Reflections on Roma Rights and the Romani Movement

31 October 2006

András Bíró

The ERRC interviewed first Chair of the Board András Bíró, who provided his thoughts on ten years of the organisation and the movement.

ERRC: What are the best two or three things that happened to the Roma in the last 10 years?

A.B.: The last decade or so witnessed something totally new in the life of the Roma community in the so-called ex-socialist countries. Whereas in terms of the forced social and economic integration since the 1960s this population experienced an unprecedented change, its cultural and identity needs got only lip service. One of the characteristics of the Communist regime was to give only formal autonomy to the ethnic/national minorities structured, officialised and controlled by the central power, favoring foremost their folklore, but ipso facto impeding tendencies of effective cultural and political autonomy.

One of the paradoxes among so many others of the Soviet regime was Stalin's personal case. Belonging to a national minority himself, he became visible as a young revolutionary in particular by his conceptual work on national minorities criticizing the czarist power for ignoring their rights. Once in power, he displaced whole minorities, including the Chechens who were considered dangerous and therefore transferred to Central Asia, to abide by his paranoid attitude toward the minorities.

This bias against minorities, fervently followed by the regimes of Central and Eastern Europe for close to five decades, explains also the establishment's attitude to the Roma. Their forced integration in the production process was mainly motivated by the need of the extensive development model for unskilled, cheap labor. Whatever the reasons, for close to two generations, the Roma experienced a radical change in their livelihood and became "proleratized",1 leaving behind their centuries old occupations in the service sector, thus contributing to their acculturation.

The transition to democracy offered a unique opportunity to this multifaceted group of people to have its voice heard by the majority population, as a distinct, although equal partner. In my view, the most significant positive fact in the last decade has been the outburst of dozens, even hundreds of local and national civic organisations in defence of their rights: political, cultural and social. It is the first time in history that self-representation was acknowledged in the framework of the republican constitutions, and – although not applied in the majority of the cases – parliamentary representation has become legitimised. Although questioned from some quarters, the establishment in Hungary by law of elected local and national minority self-governments has given the opportunity to thousands of Roma to learn about governance, even if the financial backing was inadequate to support a real, pro-active policy of these organisations.

The new state of affairs has had a positive impact on two other important aspects of the advancement of the community: education and communication. Despite the persistence of segregated classes in the educational system of the post-Communist countries it is true that nowadays access to education is open for the Roma children and youngsters. It has become obvious too, that the negative stereotype about Roma parents not sending their children to school is void of sense. The available figures on schooling speak for themselves. The tiny, but growing proportion of Roma students in the universities is one of the heartening features as well; grants and special tutoring tend to alleviate century-old disadvantages.

However, a break-through is not yet on the horizon. No radical modernisation of the teaching methods and practices has taken place, and the persisting prejudices among important sectors of the educators are still alive. Shying away from taking up studies in hard sciences is another phenomenon to overcome, as opportunities for young Roma are limited anyway by unequal access to the job market.

Roma media multiplied in the last decade, including TV and radio stations. Roma journalism training has yielded a new generation of communicators professionally prepared and often highly talented. Their presence in the mainstream media though is far from satisfactory. The comparison with old EU members is depressing. The TV screens, public and private, still lack colored speakers, reflecting in a way the general mindset. In the entertainment business, on the other hand, particularly the musical scene, numerous talented young Roma artists have conquered the top.

ERRC: What are the worst two or three things that happened to the Roma in the same period?

A.B.: Unfortunately, this question is much easier to answer. It has become commonplace to state that the Roma are the biggest losers of the transition period. Lack of professional skills and endemic discrimination has pushed the Roma workforce massively into unemployment. The market opportunities gave space to a small stratum of the Roma to go back to business in construction, antiques and small commerce. In the meantime, the ancestral elite, the musicians, lost out as traditional Gypsy music became outmoded. The bulk of unskilled labor though, miners, builders and ironworkers lost their jobs and returned to the outskirts of the villages, often losing their houses for unpaid mortgages. The social benefits became the only basis of material survival of families. Prolonged unemployment yielded not only worsening living standards but – as it is well documented – a loss of selfrespect that accelerated the descending spiral. A growing proportion of the community is afflicted by this destiny, thus marginalisation and exclusion rule the scene. Housing and health statistics show a dreary picture. More than one third of the Roma share this dismal fate. Government policies – but for education – haven't managed to make any significant difference. Promises during electoral campaigns to capture Roma votes do not materialise in effective programs and projects financed by the state budget.

