Vol 1 No 6 Spring/Summer 2002

The Situation of the Roma in Greece

by Cia Rinne with photographs by Joakim Eskildsen

The following article is based on the information and experience gathered during a two months stay with Roma in Greece. The work is part of a book on the Roma of Asia and Europe that photographer Joakim Eskildsen and I have been working on for two and a half years, and which will be published presumably in 2005.

Since our interest concerned mainly more traditional and non-assimilated Roma, the information on these Roma will be more reliable than the information on Roma who have integrated into Greek society.

For further information on the Roma in Greece please see the links mentioned at the end of the article.

The Roma Minority of Greece

The Roma have a long history in Greece, having lived in the territory since at least 1384, the year in which shoemakers were recorded living at Modon, documenting the presence of Gypsies in Europe for the first time. The Romani language of the European Roma carries the traces of their long sojourn in Greece within its considerable Greek vocabulary.

Throughout their history in Greece, the Roma were regarded as "aliens of Gypsy descent," until in the 1930's finally, a small group of them, the by then Muslim Roma, were given Greek citizenship. In the 70's it was rewarded all Roma in Greece, but apart from the fact that it is still a mission for many Roma to get official documents due to the high illiteracy rate, their becoming officially Greek citizens has not made them more accepted by society.

Typical for the general Greek attitude towards the Roma is that all prejudices are without hesitation conceived as "common knowledge," and everyone has some kind of a "personal" experience that may date several generations back to ground these simplified conceptions of the Gypsies. As Panayote Dimitras, head of the Greek Helsinki Monitor put it, "the Greek society is behaving racist while it pretends that it is not racist."

The Roma are the largest minority in Greece, the official number of which varies according to source and purpose. Thus, when raising funds from the European Union for the improvement of the Roma situation, Greece officially has a Roma population of 300,000. Otherwise, their number is decreased to some 100-120,000, and along with it the problems that should be dealt with. The exact number of Roma in Greece is difficult to estimate since many of them are not registered, and thus officially do not exist, and no details on ethnic affiliation, language or religion have been given at censuses carried through in Greece since 1951. According to the Minority Rights Group Greece however, it is more likely that the Roma number up to 350,000 people, about half of who are tent-dwelling Roma. Many of the assimilated Roma, who have integrated into Greek society, consider themselves primarily Greek, and Roma only in the second place, and are therefore called "Greek Roma," distinguishing them from the marginalized "Roma of Greece."

When asking for Roma in Greece, few people will understand that the Gypsies are meant. The common names Greek people use for the Roma are "tsingani"(from the ancient athigganoi, a sect that the Gypsies were either confused or connotated with), or, pejoratively, "yifti"(from egiftos, "Egyptian," also a misunderstanding that developed when the Roma who came to Europe were wrongly believed to have come from Egypt). In literature on the Roma in Greece, one will also encounter the older form "athigganoi" which is believed to be less humiliating. As we experienced, Greek people generally have very clear ideas about the difference between the contents of the tsingani and the yifti; while "tsingani" refers to the travelling Roma who make a living by trading things in markets, and they generally are more respected, "yifti" comprises the worst prejudices towards Gypsies; they are the dirty ones who steal, cheat and beg. The Roma I met did not make such distinctions, and only used "tsingani" or "yifti" when referring to what other people called them. They presented themselves as "Romá," or, as did the Gypsies living in houses built into caves in Didymotiho, as "Calé," a family of Gypsies to which also the Caló of Spain and the Kaale of Finland belong.

There are, however, Roma who do not accept either of the designations, and deny their Roma identity on the whole. In Serres, the inhabitants of Alimbekio signed a paper to protest against all designations calling them either "yiftoi," "tsigganoi," or "Romá," and, as occurring especially in Thrace of Northern Greece, whole communities like Ifaistos (Kalkanza) in Komotini, or individuals (the mayor of Drosero in Xanthi) have decided to shed their Roma identity, and to identify themselves as Muslims, or as "turks" which is a common distorted description of the Muslim minority of Thrace.

This sad phenomena of rejecting the Roma identity is one of the results of the assimilative Greek policy on all minorities which does not encourage different culture, language and identity, and, according to Panayote Dimitras, is based on the idea that Greek identity and being a minority exclude each other: "If you are a minority you are not a Greek." The only minority that has become officially accepted and granted according special rights, is the Muslim minority, whereas the Roma, neither being officially granted the status of a minority, nor respected as Greek citizens with full rights and duties, most of them remain on the fringe of society in every aspect, creating a world separate from that of their Greek surroundings.

