how Gypsy, Roma and Traveler children face discrimination in Europe and the UK

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Throughout Europe – from Italy to Hungary – Roma children are overrepresented in childcare facilities. This is particularly acute in Eastern Europe. In some countries, up to four out of five children placed in institutions are of Roma origin. In Bulgaria, while the Roma make up less than 10% of the population, they make up more than 60% of the child-born population. In Slovakia, this figure rises to 80%.

The situation in the UK is not much better. Social work experts estimate that between 2009 and 2015 the number of Roma children placed in foster care increased by 733%. A recent analysis of the UK Government’s own data from 2020 confirms that Gypsy, Roma and Traveler children are over-represented in child protection services in England.

My research shows that Roma communities across Europe are routinely denied access to essential services, but are instead subjected to oppressive state intervention. The senior civil servants I interviewed in Slovakia and the Czech Republic expressed explicit prejudices.

Respondents claimed that all Roma share predictable beliefs, values ​​and behaviors and are prone to violence, neglect, laziness, dependency and illiteracy. They view the abject poverty experienced by many Roma families as an active choice or cultural norm rather than the result of centuries of oppression and ongoing discrimination.

Roma children in the old town of Constanta, Romania.
ELEPHOTOS | Shutterstock

Pathologized poverty

Throughout Europe, many Roma families have little or no access to social assistance. Preventive measures are rare or non-existent. According to a 2011 report by the European Roma Rights Centre, poverty is often cited as a reason for child removal. And withdrawal is often the first, rather than the last resort.

The report cites the harrowing case of a Hungarian Roma family. When their home was damaged by a storm, instead of receiving financial assistance to make necessary repairs, the family’s newborn was placed in foster care.

In the media, these communities are frequently portrayed as uneducated, culturally backward and lazy, prone to crime and profit exploitation. In Poland, the headlines speak of Gypsies who attack people, of Roma who are not poor people but liars and thieves.

I have found that, despite not knowing much about Roma culture, public authorities treat the coping strategies of most-at-risk families as problematic and abnormal, under assumptions that assimilate Roma culture and poverty to harmful behavior. In Slovakia, charity workers told me that the authorities see marginalized Roma communities as a threat to society in general.

For a study of Romanian Roma migrants in Poland in 2013, I conducted interviews with social workers who insisted that the removal of Roma children is necessary and justifiable, citing nomadic lifestyles as the reason. As the leader of a social work team in Wroclaw told me:

Parents come and go, they don’t want to work, nor send their children to school, it is not possible to work with them, they lie; but worst of all, they force the children to beg.

In Britain, there are legal prohibitions on the removal of children on grounds of poverty or deprivation. However, research has shown that Gypsy and Traveler children are often placed in foster care as a result of official ‘concerns’ and amid disputes over housing, school attendance and employment practices.

Travelers walk along a road beside painted wooden horse-drawn caravans.
In the UK, social workers often feel ill-equipped to properly assess Traveler families.
Andy J. Billington | Shutterstock

Harmful stereotypes

British historian Becky Taylor points out that this oppression has a long history. From their arrival in Britain in the 16th century, Gypsies were actively persecuted for their costumes and nomadic lifestyle, seen as a threat to British society. The Egyptian law of 1530 sought to end the “vile, idle, and impious life and company” of Gypsies by forcing them to assimilate or face exile and death. The Vagrancy Act 1824 further criminalized the nomadic gypsy lifestyle, equating it with harmful behavior and risk.

The stereotyped opinions of healthcare professionals always lead to discrimination. Of 137 child protection professionals interviewed in a 2018 study in England, half believed that Gypsy, Roma and Traveler children were more at risk of significant harm than any other child. They cite parental neglect rather than poverty as reasons for suing children.

Roma new to the UK have also suffered from being labeled as hard to reach, hard to engage or uncooperative by social services. Dada Felja, of the charity Law for Life, which supports Roma parents, says this mistrust stems from the discrimination and racism they have long suffered from officials.

In the assessment and orientation process, language barriers, cultural differences in family structure and child-rearing practices, acculturative stress (the stressors associated with being an immigrant or a minority ethnicity and adaptation to local culture) and isolation are rarely taken into account.

Research has shown that social workers often fail to properly assess Roma children and their families, as they feel ill-equipped or unable to do so. Assessments are key to understanding the child’s experience and the support the family may need. They also help determine if alternative caregivers can be found within the extended family. Failure to undertake such assessments is a clear indicator of discrimination and structural inequality.


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