Ironically, freedom of speech gained with the establishment of democracy resulted in "liberated" anti-Roma public discourses, including the media. The latter recently have shown some restraint, but the prejudices take coded forms, winking at each other by formally paying tribute to political correctness. In practice though more than 650 primary school classes are segregated, access to discos often denied to Roma youth and discrimination in hiring has became commonplace. Threats of violence, in some cases followed by physical attacks, have been reported. During the terms of conservative governments, the discriminatory discourses appear even in official statements. The Roma electorate is split between the two major political orientations, with a slight advantage for the left. Abstention is quite high, as everywhere else among marginal social groups. Attempts to enter elections via ethnically based Roma parties haven't been a success; moreover many question the validity of such an approach.

ERRC: What was the role of the rights-based approach?

A.B.: Historical evidence shows that, in the first phase of their awakening as full-fledged citizens, the excluded and marginalised communities rely on initiatives of likeminded members of the majority. Following this trend – as soon as the totalitarian system collapsed – some of those who fought for human rights in the past regime logically turned toward the Roma, as the most deprived of power. For historical reasons as well, the members of the public in the new democracies were themselves not accustomed to stand up for their rights, not to speak about Roma excluded for centuries from public life. This meant that the first initiative to put on the agenda the defence of human – in this specific case – ethnic rights, to stand up with legal means against discrimination, was slow to catch up. The few NGOs established in Central and Eastern European countries faced the dilemma to handle exclusively human rights cases or to give general legal assistance to the Roma facing multiple problems in the field. As a rule, once autochthonous organisations came into existence, a division of labour has evolved, in which the Roma NGOs took up general legal defence cases as well. In Hungary, the Ministry of Justice established its own network of legal defence all over the country, with little impact though.

I consider the rights based approach to be a bold step ahead for the community. First of all the modern (younger) leaders of the community realised that on the long and arduous way of social integration this approach contributes to the development of citizen-consciousness among the deprived Roma. Secondly, that in the concrete cases of discrimination the very process of legal defence can repair the offense, thus prove to the powerless that it is a workable proposition. Thirdly, that ethnic cohesion and solidarity appears as a positive tool in furthering collective visibility. This aspect seems to be of cardinal importance as existing sub-ethnic divisions and the predominance of traditional kinship mentality still are stumbling blocks. Thus the acceptance of positive ethnic solidarity may become the main tool in order to have their voices heard.

Obviously the rights-based approach is but one of the tools in the liberation process. As in the case of many deprived communities the job, habitat, education and health problems, which are overwhelming, need to be addressed one by one and in their complex interrelationship. But with discrimination being conspicuous in all these aspects, in my view, human rights defence is the cement of the building to be erected.

ERRC: How do you see the role of the ERRC in improving the position of Roma?

A.B.: As someone who was involved in the establishment of ERRC and subsequently served for several years as Chair of the Board, I am delighted at the tenth anniversary of the organization. Of course my view is conditioned by my early engagement in its existence, so no one should expect objective opinions from me. A decade ago I supported wholeheartedly the idea to establish a European center for improving via the defence of human rights the fate of the Roma on the continent. As I saw it then, two main objectives had to be acted upon: 

  • help establishing in the different countries professionally solid basis for the defence of Roma rights, but also by being their advocate in the international fora, and
  • promote inside the communities the consciousness of citizenship and ethnic rights, thus reinforcing the Roma movement.

The first task has been a pioneering enterprise, by seriously documenting the state of the Roma. I believe that the studies done in the different countries (west and east) on the status of the Roma have been a success. No country studies had been made previously with a specific view of human rights, incorporating that aspect in the general description of the situation of the Roma. The ERRC representatives, by giving evidence before the UN and European human rights bodies about the dismal situation of the community, have helped to elevate the topic at intergovernmental level (EU, Council of Europe). This contributed to prepare the ground for the unfortunately not very effective but still important statements pushing the national governments to remedy the deficiencies in that field, culminating in the Decade of Roma Inclusion. Professional assistance to local advocacy organisations to litigate certain cases before the European Court of Human Rights has to be put also at the positive side of the balance. These activities have given to ERRC such an international notoriety that its opinion is regularly sought out.

The other leg of the job is, perhaps, even more complex. To promote, train, support professionally and financially2 local initiatives, to be the spearhead of the inevitably lengthy process of civil emancipation in countries of poor human rights records is a gigantic task. As I see it now, particularly in the first period of ERRC work, this task didn't get enough support in the Board, arguing probably rightly, that a young organisation had to establish itself professionally first. Undeniable efforts have been made since in the direction of training local activists in the different countries, and helping to establish national and local offices. The impact on the general Roma movement seems to me insufficient though, as in many countries it suffers from well-known weaknesses. The communication deficiency is to be mentioned primarily. The cases, even successfully fought, do not receive acknowledgment in the media; neither the community nor the general public's awareness is thus positively influenced.

