In December 2015, a delegation of Roma activists participating in a grassroots advocacy programme set up and led by the National Democratic Institute in partnership with local human rights NGOs in Hungary, Romania and Slovakia visited Brussels to meet European policy-makers and Roma rights campaigners.  During this visit, Roma activists from the Czech Republic, Romania and Hungary discussed their perspectives on borders, changes brought about by the EU, and what forms the core of their identities. Their thoughts give us insight as to why portraying Roma as a stateless, transnational community fails to acknowledge the very deep ties of the Roma to the local surroundings they inhabit, and why invisible borders can be just as keenly felt by some as material ones.

Beatrice White: Did the accession of Eastern European countries to the EU make life easier for the Roma living there? Do you feel life has improved over the past decade as a result of this change, or has it had little impact?

Miroslav: Historically, Roma have been travellers for a long time but after travelling was prohibited in many countries they settled down and became normal residents. Roma have been in Europe for 1000’s of years and we feel at home. I feel that the Czech Republic is my home, but for various reasons, society gives me the feeling that I am a stranger to them, even though I was born here, and so were my parents. That’s one border that can’t be removed and is still there. I thought that after Czech joined the EU there would be some changes but the prejudices are still the same, in fact the situation is getting worse. Because before residential segregation didn’t exist, Roma lived everywhere in the cities and towns but after accession Roma were pushed into certain parts of the territory, and with this segregation automatically comes segregation in order areas such as education. That’s why I decided to get involved in education – because we have a two-tier education system in our country: the general primary education and a special one normally reserved for disabled children, but our children are often classified as disabled in order to gain additional funds – I want to change that. We work with parents, we explain their rights to them, to empower them, and help them choose the right schools and avoid segregation.

Florentina: I don’t know how it was before because when Romania joined the EU in 2007, I was still only 13 years old. But it’s clear that this free movement is a big opportunity for us, especially young people, to meet and learn from others. But I don’t know if this is helpful for the Roma especially. For me of course it’s a good thing because I can come here to Brussels to visit the European Parliament, but for other people like my grandparents for example – older people with less education, who don’t speak English and who might look different, I don’t know if they would be received well. I recall what happened in France a few years ago, when Roma people were sent back to Romania and Bulgaria with a few hundred euros per person. Actually the authorities didn’t even check whether these people were Roma, they just wanted them out. And it was a stupid idea because they just took the money, went to Romania and then came back to France. I don’t know why there is such a fear of Roma people in countries such as France and Germany, because we’re not bad people we just do things differently.

Zsuzsanna: Younger people, like Flori [Florentina], haven’t experienced life under communism, which was actually better for us in Hungary than life is now. Under communism everyone had a job and Roma were protected from discrimination in employment. In those days, if you had no job, usually one phone call from the party official would sort this out – a job would always be found for everyone, including Roma. Today there is unemployment and thus a greater need for social benefits. But receiving benefits is connected to many conditions, which are not always easy to fulfil. The main problem is that the EU doesn’t actually have the power to intervene on these questions in the member states. Also they have started to re-segregate schools which is having a terrible impact on education and puts Roma children at a disadvantage for the rest of their lives because it gets them stuck in a vicious circle from which they can’t escape. In Hungary, decisions about school re-segregation are in the hand of one minister, at the Ministry of Human Resources, which means one person’s views have too much weight in this area. There is only one actual segregated school in Hungary , but segregation is legal on religious grounds and there are many de facto segregated classrooms.
Why is discrimination getting worse? Is it down to media stereotypes and prejudices from the non-Roma community; do you think Roma have a tendency to isolate themselves out of mistrust and in in fear of this discrimination?

Why is discrimination getting worse? Is it down to media stereotypes and prejudices from the non-Roma community; do you think Roma have a tendency to isolate themselves out of mistrust and in in fear of this discrimination?

