KEVIN ADAMSON I noticed recently that the Big Issue vendors in Glasgow had changed a bit. They looked a lot like the Roma people I had met while doing research in Romania a few years back. I talked to some of them and they were pretty surprised to meet a Romanian-speaking Scot. Last week I spoke to a lady selling The Big Issue who arrived two months ago with her husband from a village near Arad in western Romania. Others I chatted to were very keen to pass the time of day - they don't really speak English, and a couple of them said it was quite a lonely business.

I asked if they were making any money selling the magazine, but one guy told me he'd only managed to sell 10 copies in one day, and that was a good day. He also said he would like to get a better job; that he had come here to work but was finding it a bit tough. Selling a few magazines at £1.20 a time doesn't seem like a great living to me, and it certainly makes you wonder why people would come all the way from Romania to earn less than £10 a day.

So why have they come here when the prospects seem so poor? In many European countries, particularly in eastern Europe, the Roma face many difficulties and hardships in common. Statistically, they form the largest ethnic minority and most socially excluded group in Europe, and are the largest ethnic minority in several European countries. The last Romanian census, in 2002, counted about half-a-million ethnic Roma, while independent estimates place this number at more than two million. The number of Roma in the whole of Europe could be between 10 million and 12 million, according to a recent EU report.

The history of the Roma in Europe is a tragic one. Migrating from northern India to Europe in the eleventh century, most Roma live today in eastern and central Europe, particularly in Romania and Bulgaria, with many large communities in other European countries. In the parts of the Ottoman empire today located in modern-day Romania, they have endured persecution and enslavement at the hands of landowners and clergy since the middle ages, being emancipated from slavery only in the mid-nineteenth century.

During the Second World War, the Roma suffered racial persecution. An estimated 1.5 million were murdered in Nazi-occupied Europe, an episode that has come to be known in the Romani language as the Porraimos (the "devouring"), or Romani holocaust. In communist eastern Europe after the war, the state set about targeting Roma, with social policies aimed to settle them forcibly and to eradicate "antisocial traits".

Despite efforts to socially engineer their assimilation, the vast majority of Roma remained marginalised and discriminated against by both state and society. Anti-Roma racism across Europe remained rampant, and some governments in western Europe organised programmes of forced sterilisation of Roma women. Since the collapse of communism in eastern Europe in 1989, the situation of Roma there has not improved a great deal.

Despite progress in the adoption of western-style minority protection and anti-discrimination legislation, this protection is still largely notional. The post-communist economic collapse has been accompanied by a widespread tendency to transform the Roma into a collective scapegoat for society's problems. In many countries, segregation in schooling and housing is still a fact of life, social attitudes towards Roma are poisonous and pogroms are not unknown.

The Roma find barriers to employment, education and housing. They are also unable to access most of the benefits and services that fellow citizens take for granted. A combination of negative social attitudes and disastrous state policies toward the Roma has resulted in the reinforcement of the very conditions that contribute to their continued marginalisation, including low literacy levels, poverty, poor housing, poor health and low life expectancy.

The Roma selling The Big Issue are citizens of member states of the EU, but they face the worst discrimination and persecution of any minority group in Europe. Their appearance in Scotland raises some important and unusual challenges for the Scottish government, local authorities and society. One challenge involves the practicalities of extending basic services such as education, health, English learning and social services (for example, child protection).

Throughout their history the Roma have had good reason to be mistrustful of authorities, and have survived at the absolute margins of society. This alone calls for a forward-thinking strategy to allow these newest citizens of the EU to benefit from social inclusion. The discrimination against and marginalisation of Europe's largest ethnic minority, the vast majority of whom live in abject (not relative) poverty, is one Big Issue that should concern us. Dr Kevin Adamson is a lecturer in politics in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Paisley.