Romani (Gypsy) culture and social issues.

Present but Unaccounted for

by Jeremy Druker

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.
  • 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.
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." 

Copyright © Transitions Vol. 4, No. 4 September 1997
Reprinted by the Patrin Web Journal with permission.

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