthropological, historical and especially linguistic research has satisfactorily proved that Gypsies were the last wave of the great Indo-European migration from central and north-western India. Individual tribes and clans entered Europe via North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula (hence the myth about their Egyptian origin) and via Turkey and Eastern Europe. Because of their oddity, Gypsies were rejected by most of the locals throughout the continent and chased on from place to place or at least outcast to the outskirts of villages and towns. Nevertheless, very slowly they managed to take up certain roles in the host societies and became gradually recognized as musicians, clairvoyants, tinkers, blacksmiths, basket and lace weavers, clay bricks manufacturers, etc. On the other hand, they also earned their reputation of thieves, liars, loafers and generally untrustworthy and unpredictable eternal strangers.
Gypsies themselves (these include the older European nations such as the Kalderasha, and others, such as the German Roma) have always referred to themselves by their tribal names, or by generic names as Rom or Roma, meaning married man, husband, male Gypsy or people. It comes from Sanskrit domba, doma, low caste male musician (usage tracked back to 1841). Words Rom, Roma, Romany, and Romaniya should not be confused with the country of Romania, or the city of Rome. These names have separate, distinct etymological origins and are not related.
An estimated 500,000 Gypsies were killed in the concentration camps or massacres during World War II. Some of the punitive work camps, such as Lety in the Czech Republic, served as Roma-only facilities. According to the Nazis the Gypsies were a genetically criminal people who had polluted their Aryan blood.
Bavaria is the only state in Germany that classifies Sinti and Roma gypsies who hold German citizenship as "gypsies" rather than "Germans". It is claimed that this "helped the police to do their work more effectively".
The Gypsies own supposed disposition to wander has been forcibly furthered by exile or deportation. Only 80 years after their first appearance in Western Europe in the 15th century, they fell under the penalty of banishment in almost all the nations of Western Europe as strange people whose precedence was little known about, who wore striking clothes and spoke an incomprehensible language. In the XIV century there were Romanian Roma that were slaves of the king, the church or the landowners. Until the XIX century, they would not be free of this ominous yoke. Some Roma were brutally castrated so that they could work as coachmen for the rich ladies without any risk to their husbands. In Western Europe, things were not better. The Spanish monarchs elaborated complete legislation against Roma. Racism was extended with the colonisation of other countries by the European powers. In the top period of expansion and discovery of the world, Europe formulated scientific suppositions that were promulgating the difference between people and, above all, the superiority of some of them. This superiority was legalising the exploitation of individuals considered inferior.
The XX century brought more calamities for the Roma. In 1934 the Nazi regime decided which Roma would be sterilised with injections or castrated, in camps such as Dachau or Sachsenhausen. In January 1940 the first massacre of the Romany Holocaust took place: 250 children were used as guinea pigs for scientific experiments in the concentration camp of Buchenwald. On the first of August 1944, during the early hours, 4,000 Roma were gassed and incinerated in Auschwitz-Birkenau, on a night that is remembered as the Zigeunernacht. Some researchers have calculated that towards the end of the II World War between 70% and 80% of the Romany population was annihilated by the Nazis.
It was reported in 1999 that Finland had a Gypsy minority that counted not more than 10,000 people. Three thousand Roma left for Sweden until the first half of the '90s. They lived practically in the same way as their cousins in other European countries – on a lower educational level and in worse social conditions than an average Finnish citizen. The Finnish Gypsies were complaining about discrimination when looking for work and dwelling, negative approach of the media, and about racial intolerance because of their cultural and social singularities. The Helsinki Human Rights Federation criticised a special police register for Gypsies used at criminal investigations. Twenty-eight percent of Finnish Roma complained about cases when they were not admitted to some public places.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Gypsies dispersed in European countries formed ethnic communities living on the social peripheries of the mainstream populations. State policies nearly always treated the Romany population not as a distinct ethnic minority, but rather as a particularly anti-social and criminal group. This attitude was reflected in the policy of collecting special police evidence, e.g. fingerprint collections of members of Romany groups, and in the laws that forbade their wandering.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 Gypsies have been blamed, even from official instances, for many of the evils that affect the states of the former Soviet area. An state of uncertainty has arisen – a state of nervousness, of indefinitude, of insubstantiality – in which old rules are no longer valid, everything is changing, and the new rules do not yet exist. Discrimination against Roma in employment, education, health care, administrative and other services is observed in most of these societies, and hate speech against them deepens the negative anti-Roma stereotypes that are so typical for European public opinion.
At least two municipalities near the town of Medzilaborce in north-eastern Slovakia passed ordinances banning Roma from settling within the town limits. The mayor of SpisskÃ© Podhradie, a small town in Eastern Slovakia with a high concentration of Gypsies, signed a decree in July 1993 which explicitly denied the Roma and other "suspicious" persons of certain basic rights (the National Council, however, condemned and abolished the decree before it could get used). On August 7, 1993, in a televised interview, the mayor of the town of Kezmarok stated that the city police would be empowered to require Gypsies to show their identification documents at any time in any place. In case their documents were not in conformity with the law, it was proposed that suspected Roma criminals would be detained for 2-3 days for investigation, or do some work for public purposes, etc.
The cyclical economic crisis suffered since 1973 has in western societies contributed to the creation of a high rate of unemployment that we could already consider chronic. This has instigated situations of rejection to any immigrant who wants to gain access to employment market and it has helped the recent organisation of openly racist political parties. The Front National in France, the Republikaner in Germany and Vlaams Blok in Belgium are some examples of the political ideologies based on intolerance that have been appearing in some parts of Europe. Something that has made the fight against racism and xenophobia difficult has been the disparity of judicial and penal approaches that exist in the different countries of the European Union. Therefore, there has been very low number of convictions of many people who are accused of committing violent acts against minorities, which has produced, sometimes, a certain sensation of impunity. In public order conflicts, the police frequently treat as delinquents those people who, due to their physical appearance, could look like Roma. At the same time, being Rom is a suspicious element for many police when they are carrying out their investigations. French laws in modern times forbade them campsites and subjected them to police supervision, yet the Gypsies were taxed and drafted for military service like ordinary citizens. Spain and Wales are two countries often cited as examples where the Gypsies have become settled, if not wholly assimilated. Anti-Roma attitudes also exist in the Americas to one extent or another. Misrepresentations of the Romany people in the popular press, books, films and television have contributed to negative stereotypes and characterisations. Special Gypsy units in some local police forces exist to warn the gadje population of Gypsy activities.
It was reported in June 1999 that actors of the world famous Gypsy theatre Romathan were refused access to a major hotel in Kosice, the second largest city in Slovakia. Security guards at the main entrance received instructions not to let the Roma to enter the building. The actors have brought the case onto the first pages of newspapers, TV, and to the European Court. They claim to have represented also many nameless Gypsies who daily encounter the same at other public places, and who do not know about any of these legal ways of protection and appeal.