The Caravans - Gypsy Camp Near Arles
Vincent van Gogh: The Caravans - Gypsy Camp Near Arles (1888, Oil on canvas). Public Domain

For centuries, the Roma people -- commonly referred to as 'Gypsies' -- have been marginalized and misunderstood by their European neighbors. A new report by the European Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) sheds light on this age-old human rights issue.

All across the European Union, Roma people fare significantly worse than their non-Roma neighbors, according to the Wednesday report. The trend is clear not only in Eastern European countries, where the majority of Roma people live, but also as far west as Portugal, Spain and France.

The report was based on face-to-face interviews conducted in 11 EU member states: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, France, Greece, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia and Spain. Researchers spoke with self-identified Roma people and their nearest non-Roma neighbors to compare standards of living.

The results, said study authors, were shocking.

Of those surveyed in this report, one in three is unemployed, 20 percent are not covered by health insurance, and 90 percent are living below national poverty lines. Although governments and societies have been aware of Roma exclusion and deprivation, the magnitude and the similarity of exclusion patterns across EU Member States is striking and leaves no excuse for delaying swift, effective action to improve the situation.

Some key facts: Of those surveyed, only half of Roma children attended pre-school or kindergarten. One out of three Roma people between the ages of 35 to 54 reported health problems that limited their daily activities. People have recently gone to bed hungry in 40 percent of Roma households. Half of those surveyed said they had experienced outright discrimination during the past year.

In terms of poverty, the difference between Roma families and their neighbors was most stark in France, Italy and Hungary. Spain and Portugal seem to have done the best job of integrating Roma residents into their societies, though significant inequalities are apparent there as well.

The cultural identity of the Roma people is understood only hazily by outsiders. The so-called gypsies are widely considered shiftless, unmoored and mysterious. But a single stereotype is incapable of characterizing the Roma people all across Europe; in fact, they are as diverse as the myriad countries they inhabit.

The Roma originated in India, but it seems the bulk of their exodus took place centuries ago. In his 2002 book East European Gypsies, author Zoltan Barany, a professor of world politics at the University of Texas, wrote that linguistic evidence suggests that Gypsies originated in the Punjab. They left perhaps as early as the sixth century and probably due to repeated incursions by Islamic warriors. Since then, the Roma have assimilated, to varying degrees, into several European countries.

Contrary to popular belief, many Roma do not roam. Barany writes that the majority of the 'Gypsies' in Eastern Europe are settled. Except for the necessary shifts that went hand-in-hand with poverty and homelessness, large numbers of Roma established a homestead wherever they were able.

Today there are at least 12 million Roma living in Europe, with the bulk residing in Eastern Europe. In Bulgaria and Romania, they account for at least 10 percent of the population.

After centuries of sprawl, separate Roma groups have adapted to their home countries so that they no longer constitute a homogenous group. Some have dark features; others have light skin and blond hair. Some speak Romani, while others speak the lingua franca of their home country. Some are Catholic, some are Muslim, and some are Orthodox Christians.

But the Roma are still collectively identifiable as outsiders, unified by their shared marginalization. For centuries, widespread discrimination was a constant barrier to their gainful integration into society.

The situation has improved somewhat during the past decade, due in large part to the enlargement of the European Union. Prior to the accession of several Eastern and Central European countries in 2004 and 2007, the EU set out criteria that included a demonstrated respect for minorities.

The situation of minorities such as the Roma is therefore being taken into consideration in assessing the capacity of candidate countries to become members of the European Union, said a 2003 EU brochure.

While EU accession criteria increased awareness and motivated candidate countries to put some constructive measures into place, Wednesday's FRA report indicates there is still a long way to go for Europe's Roma populations. The authors write that this study represents a first step; the ultimate goal is to implement an effective plan of action, as soon as possible.

The information in this report is sobering. It should thus prompt Member States, the EU institutions and bodies, international organizations and civil society to make Roma integration a reality.