Q&A: Lessons from the Struggle for Albanian Roma’s Rights

January 2018 -4 minutes read

A recent and critical victory for Albania's Roma may provide marginalised communities around the world with a guide to defending their rights through broad, diverse and flexible coalitions.

In October last year, the Albanian parliament passed a law on minorities, which recognized, for the first time, Roma as a national minority. The law’s passage was partially the work of a coalition of 14 pro-Roma rights organizations. Daniel Makonnen, communications officer at the Open Society Roma Initiatives Office, spoke with Bledar Taho, the director of the Institute of Romani Culture in Albania, about the campaign.

Unlike other national minorities in Albania, such as the Greeks or the Serbs, there is no nation-state to which Albania’s Roma can turn if the government chooses to ignore their rights. How can advocates ensure that Roma rights are respected?

The core principle of the new law is that belonging to a minority group is based on self-declaration. That means it is not up to the Albanian state or to other countries in the region to define who belongs to which group; it is a matter of self-determination.

The Roma will be represented in the National Committee of Minorities by people we will nominate. They will coordinate our advocacy efforts and monitor the implementation of the law on minorities. We will make sure the government is protecting the Roma minority as it does for other groups.

With the law passed, what’s the next step for the movement?

First, we will work on monitoring the implementation of the minority law. It is crucial that all Roma in Albania benefit from this legislation. For instance, we will make sure school curricula are available in Romanës so all children who want to can receive their education in their native language.

Second, despite Albanian autorities’ traditional aversion to minority involvement in the country’s political life, we will try to increase Roma participation in the country’s politics. The new law gives us more room to maneuver, and we’re hoping it will help us engage more at the local level.

We will push for quotas, for example, to ensure that Roma citizens—who, unlike other national minorities in Albania, do not tend to live in clusters and thus have the ability to wield political power as a bloc—are nevertheless part of municipal councils. We plan to lead the effort for a quota system that will benefit all minorities.

The campaign in favor of the law was supported by a coalition of 14 Albanian pro-Roma organizations. That level of coordination and cooperation was unprecedented. How did it happen?

The first step was to identify the interests of all the member organizations. It’s a diverse group—some organizations work on education, others work on employment; some on housing, others on youth; and so on—and we had to make sure our advocacy goals would speak to everyone’s interests.

Along the same lines, we also conducted a broad consultation in 24 Roma communities. We’d tell what the new law would mean for them in practical terms and collect their feedback.

What were the advantages of such a broad coalition?

Working in a coalition brings tangible benefits; as a collective, you have the kind of expertise and knowledge that you could never find in a single organization. In our coalition, for instance, the NGO Roma Active Albania brought key expertise on advocacy taken from their experience working with international organizations and European institutions.

Other organizations, such as the Ushten Association and Voice of Roma in Albania, provided the kind of on-the-ground and local knowledge that those of us working in Tirana never could. We think this will be especially important when it comes to local monitoring to ensure the law is followed.

As part of the new law, a fund for the cultural promotion of recognized minorities will be set up. How might that help improve the standing of Roma within Albanian society?

Roma have contributed hugely to mainstream culture and history in Albania, but the state does not recognize these contributions. For centuries, Roma have enriched Albanian culture with our language, our music, and our costumes. But whenever Roma have asked the minister of culture to help preserve our culture and research our heritage, we’ve been told there wasn’t enough money in the budget.

One of the consequences of this is that people in Albania who are ignorant of Roma contributions tend to associate Roma with poverty instead. There is immense work to be done when it comes to preserving and promoting Roma culture in Albania. But thanks to the new law, we can hope for change.

The Institute of Romani Culture in Albania is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

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