Litigating for Roma Rights: Interview with Dr. Margareta Matache

Litigating for Roma Rights: Interview with Dr. Margareta Matache

. 12 min read

Dr. Margareta Matache is a Roma rights activist from Romania and the director of the Roma Program at Harvard FXB. She is an instructor at the Harvard FXB Center for Health and Human Rights and is also the author of “Time for Reparations,” which she co-edited with Professor Jaqueline Bhabha and Professor Caroline Elkins.

Roma people have been stigmatized and discriminated against across Europe since the 10th century when Romani people first began emigrating from India. How has that discrimination changed over time? How is it perpetuated by stereotypes?

In the case of Roma, racism has been continuous and has targeted Roma for more than 700 years. Anti-Roma racism has persisted but transformed over time, and to understand it, we can look at it from at least two angles: by clustering the pillars of anti-Roma racism and by cataloging the manifestations of anti-Roma racism. To clarify, when I talk about anti-Roma racism, I do not talk only about prejudice or discrimination, but about complex and often invisible machinery of hegemony and control embedded in the organization of power and in various axes of power across Europe. Anti-Roma racism is not just an isolated act of discrimination or a fuming expression of hate speech. It is the totality of ways in which Roma experience oppression, disrespect, inequality.

As in the case of any other system of oppression, some manifestations of anti-Roma racism are more overt and easier to point at, not only in lawsuits, but also in daily life, when Roma people unpack and try to make sense of their experiences with discrimination. I'm talking here about discrimination, human rights violations—for instance, when hospital managers and doctors place Roma women and their children in separate wards, away from the non-Roma women. Those “Roma rooms” are often dirty, and the nurses and other medical personnel do not come as often as they would normally to ask questions [and] check the status of patients' health. So that’s a very overt manifestation of discrimination, and Roma experience such discriminatory and humiliating experiences in many parts of Europe. Other times, Roma children are separated into Roma classes in mainstream schools. They are even placed in special schools with an inferior curriculum. Discrimination also occurs when Roma apply for a job and the employers refuse to consider Roma for those positions based on racial identifiers.

At the same time, Roma experience everyday racism, or what David Williams at Harvard Chan School of Public Health calls “everyday discrimination.” These are situations when Roma are treated with disrespect, ignored, feared, overlooked, or underappreciated just because of their Roma heritage. Unfortunately, we do not talk much about such experiences when we study and measure anti-Roma discrimination in Europe or elsewhere, but such experiences torment many Roma children and youth, as it's often hard to unveil right away everyday discrimination. Yet, such circumstances happen on a daily basis and impact Roma children and youth in their social and school interactions and school performance, including through a loss of self-esteem.

Anti-Roma racism also manifests in the lack of power–economic, cultural, and political power–and a lack of fair distribution and redistribution of resources and spaces of power. Thus, anti-Roma racism is a structure of hegemony, manifested in theory, institutional, and social practice. Its surface can display as overt, covert, intentional, unintended, interpersonal, institutional, violent, passive, and anything in between.

I want to underline that anti-Roma racism is structural in nature. It is present in all areas of life, it has a painful historical legacy, and it has persisted. These structural inequities are both a legacy of the history of collective and state-sponsored injustices and an outcome of present-day manifestations of anti-Roma racism. So, a line between the past and the present can't really be drawn; past racism upholds present racism in creating more and more structural inequities and forms of discrimination. Thus, while anti-Roma racism has transformed continuously over time, it has also enhanced structural inequities from one generation to another. And, let me underline that oppression has also augmented wealth and privileges for the dominant majority. Thus, when we talk about racism, we have to see the two sides of the coin: the impact on the oppressed and the benefits that racism brings to the dominant and in-power groups.

Government authorities have been evicting Roma to landfill areas and unfavorable plots in the outskirts of cities, removing them from job opportunities, social contact, sanitation facilities, health resources, and education access. Would you say there should be a reparations process for Roma? If so, what might that process look like?

The concept of reparations has been a topic that we have researched a lot in the past few years in relation to Roma, as Jacqueline Bhabha, Caroline Elkins, and I are the editors of an upcoming volume titled Time for Reparations. Some of the prerequisites for reparations are that a human injustice must have been in place and must have been well documented, and the injustice must have targeted a specific or a distinct group. Knowingly placing Roma in landfill areas could make a clear case for reparations. But most importantly, and theories aside, Roma people who have been evicted from their houses and placed into the margins of various cities or, very often, in polluted areas, have suffered great harm. And that deserves attention and redress. Human rights organizations have pointed out a very clear pattern: local municipalities often pair forced evictions with the relocation of Roma into toxic areas. Upon evictions, families, including children, are placed in inadequate conditions, near landfills or toxic waste areas.

