Gypsies in Finland
Romani is what the ‘Gypsies’ call themselves in every country in which they are found, butGypsies is an English word derived from the slurred Egyptian, referring to where the English thought the Romani must have originated. And as might be guessed from their inaccurate English name, the Romani are seldom well understood or liked by their neighbours. The Romani have lived in Finland since the sixteenth century, some 400 years, but they are still treated as outsiders by the ‘white’ Finnish majority.
The Romani originated as a distinct group in what is now northern India. They have
spent centuries wandering, and can be found in many parts of Asia and Europe, particularly south-eastern Europe. Many still speak the Romani language, which is distinct from any European language. The Romani have been able to retain a powerful, separate identity from many of their host cultures. They have occasionally been the object of extremely harsh persecution, and in some areas of Central Europe they were almost exterminated by the Nazis during World War .Most Romani prefer to dress in their traditional clothing. Men wear dark suits, while women wear hoop-skirts with aprons and ruffles. Most Romani have dark hair and olive complexions, and the denigrating term for the Romani, mustalaisia, derives from musta or black. Finland’s best-known ethnic group, the indigenous Samis or Lapps, number only around 2,500. In contrast, the Romani population is probably somewhere between 6,500 and 10,000.
Finland is not generally well known as a country with widespread racism, but discrimination against the Romani has only recently been made illegal. As the targets of governmental efforts to ‘integrate’ them into the larger population and culture, they have endured extreme measures, including the forced removal of Romani children from their homes for placement in state-run children’s homes. This practice only ended in 1970. Not until 1992 were Finland’s citizens guaranteed equal protection under the law or the right to their own culture. The Romani in Finland tend to have lower literacy rates, less education and economic resources, and higher levels of poverty than white Finns; many depend on state-funded welfare. A director of a charitable organisation for the Romani stated, ‘Most Finns say that the mustalaisia are lazy, that they don’t want to work, and that they are not able to perform ordinary jobs. They say they’re dishonest and irresponsible’. Heikki Lampela, who is only part Romani, faces this attitude directly and often: ‘In restaurants where I had never been before, people told me, “Get out of here. We don’t like Gypsies”... People in Finland hate Gypsies. They don’t want Gypsies to come into society because they don’t like them. And Gypsies have their own society. The Finnish lifestyle and the Gypsy lifestyle are like day and night’.
Recent legislation has made overt, formal racism less common, and many Romani hope
that these changes will result in the material improvement of their lives. But many Romani also have their doubts about any economic or social improvement. As Lampela says, ‘If we’re talking about a dog, does it matter what pedigree it is? People use their eyes here, they don’t use their brains. They don’t ask how you feel inside’.