Gypsy, Roma, Traveller
Awareness Raising Training Handout
Gypsy, Roma and Traveller young people growing up in the UK face a complex
combination of barriers to enjoying good childhoods. The Children‟s Society is
committed to improving the lives of young Gypsy, Roma and Travellers.
Who are Gypsy, Roma and Travellers?
The expression “Gypsy, Roma and Traveller” (GRT) is a term originating from the
government that describes a range of different groups of people. All of these groups
are either currently travelling people, or have travelling as a significant part of their
group traditions. There are estimated to be around 300,000 GRT living in the UK.
These notes mostly concern the Roma people, although some of the comments may
also be applicable to some of the other groups.
See Appendix 1. for more information on the different groups that come under the
“Gypsy, Roma, Traveller” heading.
The Roma people originate from an area of Northern India about 1000 years ago. After
that many of the Roma migrated westward towards Anatolia (modern Turkey). A
second main wave of migration into Europe occurred during the 13 th and 14th centuries.
The first recording that shows Roma were living in England was in 1514. A more
detailed history of the migrations of Roma since 1000AD can be found through the web
links in Appendix 2.
The history of the Roma people is one of cultural achievement in the face of persecution
and rejection. During their time in Europe, the Roma were enslaved in Romania
between around 1300 until abolition there in 1856. In 1554, in England, a law was
passed sentencing all Gypsy adults and children to death. English anti-Gypsy laws only
begin to be repealed from 1780. During World War II, the Nazis killed an estimated
500,000 Gypsy, Roma and Travellers.
The Roma are a very diverse ethnic group with much cultural and linguistic variation.
However, it is still possible to say some things about the whole group.
Family is of central importance to Roma people. Children and young people are very
much cherished in this culture. Strong extended family ties, often bridging national
boundaries, are very common amongst the Roma.
Significant life events, such as marriages, christenings, illnesses and deaths are
occasions when whole families often gather together. This is a very important part of
Roma families tend to be quite large and it is an important job of Roma young people to
care for their younger brothers and sisters and to help with domestic tasks. In the UK,
young Roma can often speak better English than their parents and so they will
sometimes help interpret and translate for their family. As a result, Roma are often
more mature than other young people as they take on more responsibilities at a
younger age than many other young people of an equivalent age in the UK.
Growing up for Roma young people takes a different pattern from that of most other
young people in the UK. Roma young people are considered adults from the age of
about 12 years old. Roma young people are often expected to marry young, and
virginity for girls is very important. Therefore, parents will often take Roma girls out of
school when they pass through puberty. Long skirts are a symbol of womanhood in the
Roma community. Many sporty Roma girls who wore tracksuits wear the long skirts
that Roma culture considers more modest when they come of age.
Many Roma young people struggle to adapt to the British education system. In general,
Gypsy, Roma and Travellers have significantly lower educational attendance and
attainment than pupils from other groups. Some indicators include:
By Key Stage 4 (compulsory schooling, years 10 &11) two thirds of Gypsy, Roma
and Traveller children have dropped out of school. (DCSF, 2007)
7 % of Roma / Gypsy pupils taking GCSEs achieved 5 A*-C grades including
English and Mathematics, compared with 45.4 % of all pupils. 8.4 % of Irish
Traveller pupils achieved the same GCSE results, while the next lowest
performing group was Black Caribbean pupils of whom 32.7 % achieved these
The following quote illustrates some of the issues facing Gypsy, Roma and Traveller
families with respect to education,
From a historical position of being excluded from school, Gypsy and
Traveller children are now obliged to attend and this is increasingly popular
among parents and children for primary education. However many parents
are fiercely opposed to their children attending high school. Reasons given
for this are: fear of racism and bullying; sex education lessons and
knowledge amongst peers; fear of drug abuse; fear of loss of cultural
identity; loss of opportunity to be trained by parents in self-employment
practices. This has a clear impact on the aspirations and expectations of
young people. Many parents wish to home educate their children but lack
resources to provide a broad and interesting curriculum.
(Report by Leeds GATE on Better education for all 2004/05)
As indicated above, one of the main reasons that Gypsy, Roma and Traveller young
people identify for their difficulties at school is bullying. The Children‟s Society‟s
research report “This is Who We Are” found that 86 % of the Gypsy, Roma and
Traveller young people we interviewed had received racist comments. In the same
study 63 % of the young people had been bullied or attacked physically.
Some interviewees directly linked their non-attendance at school with bullying,
Yes, I went [to school] until some girls poured water all over me because I
was a ‘dirty Traveller’. My Mam went up to school and asked them what
they were going to do about it but they did nothing so Mam said I wasn’t
going again ‘cos it was disrespectful to ignore her complaints.
(English Gypsy girl)
There is only piecemeal research on the health of Gypsy, Roma and Travellers in the
UK. However, what research does exist indicates that these groups generally suffer
from poorer health than the general population, other ethnic minorities and other groups
of low socio-economic status.
