Traveller and Romani Advice and Information Network
There is an inherent danger of stereotyping when trying to describe any group of people, and this is certainly the case for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. As with any discussion on culture, identity, social, historical, and political representation, understanding the positions of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children, families, groups and communities is complicated because of the challenges in defining both the particular and the general.
This means that social workers need to exercise caution in how they use broad descriptions of communities, being careful to understand that families and individuals are all different, and have their own identities and perspectives. In working with people, it is their own situation, and how they experience that, which is the most important aspect, and this concern must never be lost to wider generalisations. In a concerted effort to avoid generalisation, the information that follows in these pages should not be seen as a means to achieve a comprehensive understanding of the unique nature of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. Instead, it is hoped that they show that each group included under these terms has a very distinct culture which has endured to survive centuries of persecution and oppression.
As shown through the many examples pertaining to the marginalisation, oppression and subjugation of minoritised groups, the social representation of “people” is often shaped by historical perception. This social view is crucially important when considering the way in which the stereotypical perspective of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities has emerged from a general ignorance, or projected racism within the population at large. Frequently represented in unhelpful and inaccurate media as being “socially deviant” (Richardson, 2006), Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities in the UK have themselves been subject to extreme forms of violence, hostility and social marginalisation since the 16th century. This historical experience and representation is not only responsible for the continued marginalisation of these communities, but also a dominant view which often misrepresents the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller way of life.
It is not always well recognised that the groups of people who are frequently referred to as “Gypsies” or “Travellers” actually constitute a rich and diverse group of communities which each go under different names, and often distinguish themselves sharply from one another. While the following brief descriptions may be considered simplistic by community members and other specialists, those practitioners new to this area of social work should find them helpful in beginning to develop an important understanding of specificity and to establish the necessary foundations from which to build cultural competence in this area.
Romani (English) Gypsies
Romani Gypsies, Romanichal, or Romani chals as they are sometimes termed, often speak Romani, or pogadi chib, which has its origin in an ancient Sanskrit language that was first spoken in the Indus Valley, in the northwestern region of the Indian subcontinent, over a thousand years ago. It is thought that Romani Gypsies originally came to Europe from India some time in the 13th or 14th century; they were first recorded in British history in 1502, and have maintained a distinctive culture since this time. Despite recent developments in equality legislation, Romani Gypsies continue to fight for cultural survival, including facing eviction, criminalisation and racism in the context of acute and systematic social exclusion.
Another principal Traveller group in the UK is the Irish Travellers, sometimes self-referred to as “Pavees” within the Irish Traveller community. Although some of their traditions may be similar to those of Romani Gypsies, Irish Travellers have their origins in a Celtic, and possibly pre-Celtic, nomadic population in Ireland. They have travelled within the UK since the 19th century, but the inclusion of the words “counterfeit Egyptians” in the 1562 Punishment of Vagabonds Calling Themselves Egyptians Act, suggests that Irish Travellers might have been in the UK well before that date. Irish Travellers have shared the discriminatory experiences of Gypsies, with waves of legislation that have had a significant and adverse effect on their way of life, cultural survival and economic well-being.
Roma populations across Europe are members of the same ethno-social group as Romani Gypsies. However, rather than coming to the UK in the 16th century, their ancestors settled in other European countries (mainly in Central and Eastern Europe) earlier in the migration process. Although Roma families have been arriving in the UK for centuries, their migration has been driven in recent times by their experiences of poverty and racism in their home countries. Roma families report the desire to come to the UK in search of greater economic and social justice, and yet many Roma in the UK work for low wages on temporary contracts. The report also shows that most Roma in the UK live in sub-standard accommodation, shared with other families, leading to poor health and low school attendance by children. Barriers and restrictions on employment, particularly on people from Romania and Bulgaria, add further disadvantage to this group.
Social work with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children
The word “Gypsy” The word “Gypsy” in English and “Gitanos” in Spanish is not a Romani word but a distorted version of the word “Egyptian”. The word “Gypsy” is often used by non-Gypsies to identify, or label, the whole Travelling population, and is frequently used within the media and by other non-Gypsies as a racist term of abuse, especially when abbreviated. Many Travelling people are content to use the term Gypsy to describe themselves, unless they are in the company of settled people, where, because of the negative imagery associated with the word, they may reject the term. This is particularly relevant for some Roma communities, since in Sinti, a variation on the Romani language, the English word “Gypsy” literally translates as “dirty”.