The Gypsies: Then, Now and Later

My mother said I never should,
Play with the Gypsies in the wood.


It might come as a surprise to many Canadians that the largest source of refugee claims to Canada right now is not some war-torn land like Afghanistan or Iraq, but Hungary. At least since the fall of Communism, Hungary has been a more or less peaceful country, having transitioned fairly smoothly into a quasi-Western existence. Goulash, not gunfire, is what first springs to most people’s minds when they think of Hungary.


However, the news might not be quite as surprising if one considers that in 2009, Canada imposed a visa requirement on citizens of the nearby Czech Republic. The purpose of the visa was to stem the tide of refugees from the latter nation. However, the measure was not targeted at Czechs à la Vaclav Havel: the personae non gratae here were the so-called Roma, otherwise known as Gypsies.


The Gypsies have a long and complicated history. Once believed to have come from Egypt, hence the name ‘Gypsy,’ it is now clear that their homeland was in Northern India. Their original language, Romany, is related to Indian languages like Hindi, Punjabi and Gujarati, the names of which may be familiar to Canadians thanks to recent immigration. The Roma, or Gypsies, reportedly made their way from India to Europe around the 14th century via the Balkans and from there spread to the rest of the continent. Virtually every European country has a Gypsy community. In Spain, the Gypsies helped create the colourful flamenco dancing. Britain as well had a distinct Roma population, a member of which is actor Bob Hoskins of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Mermaids fame; one of his grandmothers was a British Romani. Gypsies from Europe also travelled with their European overlords to the New World, as actor/director Robert Duvall’s documentary Angelo My Love about the Roma in New York demonstrates. Nonetheless, most Gypsies today live in Eastern Europe, particularly Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and the Czech and Slovak Republics. There they form a small percentage of the population, a proportion expected to rise due to higher birth rates among the Roma than in the wider community.


Over the centuries, the Gypsies have been reviled, romanticized in works of fiction from Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen to British author Jilly Cooper’s trash novel Riders, and routed to Nazi concentration camps during the Third Reich. Although the Roma have always been ‘outsiders,’ attitudes towards them even by nationalistic leaders of their host countries have varied through time and place. Adolf Hitler, most notably, despised the Roma as ‘non-Aryans.’ In contrast, Serbian paramilitary leader Arkan deliberately courted the Gypsies, describing them as ‘fellow victims of fascism’ (while Arkan’s overtures to the Roma were probably motivated more by opportunism than humanitarianism, the reality is that in World War II, both Serbs and Gypsies were persecuted by Axis forces).


Attitudes towards the Gypsies in the Anglo-Saxon world have likewise been ambiguous. On one hand, they have seen themselves glamorized in works of fiction: for example, the romantic hero of the above-mentioned Riders is a half-Gypsy man who steals the beautiful wife of his blond blue-eyed childhood enemy. Even the word ‘gypsy’ with a small ‘g’ has the positive connotation of a free spirit, as in the Fleetwood Mac song ‘Gypsy.’ On the other hand, ‘gyp’ or ‘gip’ is hardly a flattering term, though interestingly, similar expressions exist about other ethnic groups, such as to ‘Jew someone’ or to ‘Welsh on a bet.’


Returning to Hungary, the position of the Roma in that country and other parts of Eastern European is not very enviable. Gypsies in those places experience higher than average unemployment rates, are much poorer than the general populace, and basically live on the margins of society. An alarmingly high proportion of Gypsy children are enrolled in special education classes. Roma activists and outside observers frequently attribute these findings to oppression on the part of the larger community, noting as well that Gypsies have been targeted by nationalist groups, sometimes violently. ‘Native’ Hungarians and other Eastern Europeans are quick to respond that much of what the Roma do – theft, unruliness, and uncontrolled breeding at the taxpayers’ expense being among the things most commonly mentioned – hardly endears them to the rest of the population. After a group of Roma from the Czech Republic attempted to seek asylum in Canada in the mid-1990s, a Maclean’s reader noted that the Czech government had once built special housing for the Roma but that the Roma burned down the dwellings.


The Roma are frequently compared to the Jews, with whom they perished in Hitler’s concentration camps. It is true that the Jews, another diaspora population, often incurred the dislike and even open hostility of the inhabitants of the nations in which they resided. Similarly, like the Jews the Roma at times deliberately chose to separate themselves from the surrounding society: both groups, for instance, have special terms for outsiders (‘goy’ or ‘Gentile’ for the Jews and ‘gadjo’ for the Roma). One significant difference between the Roma and Jews, however, is that while the former group has constituted an underclass, the Jews were and in many ways still are an overclass in the lands they have inhabited: rich, well-educated, and disproportionately represented in prestigious professions like medicine. To illustrate, whereas Roma children are streamed into special education classes, Jewish schools in Hungary are known for their academic excellence to the point that even some non-Jews send their children there. The glaring discrepancy between Jews and Gypsies’ status in countries like Hungary calls into question the charge that the latter’s present misery is entirely due to discrimination from the host society. One might ask why are the Jews, who have also faced fierce prejudice (including, I must admit, in Canada), not living in poverty or filling the rosters of schools for subnormal children.


The situation of Jews versus Gypsies may help explain why unlike the former, the latter have never pushed for an independent nation for themselves. According to columnist Steve Sailer, the Jews were able to create their own country (Israel), but in a homeland of their own, the parasitical Roma would lack a non-Gypsy population to ‘leech off of.’ Nor is returning to their actual homeland – India – a feasible proposition. Not only would a developing nation like India have difficulty absorbing a large essentially non-productive population, but seven centuries away from India have distanced the Roma from that country socially, culturally, and religiously. Even the Romany language is no longer spoken by the bulk of Gypsies in Europe: most have adopted the languages of their host countries. The bond between the Gypsies and the people they left behind in India has long been severed.


Finally, should Canada accept requests for asylum from Roma applicants? I tend to take a libertarian approach to immigration: that is, let everyone in (barring of course those with criminal records), but once they are here, they are on their own (i.e. no tax-funded settlement services, English as a Second Language classes, etcetera). However, since I know such a scenario is unlikely to occur in my lifetime, under the present circumstances I would say that the Roma’s claims for Canada’s protection are fairly weak. So, of course, are many other refugee claims, like that of South African carnival worker Brandon Huntley, who applied for asylum in Canada on the basis that as a White man, he was targeted by Black criminals in his homeland. I do not doubt that Huntley may have been a victim of crime – South Africa is, after all, one of the most violent countries in the world – but whether he was victimized solely because of his skin colour is another matter altogether. Interestingly, I wonder how many people who scoffed at Huntley’s claim of persecution would be the first to call for the acceptance of Roma refugees from Hungary. I have absolutely no problem with Hungarian Gypsies – or Mr. Huntley, for that matter – coming to Canada under other programs, like the Federal Skilled Worker category. However, granting asylum to citizens of Hungary, a democratic country and member of the European Union, comes off as insulting both to Hungary and Canada, in my view. Although it cannot be totally excluded that some individual Hungarian Gypsies may have valid claims for refugee status, Canadian immigration authorities should remain sceptical.

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