Counting Gypsies, Travellers and Roma

Gypsy mother and son

The 2021 UK Census had a tick-box for Roma for the first time. Gypsies and Irish travellers were only put in the census for the first time in 2011.

“Gypsy” by Cernavoda is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Gypsies and Travellers are 0.5% of population in Kent

The results revealed 58,000 Gypsies and Irish travellers, the majority in the South-East in  Maidstone, Ashford and Swale, amounting to 0.5% of the population. Now in 2021, when Roma could tick their separate box in the census, there is some concern that they could be banished as recent migrants from the EU, especially if they have no evidence to prove their settled status.

Discrimination against Roma

Two young Gypsies in front of a derelict camping site
Gypsy Camp by Daquella Manera is licensed under CC by 2.0

In the past decade Europe has increasingly recognised that the Roma suffer from discrimination. Since 2011, the EU has recommended an integration strategy for  national governments to recognise Roma rights to housing, education, employment and healthcare. The Council of Europe (CoE)  has published a series of fact sheets about their complicated history.

History of Roma migrations

In order to understand why the UK census now asks the Roma to self-identify, it is necessary to delve into their past. DNA testing has revealed their ancestry is from Northern India, which also fits evidence from linguists about the Romany language origins. Their history is divided in the CoE fact sheets into 7 overlapping phases:

Pre-European

Roma moved overland  from India and into the Byzantine Empire. The main evidence is linguistic, with origins in a central Indian language, then with some Persian and Armenian borrowings, and then even stronger Greek contribution to the Romany language. Their livelihood was mostly with metal crafts, and as minstrels.

Gypsies in Europe

From their fifteenth to seventeenth century arrival in Europe, the earliest evidence of Roma is from Byzantine and then Ottoman tax records. Where they settled, they lived in separate city enclaves , “mahala”, as did all distinct ethnic groups under the Ottomans. But in some regions, such as Moldavia and Wallachia, landowners enslaved them. Some migrated further westwards, arriving in England during Tudor times, where the government of Mary Tudor passed a law that being an immigrant Gypsy was punishable by execution. The last such killing took place in the 1650s in Suffolk. Some Gypsies faced transportation to America.

18th – 20th Century Gypsy life


In the eighteenth century, during the Age of Enlightenment, Roma in Spain were interned and driven to forced labour. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, implemented compulsory “assimilation”, while in the Russian Empire they were given full civil rights. In England, the Quakers started to campaign for better treatment of Gypsies in 1816, but some were transported to Australia as criminals. Gypsies, living in the wild woods, were portrayed in the Scottish ballad of the “Raggle Taggle Gypsies” as a romantic alternative to the life of a landowning family.

In the nineteenth century, there was another westward migration of Gypsies after some 250000 were released from slavery in Romania (1856). There was also greater appreciation of their culture: the composer Ferenc Liszt wrote a book about Gypsy music. By this time, Gypsies were also participating in the growing industry of travelling circuses. They were seen moving around in picturesque horse-drawn caravans. However, in the lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire there was still intensified persecution.

Roma From World War 2 to date

During World War 2,  the Nazis targeted the Roma for  genocide in the death camps. 

After the war, in Eastern Europe Roma were still discriminated against, suffering inferior education and settled in separate enclaves.

A third migration westwards out of Eastern Europe began with  the collapse of communist governments and the break up of Yugoslavia. This caused some, especially those from Bosnia and Serbia, to claim asylum as refugees. However, in some Western European countries these rights are still insecure. When Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU (2007), some Roma took advantage of the EU free movement for labour, and migrated to richer countries. This is when there were scare stories in the English popular press about Gypsy caravans heading here.

Gypsy musicians
“WLGO027” by Simon Albury is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Roma Emancipation

In the past decade, there has been increasing recognition, by the EU and the CoE, of Roma rights, with Roma themselves voicing their own emancipation. In the UK for the recent census, Roma issued a YouTube video “Stand up and be counted” in Romany. So they evidently believe in the UK Government promise that the reason for a census is to allocate public services better.

Gypsy Caravan Sites

So how are they doing in the UK currently ?  In the  2011 census, some 55,000 identified as “Gypsies and Travellers” in England. Irish travellers too  have their own history as an out-group, both in Ireland where there were attempts to force them to settle. In Great Britain they lived as itinerants, as “tinkers”, horse-traders, or seasonal farm-workers, such as hop-pickers in Kent. The census counts both those who are settled and those who are itinerants living in caravan sites. Since 1945, most travelling families have lived in motor caravans, and thus need parking sites as they move around.  The 1965 caravan act requires local authorities to provide these sites: there are places for 131 caravans on the public caravan sites in Kent.  There is a waiting list for sites, which has carefully defined priority lists.

There are also some privately managed sites in the UK, some owned by Traveller families themselves.  Bearing in mind that the 2011 census cited Kent as having the largest Traveller population (10931 individuals) there are evidently not enough parking sites. Hence, there are frequent reports of illegal caravan parking on lay-bys and car-parks.  This is one reason why the government, in the new PCSC Bill proposes to give more powers to the police to stop illegal encampments. The briefing states:

As at January 2020, 3% of Gypsy and Traveller caravans in England were on unauthorised encampments (694 caravans). 419 of those caravans were on sites “not tolerated” and 275 were on tolerated sites.

There is sometimes friction with local residents, as caravan dwellers are accused of fly-tipping,  and even puppy theft. 

Progressive Strategies

However, rather than confining public policy on gypsies to policing, a more progressive strategy is to note how poorly they are served. In counts, in education qualifications, and in employment they under-score compared to the British average.  These are all matters for detailed government consideration about how to list these caravan dwellers with NHS doctors, register in local schools and nurseries, and ensure eligibility for traineeships.  They have been cut off from all these, not only because of  a life of moving around in caravans, but perhaps by lack of cultural affirmation. The same as Black children used to suffer when the curriculum never reflected their lives, family and history. This is now being rectified by specific education materials, such as for GTR (Gypsy, Traveller and Roma) week, and the pan-European projects such as by the Council of Europe.