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Romani Internationalism and the World Roma Congress


Last month, a harrowing video emerged of a police officer kneeling on the neck of a 46-year-old man. He pleads and writhes for 6 long minutes before suffocating to death. Despite the striking coincidence in circumstance, the victim was not George Floyd. He was Stanislav Tomáš, the most recent Romani victim of police brutality in Europe and this time at the hands of Czech police. Official responses have ranged from the shocking to the silent. Czech authorities immediately defended the actions of the police, tweeting ‘No Czech George Floyd’, and claiming the actions of the police were proportionate to his apparent criminality. Meanwhile, grassroots solidarity protests have arisen across Europe to demand justice. 

The killing of Stanislav Tomáš is not an outlier. It is a tragedy nestled within a general trend of structural socio-economic discrimination and violence inflicted by a general populace whipped up into fascistic frenzies. This is now common across the entire continent. Stanislav’s case is tragically typical: a murdered Roma man from a community that struggles from discrimination in access to education, employment, sanitation, infrastucture and housing—effectively ghettoised. Stansilav was purportedly homeless at the time of his death. 

From Italy’s Matteo Salvini calling for “a mass cleansing street by street, piazza by piazza to anti-Roma pogroms already taking place in France, North Macedonia, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Bulgaria, a contemporary Far-Right international coalition has been waging an escalating, popular war on Roma across the continent since the collapse of Communism. This is inextricably linked with the almost universally dire economic condition of the Romani people. With the withdrawal of welfare safety nets and states implementing a regime of welfare chauvinism, Romani communities are deemed a lumpen, unproductive surplus population. As has been noted elsewhere in interdisciplinary academic circles, we have seen a biopolitical shift from the “making live”, hegemonic within the pre-neoliberal global political economy, to the “letting die” of surplus labour in contemporary capitalism. The empirical example of the condition of the European Roma population evidences this shift.

Devastatingly, we are yet to see any coordinated, political mass movement of scale among Europe’s Roma population in response to this trend. Romani people, spanning the entire continent, require a collective political movement with the purpose of mobilising and organising fellow Roma for the defence of their communities based on demands for collective emancipation from the combined threats of mob violence, police brutality and mass poverty. 

There have been many instances of organising among Romani activists throughout history, even in the darkest and most hopeless of places. One movement in particular, however, has proven itself capable of mobilising the Roma masses toward collective action. This unlikely, unique and under-appreciated movement was named the World Romani Congress (WRC).

On a mid-Spring weekend in April 1971, a motley crew of delegates representing 23 nations, spanning 4 continents, from both sides of the Iron Curtain met in Cannock House, then a small suburban boarding school in London. This meeting was convened to affirm a common identity among one of Europe’s largest and oldest diaspora: the Romani people. Funded and facilitated by the movement for non-aligned nations, with India and socialist Yugoslavia taking leading roles, it had to contend with a lack of common culture, a shared language of many variants that only half of them could speak and a very elusive wish for unity. 

By the end of the weekend there was an agreed common flag, an anthem, a national day and a shared political project for self-determination and collective civil rights. However, as will be explored, this was not a copy-and-paste national liberation project that adopted the nationalist templates of the enlightenment. It consisted of a declaration of nationhood without borders and no claim to a national territory. 

This radical, seemingly impossible ideal was conjured in the aftermath of total war- a devastating war of aggression that was propagated by a fascist international coalition with the goal of eradicating Romani people, along with Jews, the disabled and many others, from the face of the Earth. It was estimated by Eichmann, the administrator of mass murder, that over 500,000 European Roma were killed at the hands of the Nazis and collaborationist governments during the ‘Porajmos’ in World War Two (‘the devouring’, in Romanes, refers to what most know as the Holocaust). This figure is, of course, slightly speculative given that not a single Romani individual was called upon to testify during the Nuremberg trials by the allied powers. The WRC was convened with the knowledge of this history, and that the Porajmos provided an eschatological moment for a break with this historical procession of catastrophe. 

It is no surprise that the foundation stone of the WRC was laid in the internationalist ideals of non-aligned socialism. The drive for Romani emancipation in the USSR was quickly snuffed out by the Stalinist programme of Russian-homogenisation after a brief moment of hope. Meanwhile, the capitalist countries had long developed a knack for Roma persecution and dispossession to facilitate rapacious rent-seeking capital, Britain is no exception.

The symbology of the nation-building project was closely associated with socialist Yugoslavia. Early variants of the WRC flag adorned the Yugoslav red star, now a red wheel. Slobodan Berberski, an early and active member of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, was elected as the first WRC president, and the WRC anthem ‘Jelem Jelem’ (‘I walked, I walked’) was written by balkan Romani Partisan Zharko Jovanovic with explicit reference to the crimes of the fascist-collaborationist Ustaša. 

Berberski laid out the objectives of the WRC in his impassioned opening speech upon accepting the presidency: 

“Our people must combine and organize to work locally, nationally and internationally. Our problems are the same everywhere: we must proceed with our own forms of education, preserve and develop our Romani culture … We have been passive long enough and I believe, starting today, we can succeed”. 

