Nationality: Roma Citizenship: Europe

10 April 1997

Rudko Kawczynski1

Centuries of discrimination have deprived the Roma of the educational and vocational opportunities and of the social and economic benefits of modern societies.

During the 1939-1945 period, European Roma fell victim to the Nazi race-madness. Roma were gassed in German concentration camps, abused in "medical" experiments, shot or murdered by other means. Unlike the Jewish Holocaust, the genocide of European Roma was systematically forgotten after 1945. This unacknowledged genocide was the most comprehensive destruction of Roma society in history.

Following the defeat of the Nazi regime, the Roma were, for the first time in their history, literally "freed": family, social structures and the transmission of culture and history, had all vanished in German concentration camps through the murder of hundreds of thousands of Roma. We have never recovered from this blow. Those few structures which remained after the Nazi era were systematically destroyed by the governments of the Communist block.

To understand this situation better, we must recognise that we live in a Europe in which each nation tries to define itself in ethno-national terms. Europe is held hostage by the spectre of the ethnically pure nation-state. The principle of Blut und Boden ("Blood and Soil") is inextricably connected with the nation-state. A European identity is, at this point, just as much a utopia as the attempt to break through people's national identity in the individual European states. Xenophobia, pathological nationalism and racism are thus inalienable components of Europe. Once this principle is grasped it becomes clear that the Roma, as a non-territorial minority, as a people who cannot be classified so easily, elicit fear and denial. Roma are seen as a threat to the ethnically pure nation, and their situation is comparable to that of the African Americans in the southern United States of America after the Second World War.

Unlike the USA, Europe does not have a real human rights tradition deeply rooted in its various national entities. Human rights have always been connected with political parties' claims and misused for political power goals. Thus it is not surprising that human rights in Europe are always the human rights of the ethnic national majority. Also in contrast to the United States, the possibilities to sue for minorities' human rights in the national courts are very limited. Many attempts by human rights activists to achieve legal remedy for human rights violations are therefore limited to bringing the individual perpetrator to court and these attempts are not likely to bring about wider change.

To date, the struggle for universal human rights for Roma has been rendered impotent by national sovereignty. The spectrum of state measures for "the solution of the Gypsy problem" runs from criminalisation and expulsion, through the denial of the existence of Roma by not recognising them as a minority, to the denial of existential rights and forced assimilation. Violence and discrimination against Roma belong to everyday life in Europe and nation-states do not undertake any fundamental action to protect Roma against these phenomena. Another issue is the fact that many lawyers habitually refuse to represent Roma. Left alone in this situation and often without money or support, many Roma give up out of distress, despair and resignation rather than taking their problems to court.

The main problem confronting the Roma is racism. Poverty, lack of education, unemployment, and cultural deprivation are the results of society's hostility toward the Roma. As such, they are symptoms and not the core of the problem. Through active participation and civil rights work in the societies in which they live, Roma must contribute to the eradication of prejudices and stereotypes.

For Roma today, even mere survival is difficult in a society which has always felt free to treat them as scapegoats, to marginalise them by preventing access to jobs, housing, and other necessities, to provoke them and to use violence against them. Violence, incitement and other forms of human rights abuse against Roma are generally not censured in Europe. This is true especially in the newly established political systems in Eastern Europe. However, Western governments have also failed to guarantee the Roma special protection against discrimination in accord with their vulnerability. Many Nazi prejudices and stereotypes have survived to this day in the minds of the people, thus it is not surprising that Roma are still considered parasites, thieves, swindlers and pests. At best they are laughed at as simple-minded musicians and tolerated as beggars.

The Roma are a European minority and citizens of the countries in which they live; their participation process needs to draw on common roots and common perspectives beyond citizenship, group affiliation, or country of residence. The general - non-Roma - population must recognise that Roma are not a fringe group, but rather a legitimate minority.

As a de facto non-territorial minority in Europe, the Roma occupy a unique position, both historically and politically, and their situation is comparable with that of the European Jews. Unlike the Jews, however, the Roma do not have an independent national homeland state providing a framework of political sovereignty. Efforts to improve the situation of the Roma in Europe must acknowledge this special position.

It is no longer acceptable for the states of Europe to deal with Roma as they please. In light of the special situation of the Roma, there is a present need to insure a legal basis for the Roma in Europe, in the form of a European Roma Charter. Such a Charter would secure special legal status for European Roma.

When I was asked by the European Roma Rights Center to become a Board member, I accepted without a second thought. Only through a close network which supports and monitors the human rights situation of the Roma in Europe will it be possible to improve the position of the Roma in the long run. At the same time, it is necessary to strengthen the civil rights movement of Roma in Europe, to enable them to be in a position to fight for the concerns of their people. First and foremost, only a co-ordinated combination of legal representation and active civil rights work, by outside supporters and those affected directly, can improve and stabilise the human rights situation of the Roma in Europe.

One more important thing: Roma must recognise that not only the majority is responsible, both that they too are also responsible- that they can and must influence their future.


  1. Rudko Kawczynski is a Board Member at ERRC. Rudko Kawczynski was born in Poland and has lived for much of his life in (West) Germany, stays of various length in Austria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany an in Sweden notwithstanding. His political activities on behalf of Roma - too numerous to list here in full - began in 1975 as a founding member of the Roma and Sinti Union, the first organisation of its kind in Hamburg, Germany, and an organisation to which he has repeatedly been elected chairperson. Other organisations in which Rudko has played a leading role include the Foundation for the Victims of the Nazi Regime, Roma National Congress, Roma and Sinti Union (Germany), and the Standing Coordination Conference of roma and Sinti Organisations in Germany. In all his political activities, Rudko has stressed a grassroots approach and has organised numerous hunger strikes, demonstrations and arches; he is currently organising protest against the deportation of Eastern European Roma from Western Europe. Rudko has also recently been named Program Director of the Regional Roma Participation Program of the Open Society Institute in Budapest, Hungary.


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