There are many cases of environmental racism against Roma in Europe. One of the most outrageous cases is Pata Rât in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. It has been described by the European Environmental Bureau as “Europe’s largest waste-related ghetto.” More than 10 years ago, in 2010, the local municipality of Cluj-Napoca evicted and relocated Romani people to a landfill. It is a contaminated environment that has caused illnesses, such as stomach problems and skin infections. And the mayor, the municipality could not care less. Another case in Romania is from Miercurea Ciuc, where, in the summer of 2004, the local municipality evicted 100 Romani people to a sewage treatment plant. People live in an area surrounded by a barbed-wire fence where there is a warning sign that reads “toxic danger”.

Our colleagues at the International Human Rights Clinic, HLS [Harvard Law School] have documented the situation in Kosovo, where, after the war, the United Nations placed 600 Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptians in an IDP camp in a toxic area, which put everyone at risk of lead contamination. French peacekeepers, who had headquarters close by, were relocated as soon as they tested lead levels in blood. In 2004, the World Health Organization tested the community and noted extremely high levels of lead in children’s blood and asked for the camp to be closed. But the UN did not relocate the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian people until 2013.

Many members of the community, from children to pregnant women and senior people have suffered extremely. The community started a lawsuit and also asked the UN for redress. Instead of issuing substantive apologies and compensations, however, the UN decided to start a trust fund where states can make voluntary donations for community projects. Thus, instead of issuing reparations, the UN chose welfare, or “consolation money.” The UN silence regarding their own wrongdoings sets a bad example for other organizations and governments committing collective injustices; it does not even follow the UN recommendations on remedies and reparations.

In any case of environmental racism, litigation is a possible path, but often, national courts do not ensure justice to victims, and lawsuits last for years. Nevertheless, there have been cases that activists brought before courts and asked for remedies. Activists have used litigation and the rule of law to demand justice for cases of forced evictions in toxic areas. Nevertheless, this path is not always enough. Even in the situation when Roma families would win a case, which does not happen too often, there is also a need for further redress and repair, as they are dealing with illness, loss of human lives, robbed opportunities from children who can’t go to good schools, stolen childhood from hundreds of Roma children forced to breathe polluted air, or drink unsafe water. So yes, there is a need for much more than litigation, and I am talking about apologies, truth-telling, offender accountability, strengthening the voices of the victims, restitution, and anti-racist reforms. We need both individual compensations and rehabilitation of communities.

Climate change is happening all around the world, but it affects low-income groups the worst, especially those who live in environmentally unsafe conditions. In what ways are the Roma at higher risk when it comes to bearing the effects of climate change? What policies should be prioritized to improve their living conditions?

We have talked about environmental racism, and I will place that in relation to the conversation on the climate crisis. The Paris Agreement, one of the key global documents addressing climate change, has acknowledged the urgency of preventing catastrophic effects. There is less, however, that the Paris Agreement has guided states in relation to human rights in the context of climate change. There is a critique from the climate justice groups that underlines the failure of the Agreement to highlight human rights. And it is true, we have enough evidence to argue that the already marginalized, poor, and racialized communities will face greater harm, risks, and insecurity in the face of more pollution, poor air quality, and extreme weather events. Such communities have already been disproportionately impacted by environmental racism, and they struggle already with illness and structural inequities. There are enough lessons from the world, and from the Roma cases too, to see and understand the impact of environmental racism on the oppressed and to use the teachings and failures regarding environmental racism to get better approaches to tackling climate change.

What we see, for instance, is that in Europe, the new European Green Deal and the Next Generation EU Recovery Plan do not pay attention to the specific risks and needs of racialized communities, including Roma. Of course, such policies are also transferred from the top down to the states. So it is important that the European Union and other intergovernmental bodies that work on climate change acknowledge that climate change may expose marginalized and racialized communities to more risks. At the same time, I think that much more work needs to be done at the national and local levels, such as in my own home country, Romania, particularly in communities like Pata Rât.

More broadly, there is a lot more that national governments and societies should do, not only in relation to climate change, but more broadly in dismantling anti-Roma racism. There is a long-overdue responsibility for reparations for past wrongs, including for forced sterilization of Romani women, enslavement, the Holocaust, or the removal of Roma children from their parents in various countries. We often face and struggle with distortion or denial of the Roma Holocaust as well as distortion and denial of Roma enslavement and other state-sponsored injustices. 500 years of forced labor from enslaved Roma brought a lot of undeserved, dirty, blood wealth in Romania, not only to the nobility but also to the state and the Orthodox Church. Our governments have to deal with the past and to engage in a radical break with the past. How do we reconcile with the past? How do you make sure that the remedies proposed by the states are not an insult to the injury? The answers to these questions can only be obtained by consultations with Roma.

In your 2020 opinion piece for Al-Jazeera magazine, you explain that dedicated human rights and civil liberties organizations “lack awareness about Romani Americans’ struggles and do little to address anti-Roma bias.” How do you envision bringing awareness to their situation?

