THE COMING MONTHS will see events which could affect the lives of 12 million Roma, scattered in communities and camps in 40 countries. Physically and politically, Roma are on the move.
At the end of June a Roma Parliament meets in Macedonia. Called with some regularity by the 40-year-old International Romani Union (IRU), the gathering faces an uphill road. President Zoran Dimov will highlight its recent re-admission as an NGO on the United Nations roster. Representatives are active in New York and Geneva, and a report to the UN Human Rights Council is in preparation. “We are fighting with all our strength,” says Dimov, who travels constantly. “International institutions must begin to see us in a positive light.”
A small educated elite leads this movement, while the majority live the lives of a permanently marginalised and excluded minority, now under increased pressure. Here in Britain the bogeyman is Brexit, a threat to some 300,000 Roma migrants. Many will find it hard to avoid deportation.
Meanwhile, throughout the Balkans millions exist in direst poverty, in cramped, often illegal shack-level housing, or sinkhole municipal flats. Children get the lowest standard of schooling and there is little welfare relief or medical care.
Many are the grandchildren of victims of the Nazi genocide. The shadows of the Holocaust have not gone away. The vigilante incursions and growing suppression by populist regimes cause some to fear that another genocide could be in the offing.
The results of the European elections show this deepening hostility. Hungary presents an anomaly where murders have taken place, yet the electorate has elected Livia Jaroka, a Romani MEP from the ruling Fidesz party, who has served as a vice-president of the European Parliament. France has expelled tens of thousands, while Italy’s policy of “stamp on the camps” is now backed by the deployment of troops.
The clearances, a policy of Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, have seen many old camps broken up - actions preceded by some of the most vicious assaults. Two young women, one disabled, were burned to death in the fire-bombing of a caravan in Quaracchi in 2017.
The turmoil in Romania and Bulgaria, after the end of the Eastern bloc, brought pogroms and killings that cost the lives of dozens. A refugee to the UK, Florina Zoltan lost her husband and two brothers when a mob set fire to their homes in Hadareni, Romania.
In Bulgaria, which has witnessed a crackdown on political activity by the 800,000 Roma minority, vigilante incursions into Roma quarters go unchecked. Riots have ensued and more than 30 murders recorded. A Roma party office was bombed, resulting in the death of an activist.
Large-scale ethnic cleansing took place in Kosovo during the 1990s, when thousands lost their homes and many died.
The response of the EU is misguided, according to Dimov. The EU treats Roma as a social problem, unwilling to take seriously the World Roma Congress claim to represent a ‘nation without territory’ - a definition adopted by the 5th Congress in Prague in 2000.
Meanwhile, efforts to lift Roma out of poverty flounder. One such was the Roma Decade whose impact proved negligible. Funding through member governments seemed to disappear into the twin sumps of admin costs and local corruption.
The IRU wants to have a greater monitoring role. It would like the EU to back more Roma-designed social projects. The biggest political disaster has been the dismantling of the European Roma and Traveller Forum (ERTF). The ERTF drew delegates from EU members and beyond. It enjoyed consultative status with the Council of Europe. The Forum now exists only as a rump. Support has been switched to a new European Roma Institute. A partner of the Forum, the IRU views its decline as a clear indication the EU does not want to see the emergence of a potent Roma nationalism.
On 2nd August there will take place the 75th Year Roma Holocaust Commemoration, with events at Auschwitz, Berlin and other capitals.
The London event will include a conference at which a new approach to Romani politics is to be promoted. Launched at the 10th World Roma Congress in 2016, the Democratic Transition aims to bring greater legitimacy into Roma politics through electronic voting. The first try-out will be at next year’s Jubilee Congress, marking almost 50 years since the founding congress in London in 1971.
As the anti-Roma right ascends in Europe, the need to update their political structures becomes urgent. The survival of Roma identity may depend on it.
is co-author of Destiny of Europe’s Gypsies (Heinemann 1972), the first standard work on the Nazi genocide against the Romani people. Contact: Romvote@gmail.com