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The Stigmatized Roma People of Greece

Roma people Greece
Roma children playing. Credit: AMNA

The issue of Roma people in Greece remains controversial to this day. The Council of Europe estimates that there are approximately 265,000 Roma living in Greece (2.47% of the population).

Roma — or Romani or Romany, the people formerly known as Gypsies — are stigmatized because their way of life is far from the social norms in Western countries.

The stigma comes mostly because there are cases that Roma commit crimes such as grand theft, robbery, drug trafficking, even murder in some rare instances.

Racism and discrimination against the Roma in Greece

Stigma also comes as a result of outright racism. The racism and discrimination towards Roma perhaps leads them to petty crime.

Ten years after the crisis, the Roma people in Greece still face extreme poverty. A recent staggering report showed that while approximately 20 percent of the general Greek population is at risk for poverty, the same is true for nearly 100 percent of the Greek Roma.

Greece Roma
Almost 100% of Roma people in Greece are at risk of poverty. Credit: Economist

In the early 2000s, the Greek government set out with a plan to improve conditions for the Roma, but many say that these efforts were unsuccessful and that most communities are in the same conditions as before.

A recent study by the Minority Rights group, says that in Greece an estimated half of the Roma population live in shacks, without access to electricity, sanitation or piped water. They are also often under the threat of eviction.

At the same time, there is still a romantic view other people have of them, as they see them as people who live freely, outside of social constraints, and move wherever they please without compromise.

Most people refer to them as gypsies, while Greeks also call them tsigganos — probably from the Hungarian cigany — or gyftos, which is a pejorative word that derives from Egyptios (Egyptian) because of the tan color of their skin.

Roma people origins

Even though there is a general belief that the Roma origins are from central Europe, genetic findings suggest an origin in India for this particular people.

Since Roma groups do not keep written records of their history, most hypotheses about their migration and early history are based on linguistic theory. There is no record of a migration from India to Europe from medieval times that can be connected to the Roma people.

However, most Roma speak some form of Romany, a language which is closely related to the modern Indo-European languages of northern India, as well as the language of the country in which they live.

It is generally agreed among researchers that Roma started arriving in southeastern Europe by the beginning of the 14th, and in western Europe, by the 15th century.

By the second half of the 20th century they had spread to every inhabited continent. Roma people began to arrive in Greece in the 15th century.

Roma people in Greece

The name gypsy (gyftos) was first given to them by the Greeks, who supposed that these golden-skinned people were Egyptian in origin. It is a derogatory term, now considered racist and not used.

Due to their nomadic nature, Roma people are not concentrated in a specific geographical area, but are dispersed all over the country. The majority of the Greek Roma have Hellenic nationality and follow the tenets of Greek Orthodoxy.

They do, however, speak the Romani language in addition to Greek. There are also Roma who live in Western Thrace and are Muslim. Most of them speak a dialect of the same language.

The Greek government is making attempts to assimilate the Roma and improve their living conditions; however, to this point, without much success.

A state-run program to improve their quality of life started in 2010 with the issuance of some bank capital that would help the Roma fight social alienation. However, the economic crisis put a stop to that effort.

Due to discrimination, the majority of Roma do not even attend elementary school. This forces them to stay in the fringes of society.

Roma settlements

The Roma people in Greece live all over the country in about 70 settlements, mainly in the poorer outskirts of big cities. In Athens they can be found in the Ano Liosia, Agia Varvara,
Zefeiri, and Kamatero neighborhoods.

A large population of Roma also live in Thessaly near the town of Farsala, outside Corinth, and other cities and towns of the Peloponnese.

Some of the most common problems the Roma communities face in Greece include  instances of child labor and abuse, low school attendance, police discrimination, drug use, and drug trafficking.

The majority of Greeks do not have a favorable opinion of the Roma, mostly because of their criminal activities. However, percentagewise, illegal and criminal activity by the Roma minority is not higher than average.

Nevertheless, a 2019 Pew Research Center poll found that 72 percent of Greeks dislike the Roma way of living and distrust them because of the unlawful activities some of them engage in.

Famous Greek Roma artists and soccer players

While many Roma are routinely accused of illegal activities, and many live in poverty, there are several examples of Romani individuals who have excelled in their professions in Greece.

Manolis Angelopoulos, who lived from 1939 to 1989, is a Greek singing legend who earned the love and respect of his colleagues. Born in Kavala to Roma parents, Aggelopoulos recorded his first song in 1957. Always proud of his origins, he gained popularity during the 1960s singing not only about love but also about Greek refugees.

Kostas Hatzis, who was born in 1936, is a famous guitar player and singer, who has been recognized as a major artist and innovative creator of songs with a social message. He launched the “troubadour with his guitar” musical genre in Greece.

Makis Christodoulopoulos, a famous singer of laika, is another Roma musical star. Born in 1948 in Amaliada to a poor Roma family, Christodoulopoulos worked his way up to become a successful singer and performer.

Vassilis Paiteris, a musician and singer from Drapetsona who was also elected to the Greek parliament is another Roma who has excelled in his field. Born in 1950, Paiteris began his professional singing career at the young age of 13.

Helen (Lavida) Vitali is considered one of the most important female voices of the past 20 years in Greece. She was born in Athens, to a musically inclined family, and grew up traveling around the country with her parents.

The mother of Irene Merkouri, a pop singer, is of Roma origin. Born in Athens in 1981, Merkouri has been pursuing a professional music career since 2002 with success.

Christos Patsatzoglou, who was born in 1979) a soccer player who played for Olympiacos and the national soccer team, is another Roma who has gained success in his chosen field.

Dimitris Limnios, another soccer player, who was born in 1998, started in PAOK Thessaloniki and now plays for Twende in the Netherlands. He has also played for the Greek national team.

Lazaros Christodoulopoulos, born in 1986, has played for all the Big Four teams of Greek soccer (Olympiacos, Panathinaikos, AEK, PAOK) and the national team.

Another soccer player, Giorgos Giakoumakis, who was born in 1994, now plays for Celtic in Scotland; the Greek striker also played for the national team and AEK.


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