|How many Roma live in Central and Eastern Europe? It depends on
whom you ask
Compiling data on Roma is tricky. Researchers and
international organizations have compiled widely divergent figures, even
for countries where a good amount of research on Roma has been done, such
as the Czech Republic. Why the great disparity? (Also, see Romani
Populations for Central and Eastern Europe.)
Unreliable government sources. State authorities have often had
neither the resources nor the interest to conduct detailed surveys of the
Romani population. "Official" figures are often derived from censuses,
which invariably underestimate the true numbers of Roma because many Roma
are not registered on public databases or have otherwise fallen through
bureaucratic cracks. For example, a Romanian census conducted in 1992 yielded
approximately 400,000 Roma, while the generally accepted estimate is at
least ten times as high. Claude Cahn, research director at the Budapest-based
European Roma Rights Center, calls the official censuses "blatantly ridiculous."
Fear of identification. One reason for the inaccuracy of official
figures is their reliance on Roma to call themselves Roma. In the face
of continuing discrimination and negative stereotypes, many Roma decline
to give their true ethnicity. A report submitted to the Office of the United
Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) mentions a Romani mother
who refused to write her children's ethnic identity on a form, fearing
they could be attacked and the family's home burnt down. Older Roma may
also remember the censuses conducted early in World War II, which were
reportedly later used to round up Roma for Nazi concentration camps.
Political motivations. Few Romani lobbying groups strong enough
to influence government policy exist. As a result, Roma will sometimes
identify themselves as members of another minority that is better organized
and, simply put, better off; Roma who call themselves Hungarians in Slovakia
are but one example.
With such obstacles against finding statistically
sound figures, the best approach may be that of Mark Braham, author of
the UNHCR report. He accompanied his chart of estimated Romani populations
with the disclaimer: "It is doubtful that the numbers are less than shown;
they might be twice as high."
Inaccurate self-estimates. Romani leaders understandably tend to
inflate their communities' numbers, to show the potential political capital
carried by Roma. But with few effective national Romani organizations,
Romani leaders may know very little about other Romani communities and
be forced to rely on guesswork.
Copyright © Transitions Vol. 4, No. 4 September 1997 firstname.lastname@example.org
Reprinted by the Patrin Web Journal with permission.