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“We don’t want Roma as our neighbours”. These words are not taken from a history book describing the mindset of the 1930s that led to the systematic deprivation, persecution and extermination of Sinti and Roma under Nazi Germany. The sad truth is: This is what four out of ten Germans think, according to a study from the year 2012.
“Italian Roma? Unfortunately, we have to keep them.” This is the Italian Minister of Interior speaking in June 2018.
Some say that one can measure a society's respect for human rights and democracy in how minorities are treated. When I think about these quotes and the situation of many Sinti and Roma in Europe, I am deeply worried about Europe, about our society.
But there are signs of hope. One of them is the prize I have the honor to award today: the European Civil Rights Prize of the Sinti and Roma. This prize sends a message of solidarity and humanity to the marginalized group of the Roma in Europe. And it reminds ourselves what it takes to call the European Union a community of values.
The Central Council of German Sinti and Roma has become an indispensable partner in this regard. For decades it has been raising awareness for the so-called forgotten Holocaust, the genocide of the Sinti and Roma. It has been drawing attention to the dramatic human and civil rights situation of the largest minority in Europe. Likewise, it is a vivid actor in creating empowerment measures and partnering with Roma communities throughout Europe.
Dear Romani Rose, I would like to express my sincere appreciation for your and the Central Council’s dedicated work. Thank you so much!
Ladies and Gentlemen,
In times when populist and nationalist voices become louder, when antisemitism, antiziganism, racism and homophobia are on the rise, it takes courageous men and women to stand up and raise their voices. Today, we want to honor one man who has stood up for the rights of Roma in his country, even if it meant to take quite some heat for it.
Awarding you with the European Civil Rights Prize of the Sinti and Roma, expresses the appreciation for your long and outstanding commitment in fighting antiziganism. For you, dignity starts with a name. So you vehemently oppose the description of Roma as “gypsies”, which many Roma see as defamatory and discriminatory.
Throughout your term of office, you have repeatedly called attention to Roma issues whether by engaging with members of the community or by addressing shortcomings in your own country.
You have seeked first-hand information, for instance by visiting Roma settlements and discussing with NGOs and individuals. You have taken the time to listen to people and their concerns – like to eleven-year-old Roma Annamária Horváthová, who became a role model for children from disadvantaged families.
What I particularly admire is that you are a man of clear words. Let me recall your State of the Union address in 2017:
“One of the chapters of shame in the story of the Slovak Republic is the fate of our excluded Romani communities. Romani are not a part of our country’s success. […] But if the Romani people are not prospering, Slovakia will not prosper for long either.”
Your way forward is to recognize the potential of Roma and to work on concrete proposals to fully tap it. You keep stressing the fundamental importance of education as key to the integration of the Roma. Therefore, you proposed to introduce compulsory pre-school education which can promote language acquisition and counteract the segregation of Roma children in schools.
Even though Slovakia has received vast EU funds for the integration of the Roma, you feel that concrete targets and the political will for change are very often missing. Therefore, you advocated reflecting this in the government by creating the office of a Minister or Deputy Prime Minister for Roma issues.
Europe needs more brave leaders like you: Leaders who embody the European idea by promoting democratic values, fundamental freedoms, respect, tolerance and minority rights.
In the past few years, you kept underlining the legitimate need for the protection of refugees. You spoke out against the Slovak Government's rejection of refugees and called for more solidarity within Europe.
You did not shy away from confronting the government, when you felt that principles like the rule of law and democratic values were in danger. A strong advocate for the freedom of the press, you have come out strongly against restrictions a new media law could introduce.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
the European Civil Rights Prize of the Sinti and Roma reminds us that we still have a long way to go. Even with strategies for Roma inclusion in place for almost a decade, we still see little improvement in the actual living conditions of the Roma in many European countries, their opportunities regarding education, work and social inclusion. In some cases, the situation has even worsened.
When we discuss the next European framework for Roma Integration, we cannot continue with business as usual. Governments should not only pledge unconditional support for the Roma people on the International Romani Day, on 8th of April, but have actions follow words every day.
Every state has to guarantee equal opportunities for participation, in housing, in achieving a degree, in finding one’s way to formation or university. Roma children must not be sent to special schools in segregated areas. Roma must not live in wrecked homes without clean drinking water and electricity any longer. Healthcare and social assistance must be accessible to Roma. Roma must not longer be afraid of going to the authorities. And most importantly: Violence against Roma must stop.
We have to make sure that Europe's largest minority is adequately represented in parliaments and governments on different levels. The voice of the Roma does not belong to the margins of society.
However, it is not only up to the governments to change the situation, but to every single member of our societies. As you have said, President Kiska, “there are two ways the problems must be addressed - through more effective governmental solutions and through changing the public perception and their negative emotions towards the Roma”.
I couldn’t agree more. So, when someone points a finger at the Roma, he points his finger to all of us. Only if we openly start questioning our stereotypes, will we respect the right of our neighbors.
President Kiska, thank you for inspiring us, thank you for your engagement. My congratulations on receiving the European Civil Rights Prize of the Sinti and Roma!