Last Updated: Friday, 27 May 2016, 08:49 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Spain : Gypsies

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Spain : Gypsies, 2008, available at: [accessed 29 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Of the estimated 10 million Roma/Gypsies throughout the world, between 7 million and 8.5 million live in Europe, and of those an estimated 650,000 to 800,000 live in Spain. In 2005 about one-third live in Andalusia, with Madrid, Catalonia and Valencia accounting for around 10 per cent each. A large number of immigrant Roma arrived in Spain from Romania after 2002.

There are two main historic groups, gitanos and hungaros. The gitanos are divided into subgroups classified by both social class and cultural differences. They live predominantly in a settled lifestyle and are usually well integrated into Spanish society. The hungaros, however, are Kalderash, or tinkers from Hungary and elsewhere in Central Europe, and traditionally lived a nomadic lifestyle. Some of these have been re-housed in ghettoes.

In 2005 75 per cent of Roma work in services, especially trading and entertainment, 11 per cent in construction, 5 per cent in industry and 9 per cent in agriculture.

Historical context

The first Roma/Gypsies left north-west India between the ninth and the fourteenth centuries. Their earliest presence in Spain is noted in Zaragoza (Aragon) from 1425 and in Barcelona (Catalonia) from 1447. Some Roma/Gypsies attached themselves to a given territory, while others continued to migrate. They often encountered and mixed with indigenous European traveller groups, such as the Quinquis of Castile. Those Roma/Gypsies who stopped or limited their travelling within a region mixed with the local sedentary population. Thus in Andalusia the local culture, particularly the flamenco music, dance and style of dress, is profoundly influenced by Roma/Gypsy traditions.

For half a century or more Roma/Gypsies were well received and some local authorities gave them official protection. But from 1492, with the Christian Reconquista of Spain and persecution of Moors and Jews to rid the peninsula of non- Christian groups, the Roma/Gypsies were included in the list of peoples to be assimilated or driven out.

The first anti-Roma/Gypsy laws in Spain were established in 1499, under Ferdinand and Isabella, when they were given 60 days to find themselves a trade and a master, and forbidden to travel in groups. In 1560 'the habit and the costume' of Roma/Gypsies were prohibited, while in 1611 they were compelled to take up farming on land left fallow by the Moors. Spain was unusual among European countries of the Middle Ages in adopting a policy of enforced integration rather than exclusion. Gypsy settlements were broken up and the residents dispersed; Gypsies were required to marry non-Gypsies on pain of death. They were denied their language and rituals as well as well being excluded from public office and from guild membership. In the seventeenth century Roma/Gypsies were deported to the Americas and Africa. In 1749 a round-up of thousands of Roma/Gypsies was carried out; those who had settled were easiest to locate and incarcerate. The Roma/Gypsies who remained free became a submerged subclass.

From 1939 to 1975 under the Franco regime, Roma/Gypsies were persecuted and harassed. Since 1975 Spanish government policy has tried to address the community's problems, providing special education programmes, welfare and social services. Local authorities built housing for the hungaros. In the large cities, for example Barcelona, these rapidly became deprived ghettoes.

In 1988 the central government launched the Gypsy Development Programme, which was reviewed in 2002. The Roma community was consulted to a greater extent for the review than for the original programme.

Current issues

The Roma/Gypsies are not a united group. The mainstream community regards all as gitanos. But some gitanos deny that hungaros are the same ethnic group as themselves. Since the 1980s re-housing programmes, many hungaros have become settled 'gitanos', but the poverty and social exclusion which they have experienced for centuries has not been eradicated.

A study on employment by the Fundación Secretariado Gitano in 2005 found that slightly over seven out of ten Roma age 16 and over (71.2%) in a target population of 475,000 do not complete primary school education. Close to a fifth of this age group (18.4%) cannot read or write. The level of illiteracy is higher for women and worse in smaller towns and communities. The study also found a correlation between the low level of educational achievement and poor health, although the vast majority of those interviewed claimed to be in good health. Unemployment among the Roma is slightly higher than that of the general Spanish population, and Roma youth unemployment is particularly high. The Roma population is younger than the Spanish average. Roma in work are more likely than other Spaniards to be engaged in part-time and fixed-term contract work.

Part-timers account for 42 per cent and those on fixed-term contracts 71 per cent of employed Roma. The main occupations of the Roma - mobile trading, shop work, construction, seasonal agriculture and hotel and restaurant work - are precarious. Just under half of those interviewed considered that they were discriminated against in employment, housing and education, while just over half said they had experienced no discrimination in any of these situations.

However, the Fundación Secretariado Gitano detailed 137 cases of discrimination in employment, education, housing, health care, legal procedures, the media and by the police in its 2005 report.

The European Committee against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) noted in 2005 that the annual budget for the Gypsy Development Programme, at €3.3 million a year, was low. There are other funds and specific projects for the Roma under the National Action Plan on Social Exclusion.

ECRI also noted the lack of data on the ethnic origin of school children and of housing occupancy. This makes it difficult to assess problems and solutions in education and housing. The 2002 Law on the Quality of Education attempts to better distribute children with special needs in the state schools and publicly funded private schools. But non- governmental organizations noted discrimination against Roma children, which ECRI urged the authorities to address through parent teacher associations. NGOs have also noted discrimination in employment and housing. Around 7 per cent of Roma are reckoned to be living in substandard housing. Segregation and overcrowding, discrimination in access to private housing, discrimination in access to health care and violent attacks on Roma are other problems noted by the ECRI report.

The government's Gypsy Development Programme has an Education Commission to carry out educational initiatives. From 2001 these have included recommendations to include elements of Gypsy culture in primary education curricula, to distribute Gypsy educational materials and to develop intercultural mediator training programmes. The departments of education of the autonomous communities also fund training and job promotion under their social guarantee programmes to support students over 16 who have not achieved the main objectives of compulsory secondary education. The regional governments of the Canary Islands and Valencia make explicit reference to the Gypsy population and culture in their education laws.

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