M: The history of discrimination of Roma is as old as the Roma community itself, and it’s still here. It’s interesting that new anti-racism legislation was introduced just recently by the EU (in the 2000s) even though discrimination has been around for so long – and the term anti-gypsism is a relatively new one even though it has existed for hundreds of years. The first step has to be to identify the problem and name it, then we can start to fight it. Legal complaints brought against Slovakia and Czech republic by the EU on behalf of Roma children were rebuffed by these countries who claimed there was no discrimination there. So the first step is recognition, even though this problem has existed for a long time. But the EU has a crucial role to play especially with structural funds – which can be connected to calls for improvement in these areas – which is now being done. I think this is positive. The media doesn’t help because everything you read about the Roma or see on television is about crime – there is a lack of positive information about the Roma. Even though we’ve been living together for hundreds of years, the majority of the population doesn’t know anything about us or our culture and how we live. For them, integration means we should repaint our faces white and live our lives just as they do. But we have a right to keep our culture, our language and our traditions.

F: Discrimination is present because no-one is interested in stories of Roma people succeeding or working to improve their communities. In terms of integration, I think education is really key. If you have educated, informed people, then you have a good society in every sense. But our authorities prefer for us to be easily manipulated and fooled. That’s why I decided to work with children and young people, providing mentoring, informal education and activities to sensitise them about human rights, discrimination and interculturality. I’m trying to show them they have all the resources to get information, but the problem is they don’t know what to do with it, and they don’t have much of a vision for their lives. Speaking of borders, for many of the kids I work with, their parents are abroad in other countries, which is good in a sense as they are able to provide for them economically, but it also means their parents are absent, they are not there to teach them about how to behave, and about what is right and wrong. If people are well educated, everyone in society benefits.

The history of discrimination of Roma is as old as the Roma community itself.

Z: When integration is equated with assimilation, this is discrimination in itself. Since the history of Roma is absent from school curricula and textbooks, the majority in the society don’t have a chance to get to know us or the role Roma have always played in these societies. Without the contribution of Roma these countries would be greatly impoverished, but our history is denied. So in all spheres of life we are being discriminated against. When the mental development of our children is being hindered, this is strengthening barriers for the future. They always tell us to integrate, but in reality they don’t want us to, what they really want is for the Roma to disappear and blend in to the majority population. But a Europe without Roma would be a very poor one, much less colourful in terms of culture, and diversity.

To outsiders, it seems the Roma community has its own symbols (language, flag, etc.) Do Roma feel a sense of transnational identity or is it more rooted in their local surroundings?

M: Of course, the Roma are not a single, homogenous group. We have different groups with their own cultures, dialects, traditions. And each of these communities has a right to preserve these, as far as they do not violate the rights of others, obviously. In Czech Republic, we often hear complaints that Roma people are loud, for instance, or that Roma families have too many visitors. But that’s our culture and we can’t change it. We like to visit each other every day! So where does integration start and end? Is a person integrated if they behave like the majority of the population? Children are also discriminated against if they can’t speak the language of the majority well. These are the barriers that make them consider us to be not integrated.

F: I come from a non-traditional community in the sense that we don’t speak the Roma language or wear any traditional costume or any particular historical occupation. And we don’t really have any particular customs. But we have our own distinctive traits – for example, we adapt and learn quickly. We like being together, singing, dancing, eating, just enjoying life together. I don’t know if this is tradition, but you can say the blood runs faster through our veins.

Z: Flori says that her family doesn’t have traditions but having a big family with many children is part of our culture as Roma. But there is a lot of diversity, also in Hungary. For example, there are places where it’s common for people to marry very young, whereas in other communities this is not approved of. I have 7 children, so we’re a large family and we have our own traditions that other families don’t have, but still in our identities we are Roma, even if we are not homogenous. When we get together – we are very many people, and so people perceive us as noisy, but this is how we like to be. This is what the majority of the population wants to take away from us. We might have some rules and laws, but these can only apply as long as they don’t interfere with those of the country we are in, since Roma have no country. We do have some symbols like the flag (the red wheel symbolising freedom) as well as anthems – a Hungarian one and an international one. To me, using the Roma flag alongside national symbols shows that Roma belong everywhere in Europe. It’s true that Roma don’t have a country – do you think it would make sense for the Roma to be able to organise themselves according to their own culture and traditions or is best solution co-existence with autonomy and self-government without isolation?