The Living Conditions of Roma in Greece

Mobile Home
The living conditions of the different Roma in Greece do vary a lot, and are dependant on the extent of assimilation, the kind of occupation, and, significantly, on the mercy of the local authorities. Certainly, the living standard of the assimilated Roma who have integrated into Greek society are more or less comparable to those of Greeks, as do the Roma of the two almost entirely Romani villages of Anthi and Flambouro south of Serres, where the Roma had been settled for several generations, fishing and working the soil, but speaking Romani and playing music. The majority of the Roma in Greece lives under very modest circumstances though, and some are on the verge of existence.

Usually, Roma who have the means to trade will have better conditions, and have settled in houses in a community although they might leave for work during the summer season as some Roma of Alan Kuju in Komotini, and then stay in tents. Others will be more continuously on the move like some "tsingani" of Agia Sofia in Thessaloniki, who have elaborate trucks with stoves and windows in the back, and circulate in larger areas, installing themselves for some days to sell carpets, clothes or alike on the market, and continuing their journey. Also a few Roma will be found trading horses, doing seasonal work in the fields, and we found some Roma playing music, a few binding baskets, and some women reading the coffee and the palm.

"Tent-Dwelling Roma"
The ones who are worst off are the Roma who are referred to as "tent-dwelling Roma," who live in shantytowns outside the towns, without functioning water supplies, sewage systems, toilets and electricity, lacking all basic infrastructure. Their homes are barracks built from what they have found, on the bare soil that is flooded when it rains, and there is seldom any road system. These "settlements" are almost without exception hidden well away from the public eye, often situated on locations difficult to reach by public transport, and rarely entered by a non-Roma (a "balamo") for other than professional reasons.

Since the normal refuse collection does not apply to Gypsy settlements, remaining garbage attracts rats, and in many places the water has to be transported from far away. The rough circumstances under which half of the Romani population live are alarming, and a threat to health in every respect. Effectively, almost 90% of the tent-dwelling Roma have hepatitis, and suffer from other illnesses that result from the unsanitary and rough conditions they live in, and 60 out of 1000 Roma children die before the age of one.

Many of the Roma who live in such places collect old metal that they sell to recycling stations, which is the reason for which for example the Roma moved to Nea Zoi, a settlement on an old garbage dump in Aspropyrgos near Athens. They used to collect recycable material from the waste too, until this was forbidden by the authorities. Some people have to beg for money to buy food for the day, as a girl from Ergohori in Veria who was left alone with her child, and the Roma who do not have any means to earn a living, as an Albanian Roma family in Nea Zoi, are virtually starving.

Greece has done little to improve the situation. On the contrary, the municipal authorities are most eager to get the Roma out of their territory, and in some places take to practical measures. They move in with bulldozers, telling the Roma families to leave their houses, and then flatten them. In this, the authorities consciously act against the law (that says that such evictions cannot take place in case no alternative housing is provided), perform without warning early in the morning, and often burn the remains of the homes to ensure the Roma will leave the area. People live under a constant threat of being evicted, and the perspective of then having to find a new home, work and school, or just to rebuild the barrack in the same area.
Nea Zoi Old Garbage Dump

Especially with the prospect of the Olympic Games taking place in Athens in 2004, Greece has decided to brush up its image, and to get rid of stray dogs and Roma camps that would unnecessarily disturb the visitors' sight. So more evictions in the greater Athens area are to be expected.

Greece and the European Roma Support

Measures have been taken by the European Union to improve the situation of the Roma, and a lot of money has been given to Greece for this purpose. Most of the Roma are well aware of this, and also about why the majority of them still have not noticed any changes. The basic problem is that the responsibility for the distribution of such support is entirely in the hands of the local authorities, who a priori are hostile to Roma, and without problems will find other ways to invest the money without being controlled. A lot of the money has been used for bureaucracy, as in the case of a Policy Framework for Roma that was introduced by the government in 1996. According to a report for the ERRC by Christina Rougheri, the only part of this project that had not been abandoned on the way, was a survey on the housing needs of the Roma that took three years to complete, costed about 80,000 Euros, and resulted in the surprising thesis that indeed there was a problem. Or, as Dimitras reveals, the money goes to Roma associations of Roma who are actually integrated, or worse, to authorities who are supposed to do work on the Roma, but instead spend it doing work on non-Roma. As Dimitras says, if a report says that aid has been used for relocating Roma in pre-fabricated houses, that does not naturally imply that such houses are really there or, that the people who live in them are really Roma, not to mention whether electricity, water or sewage systems are provided. In many cases of housing projects for Roma, none of the above mentioned have been accomplished. Apart from that, the result of such a project, the "model camp" Agia Sofia, a pre-fabricated homes park in an industrial area of Thessaloniki, did not look promising, and although the Roma were happy about their, in comparison to their previous housing, improved situation, their living in vans too small for the numberous Roma families, and consequently extended with an ugly wood construction, located in a regular pattern on square plots on flat mudland without paved roads and expensive electricity, was not convincing as a permanent solution.