In that op-Ed from Al-Jazeera, we summarized some conclusions from our Harvard and Voice of Roma study, “Romani Realities in the US,” which we published in 2020. And those are concerns expressed by Romani-American scholars and activists. When attempting to address human rights violations against Roma people in the United States, some of the activists have failed to get support from human rights organizations. Some organizations do not have enough capacity and have to prioritize their cases. But at the same time, part of the problem is that, in the United States, Roma people are not known and seen as people. We are too often portrayed by the media, television, etc. as a way of life or behavior. Therefore, it has not been easy for activists, scholars, and the public to understand the racialization and the discrimination against Roma people in the United States.

The media and TV series do present Roma as a behavior. When I attended my first class at Harvard in 2012, a student came to me and asked me if my family was similar to the families that are portrayed in the TV series “Gypsy Sisters.” I was coming from Romania and had not watched that TV series, but I could understand that it was connected to the TV series “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding,” which has received a lot of criticisms from Roma and ally activists and scholars. Thus, when Americans meet us, they try to place us somewhere, and in the absence of Roma narratives and voices, many end up seeing us through the lens of the racist narratives they see on TV. These narratives are not only racist, but they are very exploitative, too: they exploit anti-Roma stereotypes for profit. Romani Americans have not had access to spaces of power to present Roma narratives, our culture, and history accurately, through the lens of our own eyes and experiences.

There has been a bit of hope in the United States stemming from the decision of the  Entomological Society of America to launch a public discussion about the offensive nature of the “gypsy moth” and “gypsy ant.” We, the Roma Program at Harvard, contributed to that conversation and argued in favor of changing the names of these insects. We argued that no insect or animal name can be linked to the name of a people or racial slurs associated with historically-oppressed peoples. This month, the Entomological Society of America announced that they were going to change the names of these insects. We applauded the decision, and we see it as a moral, necessary, and long-overdue change.

This moment has offered an opportunity to build upon this small and at the same time historic step and continue the conversation with other stakeholders that use the racial slur “gypsy.”  And on a side note, I do hope that people in our Harvard community also look critically at such terms, contribute to changing narratives and help others understand that gypsy is a racial slur unless we talk about Gypsies in the United Kingdom. And indeed, many stakeholders, including universities, such as Northern State University, who has organized for a century annual Gypsy Parades, have to stop mocking Romani people and give up their Gypsy Parades and the g-word, too. There should be no place for dehumanization, racism, and exploitation of cultures in science and academic spaces. The parades are hosted in September every year, and basically, every generation of students that come to Northern State University learn about us, Roma, in a profoundly offensive way. In spite of our demands and requests to the Northern State University, the Gypsy Days Parade continues to be organized. Yet, academia has a moral responsibility to move away from these racist narratives. There is a need for all of us to contribute to dismantling Roma-related stereotypes and seeing Roma as people with a culture and history, as well as human beings.

Racist narratives do impact Roma people in their daily lives. In our “Romani Realities in the US” study, we interviewed Romani Americans who shared with us how TV series, such as “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding,” have led children to bully Romani classmates, based on narratives learned from that TV series. As a consequence, some Romani children feared or refused to return to school.

You have been an outspoken advocate for Roma rights and against anti-gypsyism. What does this look like in practice? From whom do you face opposition?

I've been working with Roma people for more than 20 years. And I have lived as a Roma my whole life.  I come from a family of Roma activists: my father was a Roma activist, too. So in the early part of my life, I was a Roma rights activist. Much of the work of our organization The Roma Center for Social Intervention and Studies (Romani CRISS), involved documenting cases of Roma rights violations and bringing them to court. We used strategy integration, not only to demand justice for Roma victims of human rights violations, but also to push for new policies and legislation.

In Romania, at Romani CRISS, we worked on school desegregation for many years. In 2007, as a result of litigation, research, and various other tactics that we used, we managed to convince the Ministry of Education to adopt a desegregation bill in the country. We also managed to include in the educational act of Romania an article that prohibits the placement of Roma children and other children in special schools based on racial or ethnic grounds.

Since I came to Harvard in 2012, part of the agenda of the Roma Program, which I co-lead with Professor Jacqueline Bhabha, has been to add value to the existing Roma research and advocacy community by proposing and piloting new research methods with Roma people. We started to use participatory action research in 2012. Our aim was to show policymakers and researchers that we all could and should create research and policies with the support and substantive and meaningful participation of Romani people.

We also try to engage with and support members of the Roma movements across the world. For instance, every year, we organize an annual Roma conference at Harvard, which brings scholars together with activists and policymakers.

At the same time, we also wanted to include Roma in global conversations, including on reparations and enslavement. Professor Bhabha and I have also hoped to push this idea of reparations in the Roma movement, which had been focusing mostly on compensations or reconciliation.

I embrace my role as a researcher, and I'm interested in doing research with Roma. But my research is not led by my curiosity about Roma. My research is informed and led by my commitment to ensuring that we collect and provide accurate and reliable data that can inform policies, measures, and actions that benefit Roma people and our communities.

Kuemmerle spoke with Dr. Matache on July 30, 2021. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.