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The so-called “Roma issue” is not merely a poverty question

2015-06-19

Interview with dr. Rita Izsák United Nations Special Rapporteur on minority issues

The Independent Experts of the UN are required by the Human Rights Council to present every year an annual report at one of its regular sessions in Geneva .Based on a Human Rights Council resolution adopted in 2014 June, Dr. Rita Izsák has been invited to present an additional study on the human rights situation of Roma worldwide, with a particular focus on the phenomenon of anti-Gypsyism earlier this week. We take this occasion to interview her about her findings and to get an overview of challenges Roma people face around the world.

(Photo credit: Chad Evans Wyatt)

Photo credit: Chad Evans WyattERRC: Can the problems of such a diverse group as the Roma be addressed by a global international organization?

RI: The term “Roma” in my report refers to heterogeneous groups, the members of which live in various countries under different social, economic, cultural and other conditions. It is therefore a multidimensional term that corresponds to the multiple and fluid nature of Roma identity. It refers to the multifaceted Roma universe, which is comprised of groups and subgroups that overlap but are united by common historical roots, traditions, culture, linguistic commonalities and a shared experience of discrimination.

ERRC: Do the Roma share the same experience of discrimination worldwide?

RI: In my study, I highlight that the lack of recognition of the fate of the Roma under the Nazi regime, often referred to as the “forgotten Holocaust”, has been identified as a major obstacle to restoring dignity and respect for the human rights of Roma worldwide. The 2nd of August is now officially Roma Holocaust Remembrance Day, and I believe there is a need to continue to bring heightened public attention to ensuring that the Roma Holocaust is appropriately commemorated.

ERRC: Are the problems of Roma different in Europe, Asia or the Americas?

RI: From my research, one of the main findings is that Roma communities and individuals around the world face deep-rooted problems of racism and extreme marginalization. In Europe, where the world’s largest Roma population live, this remains a fact, despite a growing dedicated attention to the situation of Roma in recent years, and the establishment of numerous institutions and mechanisms to help address these deficiencies. While the reasons for the marginalization of Roma across the regions are complex, what I have identified is that throughout the world, Roma communities face deeply embedded social and structural discrimination and anti-Romani bias, which can be termed anti-Gypsyism. Although we must see that anti-Gypsyism is originally a European term, the discrimination it embodies manifests itself in a variety of ways across regions.

ERRC: Is anti-Gypsyism any different from any other racial bias?

RI: Anti-Gypsyism has been defined by the Council of Europe as “a specific form of racism, an ideology founded on racial superiority, a form of dehumanisation and institutional racism nurtured by historical discrimination, which is expressed, among others, by violence, hate speech, exploitation, stigmatisation and the most blatant kind of discrimination”.  This entangled definition shows how complex and often elusive the discrimination against Roma is.

ERRC: What challenges do the Roma face globally?

RI: In my report I try to focus on the lessons learned, both globally and in particular from the European experience. To understand better why existing approaches have often not managed to bring about structural change for Roma communities. I emphasize that the so-called “Roma issue” is not merely a poverty question and that Roma communities should benefit from a wide range of minority rights protection measures. This includes protection of existence, promotion of Roma identity and a need to have a holistic approach to the protection of their various civil, political, social, cultural and economic rights.

ERRC: How can we tackle challenges?

RI: In my study, I offer several recommendations that I regard key to achieve Roma inclusion, including the need for real political commitment, the importance of including Roma history and culture in school curriculums, the need to monitor and respond to hate speech and incitement to violence against Roma, to encourage Roma leadership, the creation of conditions for the effective participation of Roma in all aspects of life and the establishment of dedicated institutional attention to Roma issues, just to mention a few.

ERRC: But why do Roma organizations often fail to make sustainable impact?

RI: In order to overcome disadvantages and marginalisation, Roma organisations need direct, accessible and sustainable funding sources. Projects with a focus of long-term sustainable change must be prioritized. Furthermore, clear information on exactly how much money is invested in what projects and how much of these have actually reached Roma communities must be transparent and readily available. Without such accountability, there is the risk of contributing to the perception that too many economic resources are invested in Roma with few results, which in turn further contributes to negative stereotypes about Roma.

ERRC: What is the responsibility of the majority in Roma inclusion?

RI: The absence of genuine and institutionalized political will to tackle Roma marginalization, the existence and success of Roma inclusion efforts may often depend heavily on the personal commitment of a particular political leader in power. Furthermore, as Roma are a disenfranchised minority group, they will often have little political influence or negotiating power at the local level.

ERRC: But how can the Roma get involved?

RI: Despite numerous new programmes and the unprecedented number of Roma intellectuals, professionals and activists around the world, Roma remain largely underrepresented or unrepresented in local and national bodies, and remain peripheral in regional and international decision-making bodies. Not to mention institutions explicitly established to protect and promote their rights. Effective, meaningful participation should be a transformative process that becomes an inclusive experience, facilitating Roma involvement, empowerment and active citizenship. Such a participatory approach must also guarantee that those whose voices are rarely heard are empowered, including Roma women and young people.

ERRC: As a successful professional fighting for Roma emancipation on the global level how do you relate to your personal Roma heritage?

RI: It took some time for me to get in terms with this heritage. I think I could have chosen to live my life without openly disclosing my Roma background as my name and look do not necessarily make it obvious. But when I first told about my Roma ethnicity to one of my bosses during my university years and I got dismissed from my workplace, I realized there is a battle to fight and I will have to take part in it with commitment, dignity and pride. This is what I hope I have been doing for many years now and I am grateful that my UN position allows me to do it globally before the Human Rights Council which I believe can play a very crucial role in shedding light on this often hidden plight of one of the world’s most marginalized groups.

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Julia Bolton Holloway
posted on 2015-06-20

For fifteen years I have worked with Romanian Roma families present in Florence, particularly holding Alphabet School for them, all ages. Only recently did I come to learn of Transnistria and found they knew the names of those in their families who died there without funerals, cemeteries, candles, priests. So we held a feast with candle, bread, wine, salt, the Romanian Orthodox priest saying all these names, to lift this burden of guilt and horror from this third generation whose grandmothers as little girls had walked back from Russia, most of the rest of their families having died.
These families are in extreme poverty, lacking decent housing, education, health care. But have splendid skills and work extremely well and cost effectively, as gardeners, stonemasons, blacksmiths, carpenters, knowing how to repair tools. We study their history together - before the Holocaust, it was centuries of slavery in Romania - and discuss what changes can be made, how to honour the dead with decent, religious, but not costly, commercial funerals, how to marry and start families at a later age, how to have books in their homes for literacy introduction for all the generations, how to repair each others' homes in solidarity, how to win respect from gadge with restoring important anti-slavery monuments. And how to preserve Roma culture and the Romani language, in particular the excellent way in which babies are raised, not being left to cry as gadge babies are whose brain chemistry is damaged by neglect, how Roma children learn skills from watching and copying parents. We have so much to learn from Roma.

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