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What is considered a Gypsy?

Gypsies, also known as Romani or Roma people, are an ethnic minority group that originated in India and migrated to Europe around the 11th century. There are an estimated 10-12 million Romani living worldwide today, with large populations in Eastern Europe, Spain, and parts of the United States.

Definition of “Gypsy”

The term “Gypsy” refers to the Romani people and is considered derogatory due to its usage as a racial slur in some parts of the world. Some Romani now prefer the term “Roma” to refer to their ethnicity and culture. However, “Gypsy” is still commonly used to describe the nomadic or free-spirited lifestyle of the Romani.

According to the Gypsy definition, Gypsies are members of wandering people found chiefly in Europe and North America. They are known for a traditionally nomadic life and for a dialect of the Romani language.

Here are some key elements that comprise the Gypsy identity and culture:

  • Nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle
  • Belief in freedom of movement and independence
  • Strong family and community bonds
  • Oral tradition of stories, songs and poems
  • Fortune telling and belief in magic/supernatural
  • Unique Romani language dialect
  • Elaborate cultural dress and jewelry
  • Traditional craftsmanship and trade skills
  • Outsider status from mainstream society

Origin and History of Gypsies

The ancestral roots of Gypsies can be traced back to northern India, where they were traditionally known as “Dom” and “Lom” peoples. The earliest records indicate that Gypsy groups left India beginning around 500 AD and arrived in Europe by the 11th century.

Scholars believe the Romani exodus from India was prompted by repeated invasions of northern India by Muslim Turks and Afghans beginning in the 7th century. Facing discrimination and oppression in India, the proto-Romani migrated westward into Persia, Armenia, Europe and North Africa.

By the 14th-15th century, Gypsy groups had reached most regions of Europe. Considered outsiders, they faced persecution and were often forbidden to settle permanently in many European kingdoms. This resulted in their nomadic lifestyle wandering between rural areas and towns.

Some key events in Gypsy history include:

  • 9th century – First Romani groups arrive in Europe via the Byzantine Empire
  • 1300s – Gypsies reach Eastern Europe regions like Serbia and Wallachia
  • 1416 – Switzerland passes first anti-Roma law banning settlement
  • 1498 – Germany bans Gypsies and orders expulsion or execution
  • 1530s – England begins deporting Gypsies to Norway and Sweden
  • 1600s – Witchcraft trials target Gypsy women in Europe
  • 1700s – Maria Theresa orders expulsion of Roma from Austria-Hungary
  • 1939 – Nazi persecution of Roma escalates to genocide during WWII
  • 1971 – International Romani Union forms to advocate for rights
  • 2005 – European Parliament recognizes Romani genocide during WWII

Romani Culture and Traditions

Romani culture is extremely diverse, with different groups adopting aspects of their local culture. However, some common cultural traits, traditions, and beliefs include:

Family and Community

– Strong loyalty to extended family and community

– Communal lifestyle within kinship groups

– Segregation of males and females in some traditional groups

– Arranged marriages are common

– Elders are respected and sought for advice


– Romani language with many dialects (Romi, Sinti, Kale, etc.)

– Also adopt local languages (Hungarian, Spanish, etc.)

– Romani used as in-group language; local language for outsiders


– Traditional craftsmanship (metalwork, horse trading, tool making, etc.)

– Fortune telling, healing, and entertainment

– High mobility – traveling to find work opportunities

Cultural Markers

– Women wear elaborate dresses with aprons and scarves

– Gold earrings and jewelry gifted at weddings

– Tattoos and body art

– Music, song and dance are integral parts of culture

Religion and Beliefs

– Adapted religions based on regions – Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Islam

– Belief in purification and contamination

– Fortune telling and magic are important spiritual practices

Population Distribution of Romani People

Here is an overview of Romani populations worldwide:


Europe has the largest Romani population with an estimated 8-10 million Roma living across the continent. Major populations include:

  • Romania – 1.85 million
  • Bulgaria – 750,000
  • Spain – 750,000
  • Hungary – 700,000
  • Slovakia – 500,000
  • France – 400,000
  • Greece – 300,000

Other significant populations are found in Russia, the Balkans, Italy, Poland, and the UK.


The Romani population in the Americas is estimated at over 1 million, with most living in Brazil and the United States. Other countries like Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Peru also have sizable communities.

In the US, Romani immigrants from Eastern Europe began arriving in the 1860s. Current estimates place the American Romani population from 800,000 to 1 million.

Middle East and North Africa

Countries like Turkey, Egypt, Morocco and Iran have Romani minorities of more than 100,000 each. There is also a significant Romani diaspora population in Israel comprising Muslim, Christian and Jewish Roma groups.

Asia and Oceania

Smaller Romani populations of around 20,000-50,000 live in countries like Russia, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Taiwan. However, Romani identity is less visible in these regions.


