International Roma Day: Remembering the Past and Fighting for the Future

The Romani people, one of the largest minority groups in Europe, have made significant contributions to European and American culture and societies. From musicians and dancers in Spain, to human rights lawyers in Budapest, to dedicated educators in Macedonia, the Roma people continue to shape Europe’s future. Yet, the Roma are one of the most marginalized groups in Europe, facing challenges to overcome systematic discrimination. On April 8, 2013, U.S. and European human rights activists and scholars came together at Harvard University for a conference entitled “Realizing Roma Rights: Addressing Violence, Discrimination, and Segregation in Europe to celebrate International Roma Day” to discuss how the Roma can reclaim their rights and harness the human potential of a diverse population of more than 10 million people.

Living in Eastern Europe in 2009, I witnessed firsthand the effects of the socio-economic exclusion of the Roma population. These experiences led me to return to the State Department in 2012 to focus on U.S. government efforts to promote Roma inclusion and rights in Europe.
It wasn’t until 1971 that April 8 was declared International Roma Day by the 4th Romani World Congress. Since then, there has been a steady revitalization of organizations dedicated to promoting Roma inclusion and an awakening of even some of the most isolated Romani populations to their rights in a free and economically prosperous Europe.
One of the most well-known Romani activists to emerge out of this awakening, Andrzej Mirga, now the Senior Advisor on Roma and Sinti Issues at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, took the stage. He has become one of the most ardent defenders of Roma rights in Europe and represents, along with his peers, a small but growing cohort of savvy Romani professionals dedicated to the betterment of their people’s social and economic situation.
Mr. Mirga noted that since the 1980s, there have been many potential “historic moments” for societal change to better the situation of Roma, but activists have often been disillusioned by the significant gaps that still exist and the slow progress of European initiatives.
To overcome these gaps, the State Department stands with tireless advocates such as Mr. Mirga. As Secretary Kerry said, “The United States reaffirms its determination to meet this challenge, together with European governments, civil society, and through international organizations such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to achieve equality, opportunity, and inclusion for all Roma.”