When integration is equated with assimilation, this is discrimination in itself.

It’s true that Roma don’t have a country – do you think it would make sense for the Roma to be able to organise themselves according to their own culture and traditions or is best solution co-existence with autonomy and self-government without isolation?

M: Roma are spread all over the world, which means there is so much diversity, and we have lived so long without a country that I don’t think it would be a good idea. I’m not saying we wouldn’t be able to live together, but politically I don’t think this can be a reality, and it is not clear from where geographically the Roma came from, so it would be difficult to claim the right to any land. Also, Roma are already integrated in the countries in which they live. It’s just that some are living in different conditions than the others. If we can remove the barriers – such as in education, employment and housing – this will be the first step to integration, in the countries where we are – removing these barriers is key. Then the differences will be the same as in the majority – there will be some poor people, some rich, some good, some bad.

F: I think the Roma already have a country – the country in which they live. Because they are citizens of that country, they have the nationality of that country, and they respect the rules and laws there. I think if Roma had their own territory or country with its own rules somehow, it would be an interesting experiment but because they are so different, and since Roma are very expressive, hot-blooded people who like to argue and discuss, I am not sure if it would work well or if we would agree with one another. Also because Roma like to move around and don’t like being constrained in a particular place. We are strong characters and don’t like being told what to do!

Z: It’s an exciting question which I’ve thought about a lot, because I was part of a Roma minority self-government in Hungary – which is an elected body of Roma representatives representing Roma issues, but it doesn’t have political power, only power in culture and education areas. But I agree with Miroslav that right now there would be no point. I have no idea when my ancestors came to Hungary or exactly where they came from, but I think they came to Hungary at the same time as the settled population or shortly thereafter So in every country where Roma live, we are almost the founding fathers ourselves – that’s where we were born, where we built our lives, and helped to build the country, with our skills, culture and knowledge. So nobody has the right to say we don’t belong there.

M: It’s important to say that we don’t need to have our own country in order to be respected as human beings. Not having our own country doesn’t make us less human.

How do you feel about the future given the situation in Europe of increasing prejudice and xenophobia towards all minorities, and the return of borders in light of attitudes towards refugees?

M: As I said before, removing borders doesn’t change anything for the daily life of Roma. I think if Schengen were to disappear, the lives of Roma wouldn’t change much. Hatred and anti-gypsism would still exist and will continue to exist for a long time. But belonging to the EU is important for us because the influence of the EU helps to bring about improvements in practices and policies regarding the Roma, and their implementation. We can’t change people’s minds. In the eyes of many people we will still be gypsies, but at least we will have the same rights. For that – we need the help of the EU, to put pressure on our governments. Seeing what has happened over the last years – I am optimistic.

F: Speaking as a young Romanian not as a Roma person – I don’t really know what to think about the future. I will soon graduate but I’m not sure what I’ll do afterwards. I don’t have much economic security in the long-term. In Romania things are changing in a very fast and confusing way. But for the children I work with – I hope they will have good access to education, to the labour market. But without a well-organised system, that is integrated with education, health, security, employment etc… I don’t see how it can happen. These things need to be connected and at the moment it isn’t happening. If we could cultivate this sense of collaboration rather than competition, I think we could put things on the right track. But we need to wait and see, because I don’t think anyone really knows where we are heading. But I hope that young people in Romania who want to make the country better will be able to rise up and take the power back.

Z: I am less optimistic about the capacity of the EU to make a real difference in the lives of Roma because it is such a big bureaucratic institution with many interests at work. Unfortunately politics isn’t really oriented towards a long-term approach. And the lack of Roma representation remains a big problem everywhere. There has been a lot of racist rhetoric in Hungary, for example the prime minister said back in the summer that Hungary is not asking Western Europe to live together with large numbers of Roma, so Europe cannot expect us to live together with large numbers of migrants. I think this use of the Roma minority as an excuse for not taking refugees is absurd and dangerous.

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