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Robert Rustem: My wishes on International Roma Day

International Roma Day beckons and when pressed to comment on the meaning of the occasion, it is tempting to reply “please refer to the statements of previous years.”

Then, as now, the situation which Roma communities confront across Europe is one that simply beggars belief in the 21st century. According to Amnesty International, “eight out of 10 Roma households in the EU are at risk of poverty.” That’s millions of fellow European citizens.

The seriousness of the current circumstances is not lost on Roma activists and other human rights defenders.

Where deaf ears are to be found is among the feckless officials and policy-makers who turn a blind-eye to Roma misery, dishonoured by their resort to equivocation, ambiguity and ‘blaming the victim whilst excusing the aggressor.’

Europe seems to have forgotten the central lesson of the past century – Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Amnesty International reveals that “in Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Bulgaria, between January 2008 and July 2012, there have been more than 120 serious violent attacks against Romani people and their property, including shootings, stabbings and Molotov cocktails.”

And these are just the reported incidents. The European Roma and Travellers Forum has learned of many more incidents of intimidation and violence which confirm that anti-Roma prejudice flourishes across Europe.

Yet, it is a disservice to International Roma Day, to reduce the occasion to a laundry list of crimes, reproaches and pleas for international recognition and respect.

International Roma Day should be a celebration of the humanity of Roma people and their courage and fortitude in the face of a quite terrifying array of social and economic obstacles. Despite all that Roma communities endure, there is no hint of rebellion. The iron survival instinct and the indomitable spirit of the Roma people continue to serve them well – just as they have done over centuries, in times even darker than we know today.

Equally, International Roma Day is an opportunity to rally non-Roma people to the cause of fairness, freedom and equality.

Just as the institutions of slavery, ‘Jim Crow’ America and South African Apartheid were withered by fearless direct action, international condemnation and progressive alliances, so the day is coming when Roma people’s second class status will also be a detail of history.

Non-Roma people should be encouraged to accelerate that process and resist the slide towards mayhem signalled by rising ‘Roma-phobia.’ And they should be welcomed as allies in the just and defining struggle against the forces of hate.

The message of International Roma Day to Roma and non-Roma alike is simple and clear – be on the right side of history!

The author Robert Rustem is Executive Secretary of the European Roma and Travellers Forum, which has a partnership agreement with the Council of Europe.

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