Kai-Samuel Vigardt (28) hails from a Traveller family. He has contributed to the Official Norwegian Report (NOU) attachments on Norwegian policy towards the Romani people/ Norwegian Travellers, which was submitted on 1 June. Here he and his partner Johanne Bergkvist are present as the report is submitted to the authorities. Bergkvist is also a member of the Tater- / Romani Committee. (Photo: Private)
Kai-Samuel Vigardt (28) hails from a Traveller family. He has contributed to the Official Norwegian Report (NOU) attachments on Norwegian policy towards the Romani people/ Norwegian Travellers, which was submitted on 1 June. Here he and his partner Johanne Bergkvist are present as the report is submitted to the authorities. Bergkvist is also a member of the Tater- / Romani Committee. (Photo: Private)

Romani distrust of government lives on

More Romani people in Norway value the importance of education. But the historical distrust and fear of authority haven’t disappeared.

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Many Romani people in Norway who grew up under the government’s policy of Norwegianisation in the last century tell tragic stories of bullying and discrimination both in school and in society at large. Many of their children still struggle with the repercussions.

Researchers find variations in education, health and living conditions, but recent studies of living conditions among the Tater/Romani people in Norway indicate that that many still face challenges in their lives.

The new research, conducted by researchers from the Work Research Institute (WRI), is based on interviews and national records data, and was presented to the Ministry of Local Government and Modernisation in a Norwegian Official Report (NOU) on 1 June.

Survey records data is incomplete

In 1897, the government gave responsibility for the Romani/Tater to the Norwegian Mission for the Homeless (the Mission) to handle the “drifter problem.” The register-based part of the research used the Mission's client records, since Norway does not have a registry based on ethnicity.

Monica Five Aarset has interviewed 40 Tater/Romani people in Norway in a new Norwegian study on living conditions. (Photo: University of Oslo)
Monica Five Aarset has interviewed 40 Tater/Romani people in Norway in a new Norwegian study on living conditions. (Photo: University of Oslo)

However, the range of living conditions in the survey is not representative of all Romani people. A large percentage of Romani never had contact with the Mission, so the client archive does not provide a comprehensive picture.

The Romani/Tater are not an easy group to research because they hold differing views among themselves about what place they have as a minority group in society. Some have and want to have an established place in Norwegian society. Others feel peripheralised by the larger community.

The Romani/Tater population in Norway is estimated to be anywhere from 3000 to 10 000 people. Many people of Romani origin fear making their identity public, and many have Romani relatives without knowing it and so do not define themselves as part of that population.

Fear of child welfare continues

Monica Five Aarset collaborated with Ragnhild Nordvik to interview 40 people who define themselves as Romani. She is a researcher at the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights at the University of Oslo, and serves as an advisor and researcher for the Tater/Romani Committee.

Kai-Samuel Vigardt completed secondary school. He believes it is important that schools arrange for more children of Travellers to receive an education. (Photo: Private)
Kai-Samuel Vigardt completed secondary school. He believes it is important that schools arrange for more children of Travellers to receive an education. (Photo: Private)

Aarset found wide variations in the group. Some people try to get into mainstream society. Others choose — more or less voluntarily — to stay separate.

Interviewees expressed a consistent distrust of Norwegian authorities and society in general. Distrust is also passed on to generations who have not directly been affected by the government's Norwegianisation policy.

“Many of the people I interviewed are extremely afraid of child protection services. The stories of children who were taken from their parents are still told, and so the distrust lives on,” says Aarset.

Never felt safe

A man in his 50s tells the researchers about many psychological problems he has that stem from a childhood where he never felt safe. Children that he knew suddenly disappeared, and the adults said they had been taken. He grew up with two kinds of horrors, he says:

One was the fear we saw in the adults, that we didn’t fully understand — the constant fear of standing out, that something would happen. The other was the more concrete fear that came from kids I knew suddenly being "taken" and that I never saw again.

Even today many Romani people are too afraid to register in the public records.

