Roma Youth: A Glimmer of Hope

Suad Skenderi on a future for young Roma in Europe.


Roma have lived in Europe since the 12th century,  arriving in several waves of migration[1]. They played a crucial role in the nation-building processes in almost every European state. Their contributions have been documented in every area of society, including cultural development, sports, art and anywhere else it was necessary for the sake of the progress and enrichment of the countries they lived in. Young people, the main force driving change, are our elders’ hope for the perseverance of social values and continued prosperity. However, Roma were never provided with opportunities to practice or develop their own social values or political capacities in most European nation states. While many European countries evolved through history, preserving their identity and values through state institutions, Roma encountered a high level of distrust. Consequently, non-Roma institutionally invested in their youth, while Roma largely ignored one of their greatest resources.

Up until the First World War, Roma were kept from participating in the wider societies in which they lived and consistently failed to access state institutions, which ultimately resulted in destructive policies. During the Second World War, Roma were specifically targeted as an inferior race that was destined to wither. There were several attempts to organize against and resist genocidal policies. Roma men, women and children were subject to mass executions. There was no leniency in this horrendous chapter in history. From the estimated loss of more than 500,000[2] Roma people, a significant share of those who perished in the concentration camps were Roma youth[3]. Young Roma were exterminated in the camps, while some survivors were left traumatized by memories of Dr. Mengele’s experiments on young Roma[4]. On 16 May, 1944, Roma organized to resist Nazi policies that would send them to be exterminated in the gas chambers. This date was but one important example of Roma resistance. On that day, Roma inmates in Auschwitz II-Birkenau’s Zigeunerlager showed unity in opposing their captors[5].

Driven by their despicable fate during the Second World War, Roma in 1971 started the “Romanihood” or Roma movement. The first World Roma Congress took place on 8 April, 1971, near London (Orpington)[6], and this date is celebrated as International Roma Day. On that day in 1971, 23 Roma representatives from nine European countries[7] gathered to establish the fundamentals of a nation without a state. The main achievements of the Congress were the adoption of the flag as a national symbol, the anthem “Gelem gelem” and the usage of the term “Rrom/a” (in Rromanes meaning ‘man/human’)[8]. Apart from these achievements, this was the first time that Roma gathered and debated issues related to education, language, culture, war crimes etc. Eight more congresses followed, organized according to the same model, with discussions addressing the major problems that Roma face in Europe[9].

Throughout their history in Europe, Roma have been exterminated and have perished due to various policies, including exodus, forced sterilization, assimilation, assassination etc. Still, when compared with all European nations, Roma have a growing fertility rate[10]. Thus, today, Roma are the youngest trans-national ethnicity living in Europe[11]. Owing to this fact, Roma youth are the biggest potential resource for progress in European society. However, the question of how to strengthen the participation of Roma youth remains open. In 1971, Roma youth issues were not addressed, nor did any youth participate at the milestone event[12]. Only at the fifth Congress, in Italy in 2004, were youth issues addressed at all, and only then indirectly and without any established starting point or direction for further engagement[13]. According to the agenda, the participants discussed the status of families, women and children, while tackling some youth issues at the European level. This signaled that the Congresses became closed, institutionalized forums where elders discussed items on the agenda and issues of Roma in Europe, while neglecting the biggest segment of the population – young Roma. Therefore, the interests and issues of relevance to young Roma have been marginalized within this movement.

After the developments within the congresses, their fragmentation, and their loss of political leverage, Roma youth sought opportunities to focus on issues of relevance to them by targeting different stakeholders at the national and European levels. According to developments after 2000, Roma youth gradually attracted the attention of many European organizations, including the CoE, OSF, OSCE, EU and many more. Many organizations were created at the national level, while European-level Roma youth organizations became their interlocutors on Roma youth issues. This represented a leap of faith for young Roma who hoped that their issues would be articulated and tackled. Increasingly, all of the stakeholders have organized different activities, investing in the creation of new generations of young Roma who will be proud of their identity, preserve their cultural heritage, and take responsibility for the advancement of Roma in Europe.

However, at several critical junctures, and at times owing to a lack of leadership, Europe became a more radicalized environment for Roma, and especially Roma youth. If there had been times in the past when extreme far-right parties were regarded as jokes, now they were becoming a serious threat to all segments of society in Europe. The rise of extreme forms of nationalism converted anti-Gypsyism into an everyday language for politicians and institutions[14]. National governments use Roma as scapegoats when their policies fail, depicting Roma as a public enemy, vagabonds or deviants that refuse to integrate[15]. Furthermore, the number of racially-motivated attacks on Roma is increasing while institutions fail to react[16].

Despite the gains made in the movement in the past, now, more than ever, Roma are in desperate need of mobilization. Although Roma elders have faced tougher and more ignorant times, the youth must not simply remain oblivious now. Considering the resources that exist among the youth, with their various abilities, professional profiles and expertise, it is now vital to show unity and act. The youth should make it their responsibility to capitalize on their education and embrace opportunities to attend all trainings, obtain scholarships, go to conferences and seminars and use any other opportunity offered them to understand the challenges that Roma face today. In addition, young Roma should absorb the past experiences and wisdom of their elders, and act together for a more dignified life in Europe. Only then can Roma realize their true capacities, resources and political leverage at the national and European level. Participation at all levels of society is required in order to show that Roma, like every other European nation, strives for progress, development and an inclusive Europe.

[1] Courthiade, Marcel (2003) “The Gangetic city of Kannauʒ : original cradle-town of the Rromani people” Wydawnictwonaukowe Poznan

[2] Hancock, Ian (2002) “We are the Romani People. Ame sam e Rromanedžene” Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press

[3] Central Council of Sinti and Roma – Children in Concentration Camps. available at: ( last accessed 02.04.2017

[4] Central Council of Sinti and Roma – Mengele’s experiments in Auschwitz. available at: ( last accessed 02.04.2017

[5] M. Matache and J. Bhabha – Celebrating Romani Resistance Day – Epoch Times. available at: ( last accessed 02.04.2017

[6] Kenrick, Donald (1971). “The World Romani Congress – April 1971″. Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society

[7] Ibid

[8] Hancock, Ian (2002). “We are the Romani People. Ame sam e Rromanedžene”. Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press

[9] Kenrick, Donald (1971). “The World Romani Congress – April 1971″. Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society

[10] W. Haug and Y. Courbage (1998). “The demographic characteristics of national minorities in certain European states”. Council of Europe Publishing

[11] Ibid

[12] Kenrick, Donald (1971). “The World Romani Congress – April 1971″. Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society

[13] International Romani Union – Congresses. available at: ( last accessed 02.04.2017

[14] Global Post – 14 unbelievably racist things European (and Canadian) politicians are saying about the Roma. available at: ( last accessed 02.04.2017

[15] Ibid

[16] EU Observer – Violence against Roma on the rise, says Amnesty. available at: ( last accessed 02.04.2017

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Suad Skenderi

Suad Skenderi graduated Political Science, International Relations and Journalism at FON University, Macedonia and acquired his Master of Arts degree in Political Science at the Central European University – Budapest. He has worked in the sector for Human Rights and Inter-ethnic relations at Mesecina – Gostivar. Currently he is a researcher and analyst at the Institute of Research and Policy Analyses –Romalitico. He is interested in data visualizations, infographics, advocacy, minority politics, political representation, political participation and good governance. In addition, he has contributed for the Balkanist, Bright Green, European Student Think Tank, Nationalia, Iul Pianus and others.