Challenging hate: The struggle for the rights of Roma

By Neil Clarke

Numbering at least 10 million, though the actual numbers are likely higher, Roma make up the largest ethnic minority in Europe. Roma populations can be found in every country and, while it would be wrong to perpetuate the image that all Roma live in low-income communities, the levels of discrimination, segregation and poverty they have faced throughout their long history in the region is unique. The fact that, regardless of the country they live in, this exclusion continues to shape the experience of Roma to this day highlights the enduring scar of anti-gypsyism in Europe.

However, the 1970s saw real progress in the development of pan-Roma identity and leadership, with Roma leaders and CSOs around the world coming together to demand greater justice and equality for Roma peoples. MRG was a natural ally in the fight to secure Roma rights. In the 1980s, following a spike in attacks on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities in the UK, MRG was engaged in developing a number of educational materials that were distributed throughout schools to counter myths and discrimination.

However, over time and with Roma-led civil society growing, MRG’s role became much more about supporting Roma organizations to engage directly with international institutions themselves. In 1995 MRG published the report Roma/Gypsies, written by Jean Pierre Liegeois and Nicolae Gheorghe, a leading Roma activist, and employed a staff member to provide mentoring support for Roma leaders. Subsequently, until 2010, MRG implemented a number of programmes focusing specifically on Roma advocacy in the European Union (EU), first in Central Europe (due in part to the establishment of MRG Europe in Hungary in 1996) and more recently in South East Europe. These programmes used the leverage of the EU accession process, which required new and prospective EU members to ensure substantive safeguards to ensure the integration and protection of national minorities. These changes brought new funding programmes for Roma integration and legal reforms to provide more effective protection against discrimination.

Over time, a number of Roma networks and NGOs were established and have led the way in advocating for Roma rights in the EU, in particular those countries that are part of the Decade of Roma Inclusion. At the same time, as MRG’s work moved into Eastern Europe, we continued to engage in new initiatives with Roma partners across the region, notably in Georgia, Moldova, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine. Throughout these actions, it has become undeniably clear that the proliferation of programmes and funding for Roma integration, often driven by the EU and focusing predominantly on economic and social integration, are continuously undermined by the pervasive, deep-seated nature of anti-gypsyism.

The recent programme in Ukraine, implemented by MRG and the Roma Women’s Fund Chiricli, sought to build new partnerships between local authorities and Roma CSOs through many successful and innovative integration programmes. Yet, at every stage many of these achievements occur against a backdrop of continuous racism. It is undeniable that, without recognizing and addressing the phenomena of anti-gypsyism, equality and inclusion for Roma will never be fully attained.

In this context, recognizing the impact of the internet in spreading and disseminating hate speech, MRG began our first intervention in combating online hate in 2017 with the Freedom from Hate (FFH) programme. While many cyberhate initiatives focus on monitoring and prosecuting hate speech, this programme focused on developing counter-speech strategies online. This was in response to the fact that the internet is now the primary forum for public debate and that, while standards for minority rights may exist in conventional media such as newspapers and television, social media is developed in private spheres outside these norms. Access to public debate on the internet is now a crucial challenge in ensuring the social inclusion of minorities and freedom of expression, particularly as social media allows people to operate in often closed information silos.

The FFH programme deliberately sought to develop cooperation between both Roma and non-Roma CSOs, as it has often been the case that anti-racism initiatives in Europe have themselves excluded Roma. One of the key results of this collaboration was in formulating strategies that identified and challenged the link between stereotyping and how this evolves into more explicit forms of hate. In this way, the programme began to address the structural nature of online anti-gypsyism. Alongside the FFH programme, MRG has also developed a new body of programmes, following pilot initiatives in Macedonia, that utilize new technologies to create a network of virtual legal advice services for Roma in Central and South East Europe.

As an ally to the Roma rights movement, MRG’s work with our Roma partners now forms the largest and most varied component of our work in Europe. But it is important to remember that discrimination against Roma is not only a European phenomenon. MRG has been supporting activists protecting the rights of Roma in Iraq for a number of years and is developing new initiatives for Central Asia and Middle East and North Africa (MENA) regions. In the years ahead, it is critical that MRG and other allies of the Roma rights movement, continue to focus on interventions that address the systematic and structural causes of anti-gypsyism, including cyberhate and, particularly in Europe, work to ensure that the broader retrenchment of liberal democratic norms does not expose the Roma to even greater risk of marginalization and persecution.

Photo: Two boys from the Roma community in Zakarpattia, Ukraine