Minorities in Europe
Attention! A minority in one place
can easily be a majority in another place.
When is a minority not a minority? When it is a powerful
elite! Do you agree?
In nearly every state there are
"traditional" minorities: ethnic groups who have
been present for centuries but who have different characteristics,
manners, habits and ways of life from the majority. Multitudes
of examples could be cited; here are some, you can find
many more. European history is littered with expansionist
movements, trading relations, religious and military conquests.
All of these have provoked movements of peoples, of cultures.
The eleventh century Norman knights managed to set up dominions
as far apart as Britain, Spain and Sicily; the forces of
the Ottoman Empire reached the walls of Vienna in 1529 and
again in 1683; Lithuania was the biggest state in fourteenth
century Europe. (We have to be careful with historical "facts"
like this; for instance, depending on your point of view,
the biggest state in fourteenth century Europe could be
described as Polish, not Lithuanian - this difference in
analysis is a matter of controversy even today). Many places
have seen terrible times; as Richard Hill points out, the
town of Ilok now on the eastern border of the independent
state of Croatia is an illuminating example. At the time
of the Ottoman Empire, Ilok was a Muslim settlement. Before
that it was Catholic. In 1930, many of the inhabitants were
German and Jewish. In 1991 it counted 3000 Croats, 500 Serbs
and 1900 Slovaks descendants of migrants from the 19th
century. A year later, in 1992, the population consisted
of 3000 Serbs. Since the war finished, the majority population
is once again Croat.
Does a town near you have a similar history?
For Spain these traditional minorities
are, mainly, the Roma and Sinti (or Gitanos) people, who
are also an ethnic minority in many other countries, and
the Muslim, Jewish and Hindu communities residing at Ceuta
and Melilla. In Sweden there is a sizeable Finnish minority.
In Turkey an estimated 17 per cent of the population are
Kurds. There are 21,000 Travellers in Ireland. About nine
per cent of the population of Rumania are Hungarians.
Until the 1980s it seemed, from the outside
- as though Yugoslavia was one of the most positive examples
of different peoples living peacefully together. Now it
is difficult to know how far that picture was false or to
know to what extent real inequalities were hidden from view.
What is clear is the complexity of relations between Slovenians,
Bosnians, Croats, Muslims, Serbs, Montenegrians, Macedonians,
Rumanians, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Albanians, Gypsies and
Greeks - to name just those included in the 1991 census.
How many people do you need to be to form a "minority
Having been in the minority within
the federation of Yugoslavia, Slovenians are now the majority
in Slovenia with around 88 per cent of the population. Declarations
of independence and the carving up of territory after wars
have played an enormous role in "creating" minorities.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, 25 million Russians
were living outside of the Russian Federation and - particularly
in Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia - formed minorities of
some magnitude in the newly independent countries. In 1920
the Treaty of Trianon cut off two-thirds of Hungarian territory
together with one third of its population and many of those
people stayed in their towns and villages. Their descendants
can be found mainly in the Slovak Republic, Romania and
the states that used to make up Yugoslavia.
The decision to recognise or define a
group of people as a "minority" is a fundamental
challenge and a danger. It is dangerous because it can lead
to increased discrimination and segregation. On the other
hand it can lead to an increase in the rights and responsibilities
of a particular group.
No state in Europe has within its borders
people who only speak one language, although there are some
that choose to have only one official language. Language
plays an enormous role in the culture of a people. Particularly
in the last few decades, speakers of minority languages
have been demanding official recognition, to receive schooling
in their language, and to be provided with the opportunity
to set up their own media (publications, radio, television
What other types of rights could/should such minorities
The Council of Europe has examined
the situation of "national minorities" on a number
of occasions since 1949, the first year of its existence.
Although it is possible to understand that the term refers
to those peoples who have been forced to migrate to another
country or who find themselves living in another country
because of border changes, it has proved impossible to reach
consensus on the interpretation of the term "national
minorities". The Vienna Summit's Declaration of 1993
[see Appendix 1] gave new impetus to the drive to protect
such minorities. As a result, the member States have decided
to use a pragmatic approach in the Framework Convention
for the Protection of National Minorities adopted in November
1994: the convention contains no definition of "national
minority", allowing each case to be viewed according
to the particular circumstances in each State. Those States
that sign and ratify the convention commit themselves legally
to enable national minorities to preserve the essential
elements of their identity, in particular their religion,
language, traditions and cultural heritage. Self-definition
is also important and Article 3.1 acknowledges the right
of individuals freely to choose to be treated or not to
be treated as belonging to a national minority.
Has the country where you live signed and ratified this
Migrants, Immigrants, Refugees
Terminology is difficult also
in this area. It is accepted practice in many European countries
to talk of "migrants" as people who have origins
in another country, there is even a Migrants Forum funded
by the Commission of the European Communities. To those
young British passport holders from Manchester who are of,
say, Jamaican origin and whose parents were born in Britain,
it comes as something of a surprise to learn that this Forum
could be for them. Some talk of "immigrants",
others of "guest workers" and some Council of
Europe reports speak of "stocks of foreigner populations".
Although it would suit some forces if migrants were to remain
just that, it has become increasingly clear that most of
them are here to stay. And many of them are nationals of
the countries where they live.
If a foreign couple have a child in your country, is the
child also a "foreigner"?
Problems of definition and different
methods of collecting statistics mean that, often, comparable
data between countries does not exist. Almost by definition
"illegal immigrants" are incredibly difficult
to count but, especially for unscrupulous politicians, incredibly
easy to estimate. (It is a little like the concept of the
silent majority - as it is silent anyone can claim to speak
for it). People are not "illegal", it is the legal
system which defines them so. If you add to these considerations
the fact that each country has different rules and rates
for processing applications for naturalisation, it seems
obvious that statistics have to be viewed with extreme care.
Yes, even the few we use in this education pack.
Where can you find such information? Who produces it? Who
We have referred earlier to the
differing patterns of migration within and into Europe.
Until the beginning of the 1990s the main cause of immigration
was the re-unification of the families of migrant workers
who had settled in the sixties and seventies. Italy, Portugal,
Greece and Spain have recently become countries of immigration,
having been countries of emigration before. (Did you realise
that Melbourne in Australia has the largest Greek population
after Athens and Thessaloniki?) Along with France, Italy
and Spain are the main destinations of immigrants from North
At a migration conference of the Council
of Europe in 1991 it was being predicted that, within three
years, up to twenty million people would emigrate westward
from the countries of the ex-Soviet Union. This has not
happened but such wild predictions have helped produce public
support for increasingly strict immigration controls in
What is the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker?
Throughout the world there has
been a massive increase in the number of refugees and asylum
seekers in the last decades. One estimate placed the increase
in Europe at 980 per cent in the period 1983 -1992: from
70,000 to 685,700. Their origins were world-wide, with the
majority coming from Eastern Europe and Turkey. Clearly,
the horrific conflict in former Yugoslavia produced the
highest increase in the movement of refugees and internally
displaced people in Europe. According to the High Commission
on Refugees in January 2004, the total number of "people
of concern to them" in Europe were 4,403,921. Worldwide,
the ten largest movements of refugees were all to
The 1951 United Nations Geneva Convention provides definitions
and procedures for the acceptance of asylum seekers. How
does the country where you live implement them?