The case of the Roma population in central Europe is perhaps one relatively unknown to those in the States, but their story is familiar nonetheless. Shunned and persecuted since their arrival in Europe in the 13th century, the Roma have always been regarded as outsiders, relegated to the lowest caste of European society on the basis of their language, cultural traditions, and skin color.

Even with the presence of the European Convention on Human Rights, which was meant to ensure a commitment to a more humane Europe, the plight of the Roma remains generally ignored. Instead, they continue to be trapped by the typical pitfalls of societal oppression: insufficient housing, substandard education, lack of decent employment, little support from the government, and almost no chance of escaping their current situation.

The governments of these central European countries, particularly Hungary, Romania, and the Czech Republic, range in terms of their attitudes towards the Roma. Some are “traditional,” as the Czech Office on Minority Affairs described it — meaning they avoid any involvement in Roma affairs — while others tend towards outright hostility. This signifies that the present sources of Roma advocacy come, for the most part, from means beyond the state. And while some support does originate from within the Roma community, particularly in the form of outspoken, individual activists, the majority of Roma rights advocacy stems from national NGOs or initiatives sponsored by the European Union.

When I traveled with a group of five other students to central Europe this past March to study the current status of Roma rights in the area, locals were quick to relate their context to ours. In particular, this meant drawing comparisons between the condition of the Roma and that of the African-American community. While one can certainly see the parallels between two groups facing systematic racial oppression and a shared history of enslavement, this connection fails to take into account the African-American community’s rich history of self-organizing and grassroots civil rights politics. The ability of an oppressed population to organize and agitate on their own behalf is wholly impressive and less widespread than expected given the recent rise of ethnic nationalism. For the Roma, though they have been resisting in their own way for centuries, their movement of grassroots opposition has just begun.

When The Politic spoke with Amnesty International Hungary, they described the Roma today as the “most vulnerable group in Hungary”a statement that can most certainly be extended to its central European neighbors as well, considering that anti-Roma discrimination remains rampant and largely unchecked. For example, a Roma lawyer we met with gave us the case of Šuto Orizari, a majority-Roma municipality in Skopje, Macedonia. Women’s healthcare in the city is suffering as not a single OB/GYN will move there to treat people. And only a lengthy lawsuit can resolve discrimination issues such as these since the government refuses to step in.

In fact, Roma rights activism, in general, is a relatively new movement: most of the organizations we met with had only been active since the 1990s or early 2000s. On a pan-European scale, as well, the Decade of Roma Inclusion–Europe’s first real attempt to tackle the treatment of Roma on the continent–began in 2005, ending only two years ago. And when The Politic spoke with the Open Society Fund Prague, they claim that this effort has few positive results to show for the years put in.

More recently, there has been a new development of by-Roma, for-Roma civil rights movements and organizations. Most of the organizations we met with may have had Roma employees or consultants, but they were run and funded by non-Roma individuals and sometimes even foreigners (like George Soros’ Open Society Foundation). Some individual Roma activists have made headway in the political scene like Valeriu Nicolae, the Special Representative for Roma Issues to the Council of Europe, who has singlehandedly made it his mission to revitalize the impoverished, majority Roma neighborhood of Ferentari in Bucharest. However, activists on Nicolae’s level are few and far between, not to mention the lack of Roma-run advocacy groups. An example of one of the few burgeoning Roma organizations we heard about was an association of Roma mothers fighting for the rights of their children to access better quality education. Yet, as one Roma rights activist put it, even groups like these are still “very much in diapers.”

However, activists on Nicolae’s level are few and far between, not to mention the lack of Roma-run advocacy groups. An example of one of the few burgeoning Roma organizations we heard about was an association of Roma mothers fighting for the rights of their children to access better quality education. Yet, as one Roma rights activist put it, even groups like these are still “very much in diapers.”

So why hasn’t the Roma community developed this sort of grassroots civil rights scene that we, as Americans, are so familiar with?

One reason is that Roma from central and eastern Europe share few common experiences aside from a shared history of racism and oppression. Divided by tribe during their emigration from the India-Pakistan region centuries ago, today’s Roma often speak different languages or dialects, practice different religions, and specialize in different trades. The Roma community is varied and divided, claims the European Roma Rights Center in an interview with The Politic, and therein lies the first obstacle.

Another reason is the lack of political precedent and current political presence that could otherwise advocate for the current community and support the rise of other advocacy organizations. Though political representation does vary by state, Senada Sali, a lawyer for the ERRC, describes Roma parties overall as very weak, corrupt, and easily manipulated by other, more powerful political actors. In addition, consensus is hard to build among the diverse Roma population, and coalition groups are nearly nonexistent. This position continuously splits the Roma vote, and makes it nearly impossible for a party to make it to office.

Finally, to break into the European sphere of politics and activism requires a level of education, privilege, and/or resources that many Roma simply cannot access. One Czech activist mentioned to us the strategy of strengthening the Roma middle class as a way to build representation in the political sphere. Many Roma rights groups have taken to this approach, advocating for better quality education and supporting Roma students in higher education, but the novelty of this approach means waiting out a whole generation before major results begin to present themselves.

This does not mean that Europe’s Roma population is helplessly waiting for the European community to help break their endless cycle of oppression and misfortune. As Sali put it, the Roma just “have bigger things to worry about” at the moment, such as finding their next meal or avoiding eviction by prejudiced landlords. But as support for the Roma grows within Europe, this will ideally start to shift the balance.

“It’s hard to undo hundreds of years of discrimination in a decade,” Stjepan of OSF Prague told us, but change is hopefully afoot.

This piece is the fourth in a multi-part series on Roma Rights. 

Other installments:
1. Europe’s Villified Minority: The Roma Through Pictures by Megan McQueen ’20
2. Charity From Above: George Soros and the Anatomy of Roma Rights Activism by Lisa Qian ’20
3. Law and the Roma: A Fickle Ally by Arvin Anoop ’18