The Roma caste system gives discrimination a new look

By • on September 28, 2012

Property prices have fallen inSlovakia, the way they did in many other EU countries. As a result, some Roma have been selling their flats and buying cheaper houses in villages. In other words, foreign Roma “invaders” are moving in next to people who have been living in some villages for ages. The newcomers are sometimes accepted without problems by their Roma and non-Roma neighbors, but in other cases not even the Roma community is willing to welcome them. 

The locals Roma from the Sečovská Polianka and Vranov nad Topľou districts in easternSlovakiahave not voiced their disapproval, but they are unwilling to cohabitate with the “intruders” on the same street. There are several streets inhabited by local Roma in the aforementioned village. But many other have recently mixed in, those who got married and those who bought houses there. Until recently, those streets used to be very quiet. The local Roma were seen as the wealthier ones, those who benefitted from advantageous conditions, and had beautiful houses and well-maintained gardens. Non-Roma treated them with respect and perceived them as equals. You would encounter cases of strong friendships in every generation. Unlike in other Roma communities, every family minds their own business here. Women are mostly at home taking care of children while their husbands are working abroad during the week.

However, the streets have suddenly changed due to the recently arrived Roma, who are noisier and whose children running around are darker skinned. One local Romani woman decided to sell her house and buy a different one at the end of the village, in a quieter part. She said that she is disturbed by the darker skinned Roma who arrived recently.

The newcomers are more sociable and louder, and instead of visiting each other in their gardens, they group up in the street. This is an old habit that many Roma still keep. I spent a few days in Sečovská Polianka and one can tell it is not a “posh street” anymore. Many more of those ordinary Roma who need to constantly get together and share everything live there.

But the local Roma simply see them as “gypsies.” They do communicate with them but would be happier if the newcomers moved away. Until recently the local Roma were very proud but now their pride is threatened by the mediocrity of ordinary gypsies. Because of the latter, the higher living standards of the local Roma are now decreasing to the level of other Roma communities. The old locals would love to change that, but what can they do?

Sečovská Polianka used to be a model community thanks to the lifestyle of the local Roma. The attitude towards the newcomers turned the village into an example of how the caste system still functions among Roma. They can share a territory but only because they have to, and there is a huge abyss between the different groups. And time and the economic situation will ultimately show which caste will win.