According to a UNHCR report in 1993, life expectancy in the Roma community is 10
years less than that of their non-Roma neighbours, and infant mortality is up to four
A 2007 survey of the health status of Gypsies and Travellers in the UK found that
members of these groups were significantly more likely to have some form of long-term
illness, depression, arthritis, miscarriage and premature death of offspring. 2
One survey of a particular Travellers‟ site in West London found among other health
needs that two thirds of the adults interviewed self-reported depression.3
Braham M, The Untouchables: a survey of Roma people of central and Eastern Europe, Geneva:
Parry G. et al, Health Status of Gypsies and Travellers in England, Journal of Epidemiology, Community
Health, 2007; 61; 198 - 204
Burchill J, Flynn W, Russell M, Health needs on the Westway Travellers’ Site, Westminster PCT, 2005
These health problems impact on children and young people not only directly, but also
via their parents and elders. Due to the fact that many Roma parents are recent arrivals
in the UK, their children often speak better English. This means that they often have to
interpret for them in health settings. This places families in the difficult situation of either
exposing their children and young people to inappropriate information or not receiving
the health care that they need. In such situations, children and young people are forced
to take on adult roles.
The Roma language, Romani or Romanes, is based on Sanskrit. Modern Romani
shares many words and structures with Urdu and Punjabi languages. The young Roma
that we work with say that their language and their culture are very important aspects of
who they are.
Romani is very dialectical, to the extent that the Romani spoken by English Gypsies and
Polish Roma is mutually incomprehensible except for a few words. Until recently there
was no written form of the Romani language, and not all Roma understand or use the
written form that exists now.
The English language features many loan words from Romani, for example “cushti”
meaning good and dosh meaning money. Equally, the Romani spoken by English
Gypsies features many words borrowed from English. This is an example of how two
cultures have lived side by side and enriched each other.
Prejudice & the Media
In 2004, Stonewall conducted a survey that they called a “profile of prejudice” where
they asked members of the public about their feeling towards different groups of people.
One third of adults they surveyed admitted to their researcher that they held negative
prejudices towards Roma, Gypsy and Travellers. This was the highest recorded for any
group based on ethnicity, sexuality or disability. Projected across the whole UK
population, this is equivalent to 20 million people openly prejudiced towards GRT
The same survey found that the majority of these attitudes came from television or
newspapers. See Appendix 3. for examples of press cuttings from the UK on Gypsy,
Roma and Travellers. And see Appendix 4. for an example of the limited capacity of the
Press Complaints Commission to redress inaccuracies and guard against incitement to
Considering this, it is perhaps not surprising that so many young Gypsy, Roma and
Travellers experience racism, bullying and related difficulties.
Situation in Europe
For example, in many European countries Roma children are still educated separately.
In some countries they are also educated in special schools despite children not having
any special needs. For instance, in Czech Republic an estimated 75% of Roma
children of primary school age are schooled in remedial special school. Racial
segregation and substandard education has been reported in all countries across
Western and Central Europe. The fact that parents have often not been through
mainstream education themselves and that they may have had negative experiences in
education means that they are often less willing for their children to attend school, and
may not see the purpose of attending.
In a 2008 poll similar to the Stonewall poll mentioned above, conducted by The
Progressive Institute in Hungary, found that 80% of adults admitted to being prejudiced
towards Roma, this dropped to 76% for university educated respondents. Hungary has
a population of 800,000 to one million Roma.
Massive inequalities between Roma and wider populations also exist in the fields of
health, housing, employment, and income, among other things. All of these also
function as barriers to Roma succeeding in the UK.
Roma music influenced that of Beethoven, Liszt, Bizet, Brahms, Dvorák, Verdi,
Rachmaninov, and Bartok. Roma also invented and contributed to many other styles
including Middle Eastern music, Jewish Klezmer music, flamenco music and dance and
jazz. Famous Roma musicians include Django Reinhardt, inventor of the style “Gypsy
Jazz” and the group “The Gypsy Kings”.
Dance too is commonly associated with Roma culture. The most famous being
Flamenco music, dance and dress that originated with Spanish Roma.
Less well recognised though is the fact that Roma culture has a strong oral
literacy tradition, of folk tales and songs passed on, evolving, improvised and
created afresh. One of the most famous Roma writers from Poland was a poet
named Papusza. See Appendix 5. for an extract of a poem by Papusza that
reflects on Roma experience.The Children’s Society
The Children‟s Society is a national charity committed to making childhood better for all
The Children‟s Society‟s New Londoners project, based in Canning Town, has been
working with the Roma community in East London for over 12 years. We offer range of
services for young Roma aged 0-19 years and their families.
We help Roma children and young people improve their access to Health care. This
can include help with registering with doctors and dentists and attending medical
appointments (including hospital) when requested. We provide support to children with
mental health issues.
We also support young Roma through the education system in the UK. This includes
enabling communication between parents and schools through attending school
interviews and inductions as well as parents evenings, advocating on behalf of Roma
young people at school and support with bullying, attendance and educational progress.
