TODAY, over 25,000 Romani Gypsies secretly live and work in Australia.

They have been here since the arrival of the First Fleet but do not reveal their ethnic identity to outsiders, due to fears of being stereotyped. And, after reading the social media responses to reports of 'Irish Travellers' on the Gold Coast earlier this week, I can hardly blame them. "Bloody Pikeys", "thieving Gypsies", "Dodgy Gypos" were just a few of the insults hurled around in the virtual world. For the record, the group that grifted their way through south east Queensland recently were not Romani Gypsies but Irish travellers, a separate ethnic group with their own language and customs that originated in a completely different part of the world.

The true story of Romani Gypsies began in Northern India, when ruler Mahmud of Ghazni invaded the region in the 11th century to spread the Muslim religion. The Indians fought back, but in the process, thousands were murdered, and those who survived fled through the Khyber and Bolan passes and into Central Asia. These persecuted people would later become known as 'Gypsies'.

Unfortunately, as they travelled west, they would never be allowed to settle in Europe, because local governments of most countries feared that they were forerunners of the invading Turks. For 500 years, in the Rumanian territories of Wallachia and Moldavia, about half of Europe's Romani Gypsies were enslaved. The women were raped by their owners and the men were often castrated. They would not be freed until 1837, when their skills were made redundant due industrialisation. The liberation, however, was both a blessing and a curse, as the government of the day did nothing to educate the Roma about how to adapt to a capitalist society. Some were forced to make money through fortune-telling and begging.

Two women who were allegedly part of the group of scammers. They were from a group of Irish travellers, not Romani Gypsies. (Pic: Queensland Police Service)
Two women who were allegedly part of the group of scammers. They were from a group of Irish travellers, not Romani Gypsies. (Pic: Queensland Police Service)

The negative stereotypes of Gypsies began in late mediaeval Europe, where their skin colour and nomadic lifestyle, combined with people's perception of them as misfits, led to fear and mistrust by the wider population. They were named 'Gypsies' by outsiders because they were perceived to have originated in Egypt, rather than India, which further linked them, in the minds of a suspicious public, with the Turkish invaders.

In 1899, Germany established an office to identify individuals with two or more Romani great-grandparents and sterilising them, and it only closed in 1970. In 1936, a company was set up in Vienna called the International Centre for the Fight Against the Gypsy Menace and, by 1990, had set up branches in 138 countries. Between 1920 and 1973, Romani children in Switzerland were forcibly removed from their homes and raised by a national charity. The stolen children were forbidden to contact their parents, and were often told the rest of their family was dead. As recently as 1976, the Czechoslovakian government tried to pass laws to allow for forced sterilisation of all Roma in the country.

This picture, taken in 1937, shows women from the Sterio gypsy clan, newly arrived in Australia. (Pic: State Library of Queensland)
This picture, taken in 1937, shows women from the Sterio gypsy clan, newly arrived in Australia. (Pic: State Library of Queensland)

But the cruellest policies against the Roma were inflicted by Nazi Germany during World War II. Jews and Gypsies were the only ethnic groups to be targeted through Europe, during which 1.5 million Romani men, women and children were rounded up and exterminated.

Due to the laws passed in late mediaeval Europe, the Roma have never been allowed to settle in one place, or to own land, and so they have had to adapt to work that agreed with nomadism, such as fortune-telling, entertaining, metalworking, horse-dealing, animal-training and harvesting. Unfortunately, the way in which they have been forced to live and work has reinforced their position as misunderstood outsiders, leaving them vulnerable to discrimination. It must be stressed that it is not 'in the Gypsy blood' to travel constantly; their nomadism and choice of work has been a consequence of laws being imposed upon them for over 1000 years.

Even in the 21st century, the Roma remain as the ultimate 'other' in Western society. Today, there is increasing awareness that projecting stereotypes on to marginalised groups is disrespectful, but no such sensitivity is yet afforded to the Roma.

Mandy Sayer is the author of Australian Gypsies: Their Secret History



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