The future of Roma rights in Europe

Last week I was invited by the Netherlands Helsinki Committee to give a speech on this topic at its 25 year anniversary, held at the Hague University on Friday, January 26, 2013. The keynote speaker was the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks (everybody had problems pronouncing his name) and there were invited prominent human rights activists and representatives of other international organizations.

I underlined the historical moment nowadays when heads of state and governments are talking about Roma, the existence of EU Framework and national inclusion strategies targeting Roma. All these documents indirectly recognize that Roma is the most important human rights issue in Europe today, covering a wide spectrum from immigration to torture, from free speech to discrimination, from fair trial to economic social and cultural rights. But in spite of these positive aspects the future of Roma rights is difficult to predict. Below are some points that make the prediction difficult.

First, rights discourse is elitist. Only the elites are talking about Roma in terms of rights. This language does not make sense for ordinary Roma who talk about their problems in a simple language. The sophisticated language used by the elites is sees often as a way to elide their problems. There is a need for Roma activists to develop a language that will make their constituencies feel closer to their speech than they are now. The need for a new language has to take into account the needs, meanings and symbols of the ordinary Roma that could also appeal to the majority population. The human rights discourse does not make sense to ordinary Roma and one cannot built an ethnic identity based on such a discourse which underlines victimization without making the people proud of something they are.

Second, the rights discourse seems to be dominant when talking about Roma. However, looking at the policy documents, one could easily notice that problems faced by Roma are framed as socio-economic ones and not in terms of rights, as rights issue. Those interested could have a look at the EU framework strategy and the national integration strategies.

Third, the rights discourse, especially when used by politicians is hypocritical. No Roma as an ordinary citizen would believe such a discourse. This just adds to the historical mistrust between Roma and non-Roma and between Roma and the state.

Fourth, let’s be cynical and recognize that what really was behind the policies towards Roma was the fear of West European governments of Roma migration. This happened first in the very early 1990′ and most recently after the EU enlargement in 2007. Who were those that brought up the debate about Roma in the European Council? France and Italy, two countries that had problems dealing with Roma migration. Besides demonizing the Roma migration one has to look also at the positive aspects of it. From my experience, migration produced changes in Roma communities that no policies or projects implemented by authorities or NGOs did: housing renovation, children going to school with proper clothes and shoes, better living for those at home, etc. I visited Roma communities and I could see such changes. Thus, migration and not their commitment to human rights determined western government to put pressure on other governments to improve the situation of Roma.

The future of Roma rights depends on the successful implementation of the social inclusion policies towards Roma. However, the public debates on Roma touch usually on three major topics: how to integrate Roma since they are a social burden (how to make them more like us); migration control; and criminality. It seems that there is a significant difference between the elite discourse and the public discourse on Roma. A process to reconcile these two positions in society is very much needed.

There are few major challenges ahead: participation of Roma, the anti-gypsyism, the rising populism in Europe and the EU funding. The participation of Roma is a crucial ingredient if any progress on the implementation of policies towards Roma is to be made. Unfortunately, the adoption of the EU framework strategy missed the opportunity to ensure a meaningful participation of Roma at all levels: local, regional, national and European. Without the involvement of the Roma communities at local level politics no recipe would work having in mind the diversity among Roma and the different problems these communities are facing. How Roma participate nowadays? What institutions have they developed? What should change? Who invests into the issue? These are just some questions for reflection on the challenges ahead.

The second challenge is to accept Roma as equals. Anti-gypsyism is deeply rooted into the European cultures. Strong negative prejudices and stereotypes all over Europe puts this group at a specific disadvantage that no other group faces. From here comes the particular vulnerable position of Roma in Europe combined with past history of discrimination and exclusion that culminated with the final solution adopted by nazis and their allies. Are Europeans ready to accept Roma as equal members of the society?

The rising populism is another factor influencing Roma rights.  The essence of communism is, a a former professor of mine said, is the attempt to concentrate hate and frustration toward one group. The slogan seems to be “fear them and I will save you”! Roma seem to be in a perfect position to be blamed, hated and attacked due to their vulnerability. I am more concerned with the populism among mainstream parties and groups and less concerned with the extremist groups’ populism. The later form expands because of the populism in mainstream parties and groups.

The EU funding was identified also by the Commissioner Muiznieks as a danger for the human rights. I will underline its danger for Roma rights. There is lack of accountability on the side of the European Commission on the way EU money is spent. Often the EU funding is spent to discriminate Roma and against EU law. One documented example is the movie “Our School” directed by Mona Nicoara and Miruna Coca-Cozma which shows how EU funding were spent by the Romanian Government not to integrate Roma children but to segregate them.

Another point to be made about EU funding and Roma is that in spite of its aims, EU funding promotes rather exclusion of Roma than inclusion. The larger the target group the higher the points received by a project and also the probability to be funded. Applying this principle in education, working in segregated schools improves the chances of a project to be funded. Thus, instead of promoting inclusive education such a project will maintain segregation and isolation of Roma. Without changing this philosophy, the EC funding will fail to promote social inclusion of Roma and Roma rights.

I see three main scenarios for the future:

–         1 maintain status quo, implement strategies, nice reports very little change on the ground. Roma will be still discriminated against, no significant improvement as regards life conditions;

–         2 growing extremism on the current economic climate, Roma being blamed for consuming resources and not contributing to society, the solution is to get rid of them;

–        3 change the paradigm about Roma integration: accommodate Roma interests, invest into their participation and debate openly important issues as a way to combat anti-gypsyism.

In spite of these skeptical scenarios, I am optimist. I am optimist not because I trust the institutions or nor I believe in the capacity of the institutions to change the paradigm. I am optimist because of Roma and their capacity to adapt to different environments. Migration seem to work for many Roma and it will be a tool to improve their lives irrespective of the state institutions.

I received many questions and the time was not enough to provide comprehensive answers to the important questions raised by the audience. I had a good time talking to the people during the break on how best to involve Roma, on how to preserve ethnic identity in an assimilations environment and how to balance the rights discourse on Roma.

In the end, one note on the audience. Some 250 people register to participate in the conference. The significant difference to the Central Europe similar events was that the majority of those presents PAID for their participation.

Congratulations to the Netherlands Helsinki Committee and the whole team in Hague for the event and for their work in promoting human rights!

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