The wrongs and harms of a Roma register in Norway

I was trained to be an academic, not a whistleblower. But when I found out that the Norwegian police had put together a register of Roma people, a national minority in Norway, I had no choice but to bring it to public and legal scrutiny.

I first saw the “family tree” of Norwegian Roma people put together by police officers in a meeting I was invited to about crime prevention work in Oslo in the fall of 2023. The police officers wanted to expand their knowledge about Roma people and had invited me as I had worked with Roma-related issues in my research. I photographed the “family tree” and, suspecting that there was a register behind the graphics, accepted an invitation to a follow-up meeting with the police officers who presented it.

My suspicion was correct. In the follow-up meeting, an officer showed me the register on his computer and explained how he had created it. The register includes 14 people facing charges in ongoing criminal cases, 74 who are their close relatives and 567 other people. The register even includes Holocaust survivors, deceased people as well as Roma children.

I recorded the meeting and took notes, thus securing proof. Based on the recording and the family tree photo, investigative journalists at the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten released a report last month revealing the existence of the Roma register to the Norwegian public.

Keeping registers of citizens based on their ethnic and racial background is illegal in Norway, which is itself reason enough for the Norwegian authorities to act on this revelation. But the history of police registration of Roma in the country and its tragic consequences adds to the gravity of this violation.

From ethnic registration to Auschwitz-Birkenau

In the early 1920s, the Norwegian authorities launched a campaign to register all Roma people in the country, who numbered no more than 150 at that time. In parallel, they also started denying members of the group Norwegian citizenship and made their Norwegian identification papers invalid, rendering them stateless.

A new “G*psy clause” of the Norwegian Alien Act that prevented the Roma from obtaining Norwegian citizenship was adopted unanimously by parliament in 1927. There was consensus from the extreme right to the extreme left that Roma people were unwanted in the country. Thus, Norway was able to declare itself “G*psy free” long before the Nazis occupied the country in the 1940s.

These harsh policies allowed for the Norwegian Roma to be pushed out of the country. As stateless individuals, many were unable to secure legal stays in other countries, and they kept getting deported from place to place. In the 1940s, many of them were rounded up and sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp complex in Nazi-occupied Poland. Of those deported to the camps, only four survived.

After the war, some of the surviving Norwegian Roma tried to go back to the country but were prevented by the “G*psy clause” of the Alien Act. Four of them led a years-long battle on behalf of the community to regain their citizenship rights and were only allowed to return in 1956 after the clause was repealed.

This was a largely silenced chapter in Norwegian history until Maria Rosvoll, Lars Lien and Jan Alexander Brustad, scholars at the Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies, published a report about it in 2015. This led to an apology from the Norwegian prime minister, and the descendants of the Holocaust survivors were given a collective compensation.

That the Norwegian police were aware of this historical background was obvious to me as they used the report’s photos of Holocaust survivors in their meticulous mapping of the Roma people in Norway.

A broad consensus to register Roma

The idea that it is necessary to keep registers of Roma people is a historically rooted practice. In 1932, the predecessor of Interpol, the International Criminal Police Commission (ICPC) established an international “G*psy centre” in Vienna to centralise the exchange of information about Roma people.

In 1934, a permanent committee was formed to support the “G*psy centre” and what it called “a fight against the G*psy plague”. In the same year, the ICPC had an outspoken goal to carry out registration of all individuals who were racially defined as “G*psies” or living a “G*psy lifeslyle”.

Historian Jan Selling’s research has shown that the Roma were the only ethnic group that was singled out in this way by the ICPC and there was a broad consensus among Nazi and non-Nazi police chiefs in Europe in their view of the Roma as “hereditary criminals”. Despite this fact, there has been a lack of interest among European police organisations in confronting this part of history, indicating that there is an ideological and operative continuity in European policing since the 1940s.

Norway clearly followed up on the ICPC’s intentions to register all Roma. In addition to the Norwegian Roma, the minority known as Travellers (Romanifolk/tatere) were also registered by the police in 1927.

These practices continued even after the end of World War II as the presence of such registers in the National Archive reveals. Some of them were extensive and included information such as current names, dates of birth, social security numbers, passport numbers, photos, occupations, places of residence and kinships.

These registers were not closed down even after legislation was passed in Norway restricting the legality of registering ethnic and racial belonging in 1978.

There is, in other words, every reason to believe that registration of Roma and Travellers (Romanifolk/tatere) has taken place continuously in Norway for the past 100 years. The comprehensive registration practices suggests that Norwegian authorities see criminality as “hereditary” to Roma people.

Therefore, the recent disclosure of a Roma registry should infuriate but not surprise us.

‘Does the police have my name?’

When I left the police office where I had witnessed the ethnic register, I struggled to breathe. I was furious, but I also felt scared. Given that I am not a Roma individual and that neither I nor my family are in the register, I could not even imagine how Roma people would feel about this disclosure.

The news, of course, received strong reactions from the Norwegian Roma. One of their greatest fears was confirmed. Intergenerational trauma was reactivated. Having experienced state-committed genocide and being hunted by the police, they know what such a register might lead to.

Norwegian Roma have told the media that many have considered leaving the country out of fear. Natalina Jansen, leader of the Roma Council in Norway, said in an interview: “You get the same fear that family members had when in 1934 they were refused entry to Norway and the persecution in Europe increased. Panic sets in.”

A Roma child I recently met at a meeting about the register looked at me with serious eyes and asked, “Does the police have my name?”

Time for truth and recourse

Norway’s brutal treatment of Roma people throughout history has not only directly caused death and trauma for the community, but it has also deprived our country of citizens who should have been part of our society. How Norway would have been with them present, we will never know.

As a Norwegian citizen, I am grateful that the four Roma individuals at the foundation of the police’s “family tree” fought for their right to return to their home country. And I am grateful that their descendants have stayed in Norway and enriched our society despite an environment that has been largely hostile towards them.

It is time for a serious reckoning to be taken with the racist notion that Roma are more inclined to be criminals than other people. But words are not enough. Action must follow.

A well-formulated and substantive apology from the Norwegian prime minister in 2015 is close to worthless if the Norwegian police, in parallel, continue the practice of registering and racially profiling Roma people behind closed doors.

After the disclosure that Roma had been registered by the police in Sweden in 2013, the government responded by establishing a commission against antigypsyism. This could be a step in the right direction in Norway too. Further action could involve suggestions made by various scholars and community members.

A recent research project by the Centre for European Policy Studies recommends that antigypsyism be more closely monitored and regional and local truth and reconciliation commissions be considered in the European Union.

Given that injustices against Roma are not a closed chapter of history but rather an enduring oppression, scholars Margareta Matache and Jacqueline Bhabha have suggested a programme for reparatory justice that goes beyond truth-telling and apology to include offender accountability, restitution, reparative compensation, and new and stronger legal protections.

The Roma in Norway have repeatedly pleaded with Norway to take historical responsibility. Safira Josef and others have requested a truth commission, and Solomia Karoli has requested a memorial to the Roma murdered in the Holocaust. Furthermore, in speeches on International Holocaust Day, Josef, Amorina Lund and Palermo Hoff requested an action plan against antigypsyism. Their demands have gone unheard.

The world should now turn their eyes towards Norway. The country was the only one that achieved the goal of being “G*psy free” in the 1930s, and it has now made a complete register of its Roma national minority again.

Will Norway take this opportunity to make serious efforts to break with the past? Or will the authorities simply give an empty promise that this will be the last time? The choice Norway will make will show the world where this country stands on justice and anti-racism.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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