Do Roma need protection from themselves?

The Council of Europe comes under fire from academics for reinforcing prejudice
by Yaron Matras

Almost one hundred academic researchers specialising in Romani studies have signed an open letter to the Council of Europe’s Secretary General, Thorbjørn Jagland, expressing their concern about a recent Council of Europe communication announcing its new four-year Thematic Action Plan on Roma and Traveller Inclusion. They take issue with the statement’s depiction of Roma as having a pre-disposition to early marriage, violence, organised crime and begging, and say that such suggestions contribute to, rather than confront stigmatisation and prejudice.

The 93 signatories, all members of the European Academic Network on Romani Studies that was set up in 2011 by the Council of Europe and the European Commission, are based at over 70 different universities and research institutions in more than 20 different countries. They include eminent scholars such as historians Henriette Asséo and David Mayall, anthropologists Michael Stewart and Alain Reyniers, ethnomusicologists Carol Silverman and Iren Kertesz Wilkinson, social policy experts Margaret Greenfields and Phillip Brown, and linguists Ian Hancock and Victor Friedman. The list also includes some key figures from Romani cultural and public engagement initiatives, such as Jana Horvathová of the Museum of Romani Culture in Brno, musician Santino Spinelli of the Università degli Studi di Chieti, Rumyan Russinov of the Public Policy Advocacy Centre, and Traveller activist and researcher Janie Codona MBE.

In their letter to Secretary General Jagland the academic colleagues criticise the Council of Europe’s communication from 7 March 2016 in which it announced that it will dedicate 20 million Euros to “awareness raising activities at a local level to help curb early or forced marriages, domestic violence, trafficking and forced begging in Roma communities by addressing negative consequences of such activities.” They write that this statement puts the blame for the effects of marginalisation on the Roma themselves, and request a correction from the Council of Europe clarifying that the causes of exploitation and victimisation are universal and not inherently linked to Romani society or culture, and that they should therefore be addressed globally rather than with specific reference to Roma.

The proposal to sign a collective letter triggered a debate on the Network’s email discussion list. Those hesitating to criticise the Council of Europe over the announcement pointed to a need to take a firm and consistent position against practices that put women and girls in danger. Fears of racial stigmatising should not, they argued, overshadow the concerns for the safety of women and girls in all communities, including the Romani community. Alongside issues of principle, strategic arguments were also put forward. Some members pointed out that the Council of Europe’s commitment to addressing issues of domestic violence and forced marriage derived directly from its ‘Istanbul Convention’ from 2011 on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, and that opposing the Council of Europe’s determination to address such issues in regard to Roma might undermine its overall approach to the problem. Others maintained that signing the letter would mean opposing an increasing number of Romani women who are coming forward to challenge practices such as early and arranged marriage and other forms of exploitation and abuse. The claim that in Europe practices of early and forced marriage were confined to certain segments of the Romani population, where patriarchal roles prevail, remained highly contested. On the other hand, some participants in the debate argued that there was a need to address violence against women as a specific consequence of anti-Gypsyism, which gives rise to an inability of victims to access legal remedy, as public authorities take the view that “Roma have their own law and we dare not mix in.”

Yet despite these reservations, the protest letter, addressed to what is widely regarded as one of Europe’s highest moral authorities on human rights, received wide support. Members pointed out that domestic violence is widespread in poor communities, who are also the most frequent victims of trafficking and forced begging, while early marriage is usually linked to the opportunities that young women have to access training and education or to find paid work outside the home. Framing the issue as a cultural one creates a license to segregate Roma and to contain them. It also promotes the view that inclusion should inherently be linked to the adoption of particular norms of behaviour rather than dedicated to the elimination of exclusionary practices and barriers.

Contributors also drew attention to a gradual build up of a focus on trafficking and early marriage in the deliberations of the Council of Europe’s Ad Hoc Expert Committee on Roma (CAHROM). The issue figured prominently at the latest CAHROM meeting in Bucharest on 2 March 2016, just days before the new Thematic Action Plan was announced. It was also on the table at the CAHROM meeting in May 2015 in Strasbourg. Indeed, ‘trafficking and early marriage’ have been high on the Council of Europe’s Roma agenda since its Strasbourg Declaration of 2010, when the organisation began to shift its attention away from Roma political participation and toward a focus on ‘mediation’ projects, legitimised by the view that Roma show a propensity, supposedly, to voluntary disengagement from mainstream institutions and mainstream behaviour norms (see my recent article on ‘Europe’s neo-traditional Roma policy’). But even as a tactical tool, intended to tempt sceptical governments to support the Council of Europe’s Roma inclusion agenda in its entirety, the announcement would seem highly inappropriate: Using exclusionary discourse to promote inclusionary policies can easily backfire, and there is a real risk that the approach will exonerate national governments that do not have the political will to implement Roma integration policies, and that it might legitimise the positions of anti-Roma political parties.

Interesting lessons can be learnt from the Network’s discussion and its outcome. The first is the encouraging realisation that an advocacy initiative can resonate well with academic colleagues without constraining the pluralistic character of the debate or curtailing participants’ confidence to discuss conflicting points of view openly, in a way that allows them to benefit from and capitalise on the range of insights, arguments and pieces of evidence. The fact that academic circles show a commitment to public engagement and advocacy on issues that surround public images of Roma also debunks the myth that academia is the “last stronghold of colonial, paternalist approaches to Roma”, expressed by some recent commentators writing in support of another recent Council of Europe initiative, the European Roma Institute. Indeed, while academics have taken a lead role in this particular debate, standing up against the wholesale portrayal of Roma as beggars and rapists, there has been deafening silence among the ranks of the more established Romani activist circles. This is not surprising, given the fact that Roma activists are in many cases direct beneficiaries of EU and Council of Europe funds and therefore have less freedom than academic colleagues to direct open criticism against influential European policy bodies. The European Academic Network on Romani Studies is finding itself in a different position. Having been set up initially by the Council of Europe itself, it was criticised by some activists for failing to allocate a fixed representation on its elected Scientific Committee for people who self-identify as Roma. Now it has matured into a body of members who are able to engage in an organic process of open and pluralistic debate without fear of either internal splits or external repercussions.

The Council of Europe’s response to the criticism may well prove to be an indicator of how this organisation sees its future strategy of engagement with Roma – perhaps more so than its own controlled proclamations. It can choose to take the easy way out by blaming the statement on a non-fit-for-purpose communications officer who failed to consult the Private Office before going public. That would make the Council of Europe look clumsy and unprofessional. It would also mean that the next communications fiasco is just waiting to happen. Another option is to dismiss the criticism and repeat the line of the Secretary General, who is personally quoted as saying: “Our strategy gives more attention to Roma women and children who are particularly vulnerable”. That would risk appearing complacent and insensitive to the criticism that contends that the causes of the problems lie beyond cultural traditions.

If, on the other hand, the Council of Europe chose to take the criticism on board, invite experts to an open discussion on the proper way to address the symptoms of poverty and exclusion, and issue an unequivocal clarification that it does not seek to blame the Roma for their own misery or to legitimise the patronising obsession to contain and control their behaviour, then it might not only re-gain the respect of its critics, but also be in a position to tackle head on the very core of anti-Gypsy sentiment: the perception that fundamental differences in family values, kinship organisation, and sexuality constitute the major cultural fault line that separates the majority from the Romani minority.

Yaron Matras is Professor of Linguistics at the University of Manchester. He is one of the founding members of the European Academic Network on Romani Studies, Coordinator of the MigRom research consortium, and author of ‘I met lucky people: The story of the Romani Gypsies’ (Penguin Press, 2014).