Finally, we do art and media activities with young Roma to help build their confidence
and to teach other people about Roma culture. Activities can include music, dance,
drawing, painting, video making and many others. The aim of this is to give young
Roma the opportunity to feel proud of their culture and take control over the way they
Different groups that come under the
Gypsy, Roma Traveller Heading
Ethnic group who settled in Eastern Europe.
Roma Traditionally a nomadic people.
Ethnic group originating in Ireland. Traditionally a
Irish Traveller nomadic people.
Description given to those in the UK who decided to
New Age Traveller adopt a nomadic life from the 1960s onwards for
economic or lifestyle reasons.
Ethnic group who settled in Germany, France and
Sinti & Manouche Northern Italy. Traditionally a nomadic people.
Ethnic group who settled in Spain, Finland and
Wales. Traditionally a nomadic people. The name
Cale of this group means “black” in the Romani
Ethnic group who settled in England. Traditionally a
English Gypsies nomadic people.
Fairground / circus Travelling show people with sometimes with
traditions dating back to the thirteenth century and
A term that originated in Europe when people
Gypsy believed the Roma came from Egypt. Can be used
in both a positive and pejorative sense.
Ethnic group who settled in England. Traditionally a
Bargees nomadic people. Have the tradition of living on
The Children‟s Society‟s Roma Awareness Raising Project
Gypsy, Roma, Traveller History Month website – details plans for this year‟s
celebrations in June.
A source of much information on the Roma - includes very detailed information on
Roma history and culture.
Roma Support Group are a local community group based in Newham that work to
support Roma living in London in many different capacities.
Photographs from a Council of Europe project to raise awareness of the situation of
Roma living in mainland Europe.
This is the website of The Gypsy Media Company, which aims to tackle prejudice in the
media towards Gypsy, Roma and Travellers. The website features some interesting
Discussion of the representation of GRT in the media
Press complaints commission decision on article mentioned in Appendix 4.
Fraser, Angus The Gypsies, Blackwell 1992
Hancock, Ian et al (ed), The Roads of the Roma: a PEN Anthology of Gypsy Wirters,
Hancock, Ian, We are the Romani People, UHP 2002
Kendrick, Donald, The Romani World: A Historical Dictionary of the Gypsies, UHP 2004
Press Complaints Commission
Complainant Name: Asylum Aid, Cardiff Gypsy Sites Group, Dr Evan Harris MP
Publication: The Sun
Asylum Aid, Cardiff Gypsy Sites Group, Dr Evan Harris MP and others complained that
a series of articles relating to asylum seekers and begging in The Sun in March 2000
were published in breach of Clauses 1 (Accuracy) and 13 (Discrimination) of the Code
…Articles headlined „Sun girl begs in Romania and is given just 1p‟, „Gypsy Palaces‟
and „Fury of gypsy king‟ reported on begging in Romania and how money earned from
begging allegedly is spent. The newspaper also published an interview with „Romania‟s
The complainants objected that the reports of the court case involving the Romanian
women included irrelevant references to their race. They objected in particular to
phrases such as „scrounging Romanian gypsies‟, to a reference to asylum seekers as
„flotsam and jetsam‟, and to statements such as „Our land is being swamped by a flood
of fiddlers‟ and „How much longer before we kick the whole lot out?‟
… the complainants objected to references to „the gypsies‟ shameless greed‟ and to two
attributed quotes: „The gypsies bring us shame all over the world‟ and „Like locusts they
have gone through Europe, taking what they can.‟ They said that the references to race
were irrelevant and the claims in the articles were not substantiated.
The newspaper stood by the articles it had published and denied that it had
discriminated against anyone on the grounds of race. It was clear that the stories were
not about genuine asylum seekers, but about illegal immigrants who defraud the state
and the taxpayer. To expose such crimes was not a discriminatory act but a matter of
public interest as specifically identified in the Code [of the Press Complaints
Commission]. The newspaper had made clear in their further editorial coverage of the
matter their conviction that genuine refugees from brutal regimes should be made
welcome in this country.
The complaints were not upheld.
One of the most famous Roma writers from Poland was a poet named Papusza.
Papusza‟s writing recalls a time of wandering, before her ancestors settled in Poland
and makes frequent reference to natural phenomena that were of central importance
during these times.
The young people we work with have this in common with Papusza. They, like her, are
looking back on their history and traditions at the same time as looking forward to the
future to find their place in the world. Through arts activities with The Children‟s
Society, these young Roma people have a safe place to explore and feel proud of their
traditions, and to make these traditions relevant to the world in which they live.
The following is an extract from one of Papusza‟s first written poems titled “Gypsy song
composed out of the head of Papusza”.
The time of the wandering Gypsies,
Has long passed.
But I see them,
They are bright,
Strong and clear like water.
You can hear it
When it wishes to speak.
But poor thing, it has no speech
Apart from the silver splashing and soughing.
Only the horse, grazing the grass,
Listens and understands that soughing.
But the water does not look behind
It flees, runs away further,
Where eyes will not see her,
The water that wanders.
Papusza, c.1950, translated by Jerzy Ficowski