Vasso Xristopoulou, a political activist helping the Roma around Nafplion, fears that local authorities will apply for more European support for the improvement of the Roma situation, and again put it in their own pockets, as they have consequently done until now.

On Roma and Education

A standard accusation of the Roma on the part of the average Greek is that "they do not want to go to School," which in its basic idea reflects the fundamental sentiments towards the Roma.
Dentropotamos Thessaloniki
Many people seem to believe that the situation of the Roma is chosen out of free will, and conclude that the "refusal" of education, work and way of life were some kind of expression for "not wanting to participate" in Greek society, and thus experience it as a deep humiliation of Greek values. (A woman claimed that Greeks feel offended when they see a Romani woman begging in the street with her child on the arm as a Greek mother would never put her child in this situation). There is a complete non-understanding for the circumstances that Roma live in, and a commonly unquestioned disrespect for their rights. The idea that the Roma are excluded from society, and that Greek authorities are willingly keeping them in these conditions, is foreign to Greeks in general.

The University of Ioannina is responsible for the administration of a programme for the education of Roma children financed by the European Union. According to Athanasios Gkotovos, who is co-ordinating the programme, the number of Romani children going to school has increased significantly, while other people say that the increase is very likely to refer to the number of Roma children registered at schools, which does not automatically imply that they are completing the school term. In fact, many pupils drop out during the first weeks, which is not entirely to blame on them. Many Roma live out of reach of schools, and if there is a school accessible, it is largely dependant on the attitude of the teacher and the other children whether the Roma pupils will feel welcome in class.

Fotis Koutsoupias, a teacher, was forced in Kefalohori in 1987 (and now he is sorry he did so) to split up the classroom into two sections, moving the Roma children back, and turning them around to face the opposite wall where another blackboard was installed, so that Greek and Roma children were separated from each other. Consequently, he had to circulate between the two blackboards, teaching two separate groups of children at the same time. He says the Roma children are not welcome at school, the other children were telling them to leave, that they were stinking, and refused to sit next to them. Fotis Koutsoupias himself had gone out to the Roma settlement and said he wanted ten pupils for his school, brought them clothes and books, and started to teach them in his class. The non-Roma children were complaining, their parents asking him to kick the Roma out of school, and the school had to do something about the situation. He told them that this school was made for these children (meaning the Roma), they agreed, but he had to make a compromise, and split up the class.

Another teacher in Glykia spent the days sitting alone in his classroom where he was supposed to teach Roma children, not bothering whether his pupils would turn up or not. It is of course difficult to achieve anything with that attitude. There are positive examples though, of children going regularly to school, as two of the daughters in a family we stayed with in Nea Zoi. In the morning several children from the neighbourhood gathered in their shack, from where the father would take them to school in his car because the road there was long and dangerous. A teacher of the school expressed her concern about the disinterest of the Romani children in the books though, that represented a life completely alien to that of the Roma children, and wished they would have material that also Roma children could relate to. Also, the question of teaching Romani for the Roma pupils has not been considered.

The discrepancy between the world the school represents and the life of the Roma is an obstacle, but for some Roma even represent a threat to the Romani culture. A girl in Veria had attended school when she was little but had been forbidden to continue by her parents when she started to become a young woman at the age of eleven. She was so devoted to school that she continued secretly though, and left for school through a window in the morning before the family woke up. When her parents found out that she had been to school, they would hit her, and later, when she started going out to see friends and wore "Greek" clothing instead of a long skirt, this for her traditional Roma family was unsuitable behaviour and was blamed on the school. Her mother, having been born into a travelling and horse-dealing family, had an entirely different view on life than her daughter, and her son (who wanted to follow his father's footsteps, and apart from that had liberties his sister could only dream of, and thus had no greater conflicts with his family). For her, the Greek way of life was incompatible with Romani values, and she was afraid to loose her daughter to a world that would not offer a young Roma woman any future. She wanted her children to learn to read and write, but was afraid of the consequences. Her younger son attends to school though, which causes no problems in the family.

The Culture of Apartheid

Some foreign observers have said that the Roma of Greece suffer from institutionalized racism, and compared the situation to a form of apartheid. Obviously, as the conditions of the various Roma in Greece differ largely from each other, their experiences of racism cannot be generalized upon. While the integrated Roma experience more a social discrimination towards them, like the people who do not want to be called Roma in Alimbekio, who harshly criticized that one could get support on the basis of being a Rom (which is not that easy in reality of course), and said there was no racism, the only thing they complained about was social discrimination against them.

Veria Ergohori
The tent-dwelling Roma though, experience, if not institutionalized, at least consequent racism in every sphere of their public life, and this apartheid culture goes undisturbed since its victims are people without a voice, often illiterate, who usually have not had but bad experiences with the state authorities, and thus would never think of claiming justice. They have started to do so, in some cases, through human rights organizations and with the help of other non-Roma, and some evictions have in this way been avoided.