North African countries like Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia have Romani minorities of tens of thousands descended from Middle East diaspora groups. Romani populations in Sub-Saharan Africa are very small or unrecognized.

Persecution and Genocide of Romani People

Throughout history, the Romani have faced high levels of prejudice, discrimination, and persecution in European societies. They were often characterized as criminals, witches, or racial inferiors by majority populations. Some major periods of Romani persecution include:


– Romani legally banned and subject to expulsion or execution in many nations

– Tens of thousands murdered in witch hunts and Catholic/Protestant violence

– Laws passed restricting Roma movement, names, dress, jobs


– Romani women and children kidnapped for forced labor programs

– Thousands sterilized under eugenics programs in Scandinavia

– Anti-Romani laws stripped Roma of citizenship rights

World War II Genocide

– Up to 1.5 million Roma killed in Nazi concentration camps and death marches

– Roma gassed along with Jews in Auschwitz, Treblinka, Chelmno, etc.

– 25% of Europe’s total Romani population perished in the Holocaust

Discrimination, social exclusion, and racist violence against Romani continues into the 21st century in many countries. However, the Romani civil rights movement has made progress in obtaining recognition and legal protections for Roma communities.

Romani Civil Rights Movement

By the mid-20th century, Romani groups began mobilizing and demanding human rights protections from governments. Some key milestones in the Romani civil rights movement include:

  • 1971 – First World Romani Congress forms the International Romani Union
  • 1979 – First International Romani Day celebrated on April 8
  • 1981 – Romani flag and anthem adopted as symbols of identity
  • 2005 – European Parliament recognizes Roma genocide during WWII
  • 2011 – European Parliament calls for national Roma integration strategies
  • 2013 – European Council adopts Roma integration framework

Ongoing efforts focus on securing ethnic and cultural rights, ending discrimination in education and employment, improving living conditions, and reducing poverty for Romani communities across Europe.

Stereotypes and Misconceptions About Gypsies

Romani people still face many harmful stereotypes that contribute to their marginalization. Here are some common misconceptions:

Criminal Behavior

One of the most pervasive stereotypes about Gypsies is that they are criminals or thieves. In reality, Romani are no more likely to engage in crime than other groups when given equal opportunities.

Nomadic Lifestyle

While traditionally nomadic, many Romani groups have settled into permanent housing for generations. Perceptions of Gypsies as homeless wanderers are outdated.

Refusal to Integrate

Romani are often accused of refusing to assimilate into society. In truth, prejudice and lack of access to education and services exclude many Roma from mainstream society.

Fortune Tellers

Fortune telling is a traditional occupation but not practiced by all Romani. Characterizing all Gypsies as streetside psychics or palm readers is a reductive stereotype.

Poverty and Illiteracy

While poverty rates are higher among Romani, this is largely due to systemic disadvantages rather than cultural attributes. Most Romani desire education and economic advancement when given the opportunity.

Stereotyping Roma as uneducated, lazy, deceitful, or sneaky often leads to harmful discrimination and hinders efforts to improve social outcomes in Romani communities.

Current Issues Facing Romani People

Despite progress, Romani people still face severe challenges and barriers to equality in many European societies:

Housing and Living Conditions

– Widespread housing discrimination forces many Roma into hazardous slums or encampments

– Denied access to electricity, water, sanitation by municipalities

– Forced evictions by government authorities


– Pervasive hiring discrimination with Romani unemployment rates 5-10x higher than national averages

– Pushed into insecure informal labor and activities considered “traditional Roma occupations”

– Lack of job training and skills development opportunities


– De facto school segregation and placement into remedial programs

– Harassment and biased treatment by teachers and administrators

– Very low enrollment in secondary and higher education


– Substandard access to medical treatment

– Discrimination by healthcare providers

– Poor health indicators like infant mortality and life expectancy

Hate Crimes

– High levels of prejudice leading to racist threats, harassment, and violence

– Police brutality and excessive use of force against Roma

– Growth of anti-Roma rhetoric among far-right extremist political groups

Targeted social policies, anti-discrimination laws, and public education efforts are still needed to overcome ingrained anti-Romani prejudice and achieve full equality.


In summary, Gypsies or Roma represent a distinct ethnic minority group that originated in India and migrated to Europe around 1000 years ago. They developed a nomadic lifestyle and faced exclusion from mainstream society which reinforced cultural traditions and practices.

Romani culture is diverse but often includes strong family bonds, traditional crafts and trades, fortune telling, elaborate dress, and the Romani language. The Romani faced severe persecution throughout history, culminating in genocide under the Nazis.

Today, 10-12 million Romani live worldwide, with large concentrations in Eastern Europe. They continue to experience high levels of prejudice, discrimination, and socioeconomic disadvantage in many European countries.

Efforts to dispel negative stereotypes about Gypsies while advocating for Romani human rights and inclusion are ongoing but still facing major obstacles. Achieving justice and equality for the Romani remains an urgent human rights issue in Europe.