Europe's Largest Minority Gaining Recognition, Expert Says

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Centuries of discrimination against the Roma, Silverman explained, has made them cautious about identifying themselves as Roma, or Gypsies.

"It's such a stigma to be labeled as a Gypsy," she said. "If the atmosphere were less intense, less racist, people would admit who they are."

For example, the 2001 census for Bulgaria reported that Roma made up 4.7 percent of the country's population of 7.7 million. But scholars estimate Bulgaria's Roma population is twice as big, Silverman said.

According to the World Bank, which uses scholarly estimates, Europe's Roma population is between 8 and 12 million.

"Governments tend not to want to admit to such a large population, because then they'd have to serve them with social services," Silverman explained.

With a population of 8 to 12 million, Roma are Europe's largest minority. But unlike other minority groups, such as Turkish workers in Germany, Silverman said, the Roma have no nation to call home or to argue on their behalf.

The Roma migrated out of India beginning around A.D. 1100, perhaps organized to fight Muslims. By the 1300s Roma were settled across Europe. Today Roma are found in every European country and in North and South America.

(Listen to Roma, or Gypsy, music online.)

"Though originally from India, they don't want to return to India, and India is not interested in claiming them," Silverman said.

Roma Activism

Today, the international community—in particular the European Union—accepts the scholarly count, which has emboldened Roma activists to seek equality in housing, health care, education, and jobs, Silverman said.

For example, the European Roma Rights Center, based in Budapest, Hungary, last year celebrated its ten-year anniversary. The organization combats discrimination and fights for equal access to government services.

Speaking at the organization's ten-year celebration last April, Executive Director Dimitrina Petrova noted that the organization has met mixed results in its mission.

In Turkey, for example, the human rights position of Roma is "deplorable" despite several attempts to raise awareness, she said. Roma there still shy from the Roma label, are impoverished, and elect not to file formal complaints against human rights abuses.

Nor have center donors stepped up to fund work in Turkey.

However, she said the organization has also made significant progress toward equal rights for Roma in at least 20 other countries. And the movement has legs, she added.

"Ten years ago, there was no Roma rights," she said. "Now this is a rich field of human rights advocacy, as well as an aspect of the Roma movement."

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