The project was fundamentally about reasserting the agency of Roma through forging a political community. The long-term ambitions of the first WRC were also clear: to embark on amaro Romano drom, a Romani road to emancipation.

Another founding member, Gratton Puxon, had a rich history of organising travelling communities in Britain and Ireland against evictions. Grattan foresaw the road to emancipation through the forging of a new, mimetic yet subversive nationalism. This nationalism centred round the concept of ‘Romanestan’ rooted in whatever communities that Roma people find themselves in: from Šuto Orizari, the mahalas of Mitrovica, to the former Dale Farm site in Essex. This (inter)nationalism contains the positive nation-building components necessary to make gains in the realm of legal protections for state-recognised minorities, yet at the same time preserving the negative space to be filled by a radically diverse, ancient diaspora without baking in the dangerous exclusivity found in the nationalisms of the enlightenment. This is in stark contrast to the extreme other-ing and exclusivity essential to the nation-building of European fascism. 

The institution that Baberski and Puxon helped establish has inspired thousands of Roma to break traditional caricatures, self-define their communities, forge a new (inter)nationalism, mobilised education projects and shone unprecedented light onto the plight for Roma human rights. Today, however, it has been said that the WRC, now coming to it’s 10th congress, has become co-opted and toothless in the face of escalating threats of mass poverty, state persecution and mob violence, including the tragic murder of Stanislav Tomáš.  

In April 2021, Puxon argued in an interview with the Roma Education Fund that the European Romani movement has become fragmented and disjointed, with little cooperation or active coalition building. Elsewhere, he noted that the old institutions that his generation helped build, like the WRC, have lost their militancy and no longer have their roots in the communities that they claim to speak for. In a recollection of the events of the 1st Congress he stated: 

“Within the fulsome recognition [of the Romani right to self-determination] lies hidden a subtle downgrading of what Congress intended [...] As if for 24 hours [on International Roma Day], an amnesty applies, and officialdom sets aside black prejudice”. 

For communities like Stanislav’s, there can be no amnesty without justice and no celebration without liberation. 

The aims and objectives of the WRC were established at a time when, across the balance sheet, European Roma benefitted from basic social safety nets and more-or-less universal access to services, education, housing and employment. Romani communities have been a catastrophic casualty of the neoliberal turn and the collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). As a World Bank report has noted:

“Roma are the most prominent poverty risk group in many of the countries of [CEE]. They are poorer than other groups, more likely to fall into poverty, and more likely to remain poor [...] poverty rates are more than 10 times that of non-Roma [...] nearly 80% of Roma in Romania and Bulgaria were living on $4.30 per day [...] in Hungary, one of the most prosperous accession countries, 40% of Roma live below the poverty line.” [1] 

Roma communities are confined to residing in precarious marginality, unable to pay rents and meet the costs of privatised services, whilst being completely excluded from whatever scraps of public provision that remain. Despite the formal establishment of universal human rights, the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, in a review of the ‘Legal Situation of Roma in Europe’, concluded that:

“Discrimination is widespread in every field of public and personal life, including access to public places, education, employment, health services and housing [...] the economic and social segregation of Roma are turning into ethnic discrimination” [2]

Today, cultural engagement remains a luxury for the vast majority of Roma communities. Instead of primarily focussing on facilitating opportunities for cultural engagement it should orientate itself towards the purpose of internationally organising local communities to fight for material and economic rights: to good quality housing and/or land access with environmental security for travellers, education, sanitation, access to basic services. This should be in conjunction with legal and political education so communities can carry this fight through the long march through the courts and, wherever necessary and possible, in non-violent resistance. Contemporary strategy needs to be orientated around survival and defence. Puxon was himself an active participant on the barricades of the Essex Dale Farm evictions resistance in 2011. He is a practitioner of exactly the kind of militant community organising that the WRC should be coordinating today.

The WRC made spectacular gains for the international Roma community. They forged a progressive (inter)nationalism grounded in anti-fascism, inspired thousands to pick up the flag and self-identify as a community of multiplicity and diversity, raised the profile of the Roma as a large minority diaspora entitled to legal protections and embarked on many public education programmes to develop culture and  compound a sense of agency. However, at the current historical juncture, Romani populations find themselves under a concerted, aggressive siege from violent state forces and Far-Right mobs hell-bent on the collective punishment and eradication of a perceived surplus population. 

In Stanislav’s home country of Czechia, the unemployment rate of the Roma community is between 80-85%. The majority of those with employment are in precarious work at low wages. Unsurprisingly, this has led to indebtedness at highly unfavourable rates causing mass exclusion from social housing. Evictions have ensured the effective ghettoisation into holobyty: barely habitable dwellings that often lack basic amenities. It is here that progressive nation-building finds its limits. Puxon’s ‘Romanestan’ is in a state of emergency. It is time for a change of approach.

[1]  Found in: Pogany, I. (2004). The Roma Cafe: Human RIghts & The Plight of the Romani People. Pluto Press. Pp.8.

[2] Found in: Pogany, I. (2004). The Roma Cafe: Human RIghts & The Plight of the Romani People. Pluto Press. Pp.143.

Sean Benstead is an activist and writer based in Greater Manchester. His Twitter handle is @SigmaAuto420