The other aspect is the sustainability of the local projects, as by nature they can't ever become self-financed. The social responsibility of the lawyers has also its flaws, as pro bono work has not yet received sufficient status. I remain optimistic though, as emancipatory movements take time to develop, and the Roma movement is no exception.

ERRC: What should be the next agenda, for the next 10 years – a) for the Roma movement; b) for the ERRC.

A.B.: In my view it has become indispensable to overcome internal conflicts when the global strategy is at stake. Pluralism inside the Roma movement is healthy and necessary condition for a democratic transformation. I am highly suspicious of voices demanding total unity and submission to charismatic leaders. But building consensus in the most fundamental questions needs a developed sense of tolerance and negotiation, which is not alien to the traditions of Romani Kriss. It seems to me that the times have come to expect from the new Roma elite the formulation of a strategy in respect of the future, to be submitted to public discussion first of all inside and even outside of the community. Till now it was always from outside that the future has been devised. Integration is a complex global process in which there are not only winners. It seems there is consensus among the Roma in favoring social integration. It is obvious also, that such a project will have cultural and identity costs. In order to receive the advantages of a socio-economic development and adapt to the majority's way of life, a gradual modernisation has to take roots among the Roma not only in its middle classes, but also among the less privileged. How to stick to the most valuable traits of the traditional culture and adapt to modernity? I believe that such assessments have to be made by indigenous leaders in order to be followed massively.

Let us remember that since the 16th century in Europe the various peripatetic groups put under the generic name of gypsies, manouches etc. have followed a survival strategy where the tradeoff for keeping up the way of life was to accept marginality and frequently persecution. An admirable continuity of an oral culture surrounded by established states and, in general, inimical attitude from the population. Finding their economic niche in the servicing sector and the show business they responded to the demand of the market for the long term, by keeping their aloofness. The forced integration attempts of Maria Theresa and Joseph II were ultimately unsuccessful, and for a good part settling down was the price to be paid. The second forceful integration orchestrated by Communist governments from the 1960s on, made a much bigger impact "proletarizing" the lifestyle and moving the main source of income from servicing to the production sector. Since the 1990s democracy offered for the first time the opportunity to generate an autochthonous vision of the future from the inside. It could say for instance, integration yes, but how far, in what respect? Of course this vision can't become reality by miracle, or by simply formulating it. Other players will be part of the game, but at least a conscious, pragmatic policy line could be worked out which would be able to motivate cohesion and positive steps of change.

If no other reason to push in that direction, the demographic dimension imposes itself as the overwhelming factor on a continent where the majority experiences a decline in numbers, whereas the Roma community has a third world type of population growth. Taking only the electoral aspect in view, in many countries of the region the Roma votes, if agglomerating, may determine the outcome. Roma representation may thus become part of the power bargain and serve the interests of its members and act in the perspective of the vision. This presupposes a much more effective awareness raising work to be done by the civil and civic organisations inside the whole community, including the poorest strata.

This brings me to the last question. The turmoil characteristic of the new century – ethnic and religious conflicts, immigration based tensions and upheavals, wars and destruction, terrorism and/or liberation struggles – are to be seen as a warning sign. Energy and environmental emergencies seem to become endemic. The restructuring of the economies in Central and Eastern Europe – where the majority of the Roma live – even if successful, will not automatically alleviate exclusion and poverty. This is the plausible scenario ERRC has to count on.

An organization like ERRC, not only likeminded but actively supporting the Roma cause on the continent, can be very valuable by developing even more horizontal partnerships with the Roma NGOs, and turning into, so to speak, their adviser in legal and strategic matters. This doesn't mean to loose its organisational or conceptual independence at all. In the contrary, its value for the Roma organisations stems from its professional excellence and international notoriety achieved during the first decade of activity. An external eye is invaluable if the arguments and suggestions presented are taking into account the mutual autonomy and are based on dialogue. Building strategic alliances, not the forte of the Roma NGOs, may in this respect become an extremely precious mission.

On the other hand reinforcing and/or seeking out alternative methods of training activists becomes even more essential in the new circumstances. The last decade has yielded a whole lot of young potential leaders who got lost for the movement because of job opportunities elsewhere. But without dedicated and motivated activists in the Romani neighbourhoods and villages, the voice of the Roma will remain muted even further. I firmly believe that keeping up the standard of the legal and advocacy activity, more financial and staff support to this obligation would be highly advisable.


  1. While extensive research on the Roma has yielded first-rate data since this period, practically no research information is available about their acculturation, the impact of forced integration in terms of maintaining or not of their lifestyle, habits and cultural characteristics. Neither do we posses reliable data on their social stratification under the new circumstances since the 1990s.
  2. I believe it is time to acknowledge and publicly thank the leaders of the OSI, and George Soros in person, for the permanent support given to the cause of Roma.


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