Monday, April 4, 2011



Reality – not reality TV – is the real key to change for Roma

Author: Gutenberg

3 April 2011
Over the past months, viewers of the Channel 4 series “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” have waited eagerly for the next episode of what the producers call “a window into the secretive, extravagant and surprising world of gypsies and travellers in Britain today”.

Purportedly showing the colourful courtship rituals of UK Travellers, the show attracted as many complaints as it did viewers for trivialising the way of life and ignoring the real story of poverty and social exclusion. Above all, it heaped confusion on an already confused society which knows next to nothing about the complex community that is collectively known as the Roma.

Anyone following reality, rather than “reality TV” will see a very different picture. Some examples: a UK council votes one third of its annual budget to evict families at one of the largest Traveller sites in Europe; Finnish authorities warn against an “influx of Roma panhandlers”; a Roma woman complains about forced sterilisation at the Court of Human Rights; the Council of Europe’s Social Rights Committee accepts a case against France for housing rights violations against the Roma …. and the list goes on.

Since the extraditions of Bulgarian and Romanian Roma from France last year, Roma stories are high on the agenda. The European institutions are acting, with the Council of Europe rolling out the mediator programme jointly agreed at its High Level meeting last year and the Commission strategy on Roma now in preparation.

In the meantime, a people that fled India in the 11th century to escape persecution continue to be persecuted. Reports from Council of Europe monitoring bodies and the EU Fundamental Rights Agency show racism against Roma on the rise everywhere. And even with this growth in awareness, how many people are aware that Vlax Roma were enslaved for 500 years, and that nearly the entire Roma population of Belgium, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Netherlands were amongst the estimated million and a half Roma that died in Hitler’s Final Solution?

The ignorance of the majority community is one hurdle, the heterogeneity of the Roma another. Despite a common origin and history, there is a huge divergence of traditions and culture – Finnish Kaale and Spanish Calé are more different than similar, the Sinti people - and even the English Romani – have little in common with the Travellers featuring on UK’s Channel 4. Roma academic Ian Hancock spelled this out to a European Commission meeting last year “If we knew who we were, and had more status allowing us to be heard, we would have a say in how we are portrayed,” he said.

Experience shows that great social projects only work if they are aligned with the lives of the people for whom they are designed. That is why the Council of Europe mediation project offers hope, building up the capacity of Roma communities to be part of society.

This year alone, over 400 Roma mediators in 15 countries will be trained in liaison skills, creating a network of ambassadors of trust between local public services and Roma communities. Each of them will be working in the community right away – getting children school places and making sure they attend, talking to doctors and health practitioners to make sure their community members get adequate care, and increasing job prospects for people for whom the labour market has remained closed for too long. This year, April 8, Roma Day, the mediators will be working to create a different reality for the Roma: one that will at long last empower Roma communities to break out of the spiral of social exclusion.

Raise one persons awareness of the realities of the Roman


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