Reinventing Roma

Austria acknowledged Roma as an official minority 20 years ago, but many are left out in the cold

Top Stories | Franziska Zoidl | June 2013

"When I was a child, ‘Zigeuner’ was my name, my origin and my job description," remembered Rudolf Sarközi. The 69-year-old chairman of the Kulturverein Österreichischer Roma (Cultural Association for Austrian Roma) grew up in southern Burgenland, an area where Austria’s indigenous Roma still live. Sarközi rejects the label Zigeuner (gypsy) with its racist and stereotypical overtones and emphasises the importance of referring to the ethnic group as "Roma", with men being called "Rom" and women "Romni".

Adrian Gaspar – an Austro-Romanian jazz musician with Roma parents – agrees on the whole with Sarközi. But still, "gypsy" shouldn’t be deleted from common usage altogether: "Even when everybody says ‘Roma, Roma, Roma’, there will still be some violinist at some concert venue who plays the Zigeunerweisen by Sarasate." Indeed, Zigeunermusik is colourful and vivid and has a long and widely-admired history. Still, his companion, a sociologist, interrupted bluntly: "Is it really too much to ask others to refer to us the way we do?"


Roma in context 

About 40,000 Roma are believed to live in Austria today, descended from a nomadic people whose ancestors migrated from northern India to Europe at least 1,000 years ago. This total Roma population is difficult to estimate however, as data on the ethnic origin of minorities is not collected in Austria "for historical reasons", according to Austria’s National Roma Integration Strategy (NRIS), "primarily the genocide of Austrian Roma and Sinti during the Nazi era" which only ten per cent of the population survived.

Austrian Roma divide themselves generally into five groups by culture, dialect and migration history. Three of them, the Burgenland-Roma, the Sinti, and the Lovara, form the Volksgruppe der Roma (Ethnic Group of Roma). This year marks their 20th anniversary as an official minority. Other waves of Roma immigrants have arrived more recently, according to Sarközi. These, however, are not acknowledged as part of the minority and are often excluded from benefit programmes.

The recent arrivals came after the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, as "guest workers" from Yugoslavia, and then again after the country fell apart in the mid 1990s. Others came as a result of the EU’s eastward enlargement from countries like the Czech Republic, Slovenia and, later, Romania. As a result, there is now a vibrant community in Vienna, according to Gaspar, spawning cultural clubs and a bustling musical culture, which was the starting point for popular keyboard virtuoso Miki Cortan.


Begging to differ

Despite this, common stereotypes remain in Austria, particularly of Roma as beggars and thieves, with criminal organisations backing them up. Austrian officials say there is plenty of evidence to support these beliefs.

"We believe there is a high degree of organisation," said Gerald Tatzgern from the Austrian Criminal Intelligence Service. About 80 per cent of the beggars in Vienna are Roma who have been brought here from Romania and placed at strategic locations in front of supermarkets or on shopping streets, he said. At the end of the month, they receive a small percentage of their income, financing the far more affluent lifestyles of their bosses who are, according to Tatzgern, part of the Roma community.

"Still, they don’t see themselves as victims," Tatzgern said, as their lives in overcrowded apartments in Vienna are still better than what they have back at home. For the head of the service, which includes the division for combating human trafficking, it is a socio-political problem that can only be solved by raising the standards of living in their home countries.

Sarközi sings the same tune. He regularly speaks with ambassadors from countries, like Romania, in an attempt to call attention to the social problems in the home countries that push many into begging abroad as a last resort.

The Roma’s negative image frustrates the sociologist. "We are not doing well," confided the woman, who asked to remain anonymous. Most Roma want to communicate, she said, learning languages besides their native tongue, Romani, which is spoken only by some nine to 12 million people scattered around the world. But most integration projects are done from the top down, she claimed, and not in cooperation with Roma. "I don’t need to be integrated," remarked Sarközi with a shrug. "I’m Austrian." But for the newer arrivals, it requires effort: "You have to be willing to be integrated."

On 8 April, International Roma Day, Austrian Roma hosted an event celebrating their anniversary. "We weren’t beggars, we were hosts," said Sarközi, honoured with a commemorative speech by Austrian president Heinz Fischer.

It was a role he had been preparing for a long time. In 1995, Sarközi founded an education fund for Roma in Austria, helping families pay for their children’s schooling, expanding the definition of those covered to include any Roma born here or whose parents have worked here for at least five years: "Everybody has access to education today," Sarközi said, "but everybody has to make use of it themselves."

Adrian Gaspar is a case in point: His musical talent brought his family to Austria from Romania. Now, 18 years later, he considers himself Austrian. "I am a typical Viennese," he said with a laugh, admitting that he regularly catches himself complaining just like the stereotypical Viennese. And being a Rom in the music business has been an advantage.


Step-by-step solutions

Such a positive self-image took a long time to develop, and was made possible, Sarközi said, by Austria’s willingness to formally acknowledge the Roma minority – particularly clear, when compared with the rising hostility in Hungary. Initially, Roma were excluded from the "Ethnic Minorities Law" (Volksgruppengesetz) of 1976, which classified the rights of five official minorities. But with the efforts of Sarközi and other Roma representatives, in 1993 Austria became the first country in Europe to officially acknowledge the ethnic group, leading to the establishment of language courses in schools and, most importantly, an advisory board to consult with the government on Roma matters. "We are now accepted as a part of society," Sarközi said proudly.

Still, Austria has been criticised for not doing enough. In 2012, the European Roma Policy Commission took aim at Austria’s NRIS: "It seems that no research is used as a basis for the development of the strategy," the report said, nor was there a strategy to indicate how Austria planned to support Roma integration.

Now, 20 years after formal recognition, Austria has yet to elect a parliamentarian with Roma roots. They are not interested in politics, Sarközi complained. Which is at least true of Adrian Gaspar: "I am apolitical," he confirmed.

To integrate the more recent arrivals, better co-operation seems like an essential first step: In March, the European Alliance of Cities and Regions for Roma Inclusion was launched by the Council of Europe as a platform to share know-how across the continent. The focus of future meetings will be on education, housing, health care and social concerns of Roma, according to  Alliance staffer Nikolai Atefie, who was sent to the Council of Europe as a Holocaust Memorial Servant by the Austrian Service Abroad. He reported that the state of Upper Austria and the cities of Graz and Innsbruck had formally signed on to the Alliance. Still, there is so far no formal EU commissioner with a focus on Roma, something Sarközi has long pushed for.

"There will always be racism and people who don’t accept us," Sarközi said. But there is the silver lining: "We speak a world language," said Adrian Gaspar. "Being a Rom only has advantages."

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