The police, as Dimitras says, look at the Roma as 3rd class citizens, often verbally abuses, and tends to use excessive violence on suspected Roma. A Rom who went to the police academy of Messolongi said the first thing they learned was that Albanians and Roma were criminals, and from the conversations I had with the police of Aspropyrgos, one could assume they also had been told that Roma are not only criminals (who collect metal exclusively to cover their real business of drug dealing), but also that they are not human beings (when seeing an image of Roma in Hungary the officer commented: "But they do live like human beings! Here, even if you give them a house they will still sit on the floor.").

Apart from regularily crushing the homes of the Roma just in the way the apartheid-regime flattened Sophiatown in 1954, the police frequently carry through raids in the Roma settlements, which is a legitimate method to track people who sell drugs or have not paid their bills, but exclusively done in Roma settlements, and this in a violent fashion. They do not proceed by going from home to home, talking to the people concerned, but by arriving with an oversized troup of policemen who encircle the settlement as not to let anybody escape, and then arresting every suspicious looking Rom. It is generally presumed that drug-trafficking is something typically Romani, but whereas there are some Roma who do sell soft drugs, it is not more than what Greeks do, and according to Dimitras, the best booty of the police were 15 g. of heroin, and these not pure. While we were in Greece, such a raid was performed in Nea Zoi, during which a pregnant woman was kicked by a policeman with the consequence that she lost her baby, and stayed in hospital for several weeks. When we were stopped by the police since every non-Rom is suspected of purchasing drugs there, I asked the policemen about the recent incident. With some difficulty one of the policemen made up a complicated story the content of which was that the Roma woman had been hit by her jealous husband. Apart from this being impossible since the woman had no husband, there is, according to Dimitras, an incredible effort to cover up all police crime towards Roma, so that the police can go happily about abusing Roma without having to fear persecutions. Even the Internal Affairs, which is a new service of the police since 1995, has complained about the widespread corruption within the Greek police. Out of 185 prosecution cases against policemen only eight were followed up and the policemen prosecuted, and this merely because they were caught in the act.

The attention of the public is only drawn to the situation of the Roma when the media covers unusual incidents as that of two young Rom being shot dead by the police because they did not stop for a driving license control. Otherwise the Roma are commonly depicted in stereotypes of the Gypsy lawbreaker or the, as unrealistic, passionate freedom-loving Roma, both clichés that do not contribute much to the better understanding of the Roma life and situation. Some of the most valuable efforts to help the Roma are the individual initiatives taken by people we met, as that of a Greek man ensuring the education of two Roma children of families and assisting them in all bureaucratic matters, the political activist who assists and encourages the Roma communities of Argolida to fight for their rights, three journalists one of who a Rom who in each of their local newspapers try to make the case of the Roma in their town known, and the teacher and the journalist who hold classes for Roma children in an office during the summer.

On a larger scale, of the organizations working on the Roma in Greece, the only one we know is the Greek Helsinki Monitor, an NGO consisting of five people and based in Athens, that monitors the implementation of human rights through collecting information on human rights violations on Roma in Greece, and tries to help the Roma to become more assertive about their own rights. As a result of this, for example, bulldozers in late August 2001 could be stopped from destroying the homes of some Roma who were illiterate, but produced a 20 page report they could not read, but that stated they could not be evicted. More and more evictions nowadays stay at the effort level, whereas before, they would have been carried through. The reports are published by the European Roma Rights Center, and on the internet, which gives interested parties the possibility to react. Often the Greek authorities learn about an incident the first time through a protest from abroad. A lot more work needs to be done though, and according to the head of the organization, Panayote Dimitras, "to really work with the Roma in Greece, you need an army," that is two people in every region to ensure the protection of their human rights.

Certainly, also the government has introduced programmes and employed people to work on the Roma, but governmentally institutionalized work on the Roma, according to Evangelos Marselos, a linguist who quit the work on the Roma because he disagreed with the attitude in this metier, regrettably bears within it the danger of becoming more interested in keeping up the problems than solving them since this would jeopardize their employment.

The real challenge for Greece is to save its Roma people who present a rich culture that has been preserved in spite of, and certainly also because of its unfavourable circumstances, without forcing them either into assimilation and to neglect their language and traditions, nor into the misery that half of its Roma are living in at this time.


Greek Helsinki Monitor (Panayote Dimitras)
Under this link you will also find Minority Rights Group Greece (Nafsika Papanikolatos)

Médécins du Monde (Doctors of the World)

Additional Note: A Greek-Romani dictionary containing 25,000 words was due to be published in March 2002. It is the result of eight years work by Yannis Alexiou, a self-taught Rom from Alan Kuju, assisted by the linguist Evangelos Marselos who started learning Greek from the Roma with the aid of a Hindi book when he was young. The production of the dictionary is supported by the University of Ioannina.

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