“Distrust can be limiting in that Romani avoid or distance themselves from public services, such as the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration (NAV). Some are also fearful of school,” says Aarset.

A number of interviewees have little or no education and minimal knowledge about how to find information on various welfare programs, so many do not get access to equal public services.

Terrified of identity being disclosed

Aarset heard from survey participants that some Norwegians think that Tater/Romani people no longer exist. This lack of knowledge perpetuates many negative attitudes. Some adults are terrified that their colleagues will discover their Romani ethnicity.

A girl in her teens told researchers about several episodes of bullying at school:

I've just moved because I was being bothered by kids and adults at the last place I lived, where everybody knows everybody. The teacher talked about Traveller people and said that in the old days they were real dirt that one should stay away from.

Need diplomas and certificates

Romani people live throughout most of Norway, with the exception of the northernmost parts of the country.

Most of the adults in the survey collect disability benefits combined with part-time work. Many men work as craftsmen, but few hold permanent positions.

Few Romani over 40 years old have completed secondary school. But nowadays various trades require a certificate of competence, and so more Romani consider education to be important.

“Family loyalty is strong. Some boys choose to help their fathers in the family business instead of pursuing an education. But young people are generally keen to stay in school to get a trade certificate that shows what they know. A high absence rate in primary schools makes this more demanding for some Romani.

Many more individuals than before marry non-Romani, but many are still closely linked to the family and their identity. “Family ties extend beyond the nuclear family. The music and the Romani language are still alive in many families,” Aarset says.

Not much travelling

In higher-density Romani areas, Aarset also interviewed teachers and principals at schools, who often mentioned frequent absences, but not particularly long-term absences.

She says that parents taking their children out on lengthy trips has been an issue. Some groups are pushing for schools to facilitate distance learning so that the Romani can maintain a travelling culture. But the schools that were interviewed say that short-term absences far outweigh the families who apply for travel permission. Some families also move frequently due to work or bullying.

A Romani man in his 60s thinks there is less travel outside of vacation times, and says, “I certainly think it’s declining. I have a son who doesn’t take his kids out of school. He would see that as uncultured, actually. And the kids are part of soccer teams and all that."

Recognizes himself in survey

Kai Samuel Vigardt (28) is from a Romani family and recognizes himself in the results of this survey.

“Many of us have a strong distrust of the authorities left over from the repressive policies enacted against us. Many Romani parents still teach their children to watch out for the authorities. They’re strongly affected by discrimination and pass it on to their children.

Vigardt nevertheless believes that the younger generation has less prejudice. Many are now in school and realize that teachers do not represent all the evils of the past.

Increasing numbers are completing lower secondary school, and Vigardt has completed his upper secondary education.

“I did two years of secondary in the sales and service line and got my practical training in the Norwegian Armed Forces,” says Vigardt. “My boss in the military helped me a lot and customized the apprenticeship for me. Opportunities like this would help more students finish secondary school. When they travel a lot in elementary school, it’s difficult to conform to Norwegian mainstream life. Although people are more settled now than before.”

Still pleading for rights

“The European Convention on Human Rights established our rights as a minority. And yet, we still have to plead and ask for our rights,” says Vigardt. He is clear that the Norwegian authorities have to safeguard Romani culture on Romani terms.

The survey revealed startling mortality figures. Among people born between 1941 and 1955 the mortality rate is more than three times higher than the average for the rest of the population born in this period, and for those born between 1951 and 1955 the rate is four times as high.

Vigardt believes that the high mortality rate among Travellers says something about the longstanding discrimination they have suffered. “Just recently three of my close relatives under the age of 50 have died. People are simply exhausted. I think that’s pretty sad,” he says.

The Norwegian government report includes articles about the history of the Travellers’ work for redress and the recognition. Vigardt co-authored two of the attachments.

He points out that it is important for the government to craft a minority policy that shifts from a top-down perspective of protection and participation to an emphasis on collaboration and empowerment among Travellers themselves.

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no

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