RomIs: History and Ethnography of Roma in Iceland


RomIs: History and Ethnography of Roma in Iceland

Í Lögbergi 102 föstudaginn 8. mars kl. 13:15-16:15.

RomIs: History and Ethnography of Roma in Iceland (RomIs) is a multi-disciplinary research project with two overarching goals: first, to provide the first historical account of Romani presence in Iceland, and second, to look ethnographically into the contemporary Roma community in Iceland.

This session brings together the team of the RomIs project to present their research and discuss the main achievements and research questions in the broader context of humanities and social sciences. The session is comprised of several individual presentations, which will provide an overview of the research outcomes and data emerging from our ongoing activities along with reflection on the project's objectives and methodologies.


Until recently, Icelandic academics and researchers of Romani Studies alike believed Iceland to be a Roma-less territory with an isolated population in which Roma/Gypsy people were unseen until the late twentieth century. Nevertheless, our research implemented as part of RomIs: A History and Ethnography of Roma in Iceland project confirms that families and individuals have been visiting Iceland since as early as the beginning of the twentieth century and ventured here in subsequent decades to explore economic niches.

The purpose of the presentation is to outline the preliminary findings of the multidisciplinary research implemented as part of the RomIs project. The talk frames the panel and offers a periodisation of the Romani presence in Iceland, considering the historical and socio-economic development of the country, as well as the history and ethnography of Roma in the Nordic and European context.

The discussion is centred on outlining the first-ever history of Romani presence in Icelandic territories. Beyond that, it raises questions contributing to studies that critically deconstruct the discourse on Icelandic homogeneity and on ‘Icelandic exceptionalism’ when it comes to society’s attitudes towards Others and particularly towards ‘Gypsies’.

Á árunum fyrir fyrri heimsstyrjöld birtust reglulega fréttir í íslenskum blöðum um hópa útlendinga sem flökkuðu um landið. Nokkur vafi ríkti um uppruna þessa fólks – sumt þeirra sagðist vera Armenar, aðrir Lappar og enn aðrir Rússar, en grunur lék þó á að það væri allt „Sígaunar“. Þessar heimsóknir vöktu nokkrar áhyggjur hjá íslenskum ráðamönnum sem gerðu allt sem þeir gátu til að koma í veg fyrir þær. Í fyrirlestrinum mun ég rýna í heimildir um þessar heimsóknir og viðbrögð við þeim.

The contemporary migration of Romanian Roma to Iceland remains a relatively unnoticed phenomenon, overshadowed by the broader immigrant population. This paper is based on an ethnographic study that delves into the lives of Romanian Roma families in Iceland. The research explores various facets, including living conditions, employment opportunities, access to education, healthcare, and experiences of discrimination. Employing qualitative methods such as literature review, observations, and interviews, the paper sheds light on the economic strategies of the Roma community in Iceland and their preference for Iceland as a migration destination.

The findings of this research not only provide valuable insights into the Romanian Roma community in Iceland but also have the potential to inform policies and practices aimed at improving their lives. The study also addresses how society can better support the Romanian Roma community, offering a glimpse into this often-overlooked population.

This presentation revolves around qualitative research framed within the RomIs project and investigating the approaches of the Reykjavík school and welfare system to the Roma presence in the capital area. These the two institutional bodies, indeed, proved to be functioning as the main contact points between Roma and Icelandic institutions. Their personnel, therefore, felt exposed to the challenges presented by the specific social, economic, and cultural situation of students and families with Roma background. The research, which is still ongoing, is based on in-depth semi-structured interviews with representatives of the Reykjavík school and welfare system. This presentation provides information on the main framework of the project, and thus discusses background, working hypothesis and research question structuring the research. It also addresses methodological challenges encountered during fieldwork and the solutions adopted to go beyond them.   

This presentation addresses preliminary findings from ethnographic interviews conducted within the RomIs project, exploring encounters of school and welfare staff and the Reykjavík area, with students and families of Roma background. At this stage of research, data were collected predominantly from interviews with school staff. The preliminary findings will be read considering the working hypotheses, with a discussion on where these hypotheses are supported, and where instead refuted by data collected so far. Interviews indicate a growing awareness and concern, among school staff, of the socio-economic background of Roma families - who predominantly come from Romania. Preliminary findings thus highlight factors regarded as problematic, such as “cultural difference,” absence from school and communication barriers; they also outline the feelings of frustration and perplexity this causes among interviewees. The accounts also describe the existence of systemic hindrances and highlight the efforts to find solutions to overcome them. Finally, findings indicate the heterogeneity of approaches adopted by different schools, and of perceptions of Roma identity from institutional actors.