The Romani People

A Brief History of the Romani People

The Roma are an ancient people numbering between 15-30 million world-wide. It is hard to estimate their exact numbers since many are not recorded on official transcripts for census counts. No one knows for certain why the Roma began their great wanderings, but it is said that there may have been several migrations from India about a thousand years ago. It's suggested they left their original homeland as early as the 5th century. The largest migrations began in the 11th century during the Muslim invasions of India. They initially travelled on foot or by horse-drawn wagons through Iran to Asian Minor, then Greece during the early 14th century, and after about 100 years, through Europe.


At first well-received in Europe, their customs and rather closed society soon aroused antagonism. Around the 14th century, the Spanish government enforced many laws concerning Romani dress, language, and customs. France and then England followed with their restrictions, and at the beginning of the 15th century, in Hungary and Romania forced many Roma into slavery. This oppression did not end until 1855.

The situation was not so harsh in all areas of Europe. In Russia and the Balkans, Gypsies were not treated differently from any other peasant, and many Roma enjoyed special privileges if they converted to the local religion. But persecution did persist through much of Europe, and more than 500,000 perished in Nazi concentration camps during the Nazi occupation. Communism in the late 1980's and early 1990's brought forward a revived anti-Roma atmosphere. In Western Europe, the pressure to leave the traditional nomadic way of life continued.

The Roma first appeared in North America during the late 1600's to 1700's, and a large number from Russia and the Balkans came to the US and Canada in the late 19th century.

The Roma have been increasingly active in becoming part of movements to establish the rights and freedoms needed to preserve their heritage. In 1979 the United Nations recognized the Romas as a distinct ethnic group and April 8th was proclaimed as International Romani Day.