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Kristian Josef Modeste's birth certificate

After the Roma were liberated from 500 years of slavery in the principalities of Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania in 1856, many of them migrated to countries in western and northern Europe. One small group made their way to Norway. Many Roma families gradually established communities in various parts of the country, and their children were issued with Norwegian birth and baptismal certificates in cities such as Kristiania, Trondheim, Bergen, Harstad, Drammen and Hammerfest. Among them was Kristian Josef Modeste, a head of family born in Kristiania in1882, who would later be expelled. 

Birth and baptismal certificates for Kristian Josef Modeste and his wife, Anna Maria Rosenberg. Illustration: National Archives Oslo

The first Roma arrived in Norway between 1860 and 1888, a period characterised by a liberal immigration regime. Many of them acquired Norwegian citizenship, partly as a result of the decision by the Norwegian parliament in 1860 to abolish the obligation to carry a passport. The obligation was abolished because it was considered an anachronism. Removing it was seen as a means of putting a stop to civil service bureaucracy and execution of power over travelling groups, a move which in practice also afforded Romani/Travellers and Roma safe conduct within the realm. Norway therefore had no legislation regulating citizenship until they were laid down in law in 1888.

The issue of Roma rights to citizenship was complicated by a major legal challenge in Norway's history of nationality law: the right of citizenship through birth (innfødsretten). After the Citizen Act of 1888 entered into force, people with citizenship of other countries but who were also entitled to Norwegian citizenship through birth were granted citizenship when they settled permanently in Norway. The right of citizenship through birth was not something one could lose, even after acquiring citizenship of another country. The reason why the right of citizenship through birth was articulated in this way was the large number of Norwegians who emigrated to the United States. The right of citizenship through birth was intended to give emigrants and their children to right to return to Norway if they wanted to. Though unlikely that the authorities intended it, the right of citizenship through birth also benefited the Norwegian Roma. Although Norwegian Roma travelled around Scandinavia and other countries such as Belgium and France, the right of citizenship through birth assured their children Norwegian citizenship regardless of which country they were born in. The Roma people were only one of several groups that came under Norwegian minority policy, but the treatment of this particular group was unique in the Norwegian context. From the 1850s onwards, assimilation was the dominant policy towards the country's minority groups.

This policy implied assimilation through language and, in the longer term, through removing all traces of their distinctive ethnic and cultural heritage. Like the Roma, the Romani/Travellers were a nomadic people, but they had arrived in Scandinavia as far back as in the 1500s. Financed by the Norwegian authorities, a Christian philanthropic movement (Den norske omstreifermisjonen) was charged with implementing the assimilation policy with respect to the Travellers, but since the movement had already declared that the “Gypsies” lay outside their mandate, the Ministry of Social Affairs decided that this group would not be assimilated in the same way as others. Consequently, in 1921 the Ministry set about devising a scheme that would be specifically designed so as to exclude the “Gypsies”. In its most extreme form, this policy was devised to deprive Roma like Kristian Modeste, born in Norway and holder of a Norwegian birth certificate and identity papers, of their Norwegian citizenship.

By Lars Lien
Published June 22, 2015 12:13 PM - Last modified Feb. 6, 2020 11:36 AM