András Bíró - Former Chairman of the Board of Directors

12 October 1996

András Bíró is a journalist who presently resides in Hungary, a country to which he returned in 1986 after an absence of 30 years. During his long stay abroad, he was founding editor of Ceres, the development review of F.A.O., the United Nations Food and Agricultural Association, as well as founding editor of Mazingira, the development review of UNEP, The United Nations Environmental Program. In 1990, he established Autonómia Alapítvány, a non-governmental organization concerned with agricultural and entrepreneurial self-development among Roma. For his efforts, he was awarded the Right Livelihood Award (the so-called „Alternative Nobel Prize") in 1995, as well as the Hungarian National Prize, also in 1995.

Why should human rights, a universal concept, be compatible with the singling out of one specific ethnic minority, the Roma? And why only in Europe?

Nowadays, ethnic intolerance is showing a dramatic comeback all over the world, including Europe, and has degenerated into ethnic cleansing. The territorial principle has always been one of the main factors contributing to ethnic intolerance. Home country, homeland has been a constitutive element of the manifest motives, nationalism the ideological glue. Longing for a nation-state, a feeling which is dwindling in the luckier parts of the world, is still vivid among the less fortunate.

The only ones free from this plague are the Roma. Having arrived in Europe about five or six centuries ago, they severed their ties with their home country, India. Miraculously keeping alive their language and customs during this long journey, clinging to „freedom of movement" as their credo, offering their services to the settled customers wherever they happen to be in order to make a living, keeping aloof from violence - but often experiencing it - the Roma today constitute the only transnational, genuinely European community.

This fierce attachment to freedom and identity, the refusal to assimilate and submit, was never understood or accepted by Gadje, i.e. „non-Roma. After initial curiosity and even admiration for these „Egyptian princes and nobles", persecution, deportation and violent death became their lot. Despite this, the majority of the Roma remained in Europe, choosing the ethnically more tolerant Ottoman Empire. This may explain why even today the overwhelming majority of the Roma live in Central and Eastern Europe. The Central/Eastern European core, where Roma make up 5–10% of the total population, is surrounded by a geographic semi-circle less densely populated by Roma, stretching from Spain to Russia. In this secondary belt, Roma make up between 0.01 and 0.6% of the local population.

In addition to these demographic differences in Romani population density, divergent patterns of historic development in Eastern Europe and Western Europe affect the Roma as well. These divergent patterns of development are not merely 50 years old; the smaller number and less significant socio-economic role of the Roma in the West allowed for a modernized but still itinerant way-of-life and the preservation of Romani tradition there. In the East, however, forced settlement and - during the totalitarian period in particular - compulsory employment and policies of assimilation have proletarianized them. Today every second unemployed person in this region is of Romani origin.

From a human rights point-of-view, discrimination and exclusion are not a question of numbers. Prejudice, police brutality and violence by nationalist and fundamentalist groups everywhere in Europe make the fate of the Roma as bad in the West as in the East. For this reason, the founders of the European Roma Rights Center have decided to take a Europe-wide approach, even if the numbers of violations are proportionally higher in Central and Eastern Europe.

The choice of Roma and not another minority whose rights are also threatened stems from the fact that Roma remain at present the most vulnerable minority in Europe. No government, country, political or economic lobby has taken up their defense. The atrocities suffered by the Roma during the Holocaust create the moral obligation to prevent by all means the reappearance of even its ghastly shadow. Last but not least, in the anguished instability in which the world finds itself at the end of the millennium, in which terrorism increases daily and human rights are ignored, the defense of the rights of the Roma is symbolic. It wants to emphasize the indivisibility of rights and to give voice to the voiceless.


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