Commemoration of the Roma Holocaust – a time to learn and look forward

EPA/BOGDAN CRISTEL

Members of the Romanian Romani community unveil a monument commemorating the Roma people victims of World War II in Bucharest, Romania, 08 August 2015. 

Commemoration of the Roma Holocaust – a time to learn and look forward


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What is porrajmos? Even in 2016, many people have never heard of the Roma Holocaust, in which, experts agree, at least half a million Roma died under Nazi Germany’s extermination policies. Given the difficulties of collecting reliable data, this figure may even be higher.

Many Roma were killed in gas chambers. Many died of exhaustion from hard labour, disease and starvation in concentration camps and ghettos or on “death marches”.

Children and adults were murdered in brutal experiments. In some countries, there were no Roma left alive by the end of the Second World War.  On the eve of August 2 – commemorated by several countries and NGOs as Roma Genocide Remembrance Day – we should take a moment to ask ourselves, not just how such atrocities could have happened, but why the Roma Holocaust is so rarely acknowledged and whether attitudes towards Roma in Europe have really fundamentally changed.

Today, some 8-12 million Roma live in Europe – the continent’s largest minority and the most disadvantaged, marginalised and abused. Anti-Gypsyism is widespread, on the rise and frequently accompanied by violence.

Such racism is individual – personal abuse and attacks – and institutional: forced evictions, forced sterilisation, segregation in schools, attacks and even murders, including in police custody. As the Council of Europe’s European Court of Human Rights has found time and again, these are serious human rights violations.

And yet, despite the strong human rights laws in place, the abuse of the Roma people continues and is commonly seen as normal or unimportant. It is somehow invisible.

That is why the problem must be specifically addressed. That is why the Council of Europe has made Roma inclusion a priority. Our focus on Roma began in 1969 and the first training course for Roma youth leaders took place in 1995. The work gathered momentum with the October 2010 Strasbourg Declaration on Roma and the Roma Youth Action Plan a year later, which enables Roma youth leaders to participate in the democratic process and influence decisions affecting their lives.

We have made progress, particularly on education. Our educational handbooks show young people – both Roma and non-Roma – how they can make a difference by applying human rights to the problem. Right to Remember helps learners explore the prevailing attitudes which made the Roma Holocaust possible and consider the extent to which the same attitudes persist today. Our recently-published manual Mirrors helps young people tackle both individual and institutional racism against Roma.

Since 2012 the Council of Europe has been working at local level to improve the social inclusion of Roma through ROMACT and ROMED. Nearly 1,500 ROMED mediators in 24 countries have been trained, to help build bridges between public authorities and Roma communities.

But – and it is a big but –  a major problem remains regarding hate speech against Roma and stigmatisation by the media, which create fertile soil for physical violence. To tackle this, attitudes must change. There are no overnight solutions, but our No Hate Speech Movement and Dosta! campaign to combat stereotypes are raising awareness of the problems.

One possibility being explored by our Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland and philanthropist George Soros is the creation of a European Roma Institute to fight prejudice, overcome stereotypes and improve media coverage.  The institute would also promote Roma art and culture, to highlight its positive contribution to European societies. This is important. Roma people want to participate and contribute. They do not want to be forever cast as victims. So, on August 2, let us remember and learn from the horrors of the Roma Holocaust. But let us also look forward and value our fellow Roma citizens.

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