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O.Tahir– Mr. Doghi, my first question is how do you feel after so many years of working on Roma issues in the OSCE, the REF, the European Commission? What did you gain and what did you lose?

D.Doghi It has been a long time. Well, I definitely lost in terms of close touch with the Roma community. My beginnings were in the 1990s from the grassroots civil society organizations in my hometown Cluj-Napoca – “Amare Phrala” organization which I established with my father Pavel Doghi, then the Roma students’ organization “Romano Suno”. Later, I was involved in politics, for a while. I ran in the local elections on the list of a Roma party. Then in 1996 I came across the organizations Romani Criss and Autonómia Alapítvány Foundation. They wanted to apply community development models from Africa to the Roma and have organized a first training for Roma in Romania called EUROMA. I started working for “Romani Criss” in Bucharest. Then from Romania I moved to Hungary to work for Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI) in Budapest. My next job was at the OSCE, ODIHR/Contact Point for Roma and Sinti Issues (CPRSI) under the supervision of Nicolae Gheorghe. This was my first job in an intergovernmental organization. I worked for OSCE ODIHR for totally 10 years. Since May 2021 I have been Team Leader for Roma coordination within the European Commission’s DG Justice, unit of Non-Discrimination, Anti-Racism and Roma coordination, in Brussels. During these years I gained a lot of experience about the diversity of the contexts and situations of Roma in Europe, which is very important. We are very diverse, within our countries and across Europе, therefore, the interventions need to be tailored, you don’t have “one size fits all” solution.

O.Tahir– You have worked for 10 years in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Some authors claim that the OSCE has failed to prevent the war in Ukraine. Similar accusations are currently being levelled at the UN over the situation in Gaza. According to some politicians these intergovernmental organisations are losing credibility. How does this affect the largest minority in Europe? Should the Roma in Eastern Europe, in particular, worry about their security?

D.Doghi – Well, Roma tend to be generally vulnerable, especially during crises, when the human rights are often the last concern. Whether the OSCE has failed? Maybe there is some failure, but if so, it lies only within the limits of the powers the OSCE had in this regard. I don’t think that the OSCE could stop Russia to violate the international law and become an aggressor. I think that the UN had a stronger mandate; it could send peace keeping forces on the ground. The OSCE is an observation organization and it had an observation mission in Donetsk and eastern region since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, and has maintained their presence there until the beginning of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. Could they have done more? I cannot tell precisely as I am not so familiar with the mandate of OSCE in Ukraine. But the UN, I think it could have done more. However, UN is a consensus-based organization, and Russia is often using its vetoing right to influence UN’s policy. Are Roma more vulnerable? I think that this it quite visible. Even during wars Roma are discriminated against. For me, and for many others, this did not come as a surprise, because Roma tend to be always the last in terms of having their needs and rights protected. Their rights were often denied but it is difficult to demonstrate it because of the lack of sufficient data and direct evidence. It is hard in this situation to gather compelling evidence. Nevertheless, instances were identified and reported by various actors. For instance, FRA conducted a field mission in several countries to monitor the situation of Roma at the border of Ukraine with EU Member States and published its report in April 2022.

O.Tahir – If we are aware that the Roma are more vulnerable in times of crisis, do you think we could try to predict what will happen if other countries in the region get involved in the war in Ukraine? For example, the majority of Roma in Slovakia and Hungary are concentrated in the eastern regions of these countries near Ukraine.

D.Doghi Expansion of war is an unfortunate reality and a risk that cannot be excluded. It cannot be assumed that Roma will have a role to play in this regard, neither having any capacity to influence the outcomes.  

O.Tahir – If the war expands what should be the position of the people claiming to be leaders of Roma at European and national level?

D.DoghiWhoever claim to be leaders, without legitimate backup, are wrong. The only ones who are legitimate are those who are elected officially. And then off course they will represent the interests of the people who elected them. The self-identified leaders, especially from civil society, they can only represent the voice of their own organizations.

O.Tahir  – In this case Roma can only observe the events in Europe without interfering?

D.Doghi If you are not elected then you are out of the game that is why the political participation is very important, especially given the big number of Roma and their electoral potential. Unfortunately, this strong potential is not materialized. If one wants to be part of the decision-making then the civil society is not the strongest actor in this field. This is in no way minimizing the contribution of civil society organizations. However, because of their nature, being non-profit and non-political, they are not part of the decision-making structures and processes.

O.Tahir – Do you mean that Roma have been purposely isolated in the NGO sector, outside the political game?

D.DoghiNo, I disagree with that. Nobody stops Roma to organize themselves politically. I know it is hard, because of the condition of Roma. Just check the latest FRA report, eighty percent of those interviewed in the ten countries live day by day, at risk of poverty and with minimum subsistence. How can it be expected from people living in such situation to organize politically? They definitely need help, but they also need to do more to mobilize themselves and make a best use of their political potential given the sheer number of Roma in many European countries.

O.Tahir –  Is this data reliable? Is the majority of European Roma really at risk of poverty? We are talking about 12 million people across Europe and, as far as I know, the FRA reports are based on data collected from the most ghettoized and marginalized Roma communities in Eastern Europe, such as Lunik in Kosice. But most European Roma do not live in such places. Do you think that the FRA surveys are really representative of the entire Roma community in Europe?

D.DoghiNot necessarily, such surveys cannot be claimed as representative for the entire Roma population. Nevertheless, the surveys are relevant and representative for the communities in which the surveys were taken, as well as for many other communities across Europe which share similar characteristics. Of course, it should not be assumed that all European Roma live in deprived or segregated conditions. There are many Roma who have improved their educational and economic situation over the years but there is still a very large number of Roma settlements where the situation remains critical and progress is slow.

O.Tahir – But if FRA conducts its surveys in Roma settlements where the situation is critical then the results cannot be very optimistic. Don’t you think that these studies could actually reinforce the stereotypes of the politicians? After reading these reports they could easily say – well, look at these slums, Roma are a hopeless case.

D.DoghiPerhaps one of the problems is that the Roma organizations do not engage closely enough with the FRA and Commission to raise this issue and discuss the aspect of representativity of FRA’s regular Roma surveys.

O.Tahir– Do you know that no European political party has included the word “Roma” in its manifesto for June’s European elections? The Roma issues are missing there. What is your explanation for this?

D.Doghi As we know it from the past, in most of the situations, the Roma issues have never been present in the parties’ political platforms and agendas. Roma rights are still a rather unpopular topic in society overall, and the European parties do not make an exception.

O.Tahir – How is this possible when Roma are formally represented in the European Parliament and in the NGO structures in Brussels? There were three Roma MEPs, there are some Roma and Pro-Roma NGOs there but at the same time Roma still do not matter to the European political parties? Are these people in Brussels powerless to influence the European agenda?

D.DoghiTheir powers are limited for a number of reasons, which include their number – a very small one – the political orientation of their backing parties, the autonomy and liberty of action on Roma issues allowed by their parties, and eventually also by the motivation, skills and competences of the elected Roma themselves. Besides that, close co-operation of elected Roma with a diversity of Roma and pro-Roma civil society organizations and with state institutions is also important, and from this perspective we do not see enough evidence of such co-operation happening regularly, except certain events such as the Roma week, the European Roma Holocaust Memorial Day, and few other events. Surely, my perception may be limited to the extent of my knowledge on such matters.

O.Tahir – But then are these NGOs irrelevant for the European political parties?

D.DoghiMight be, but we do not know for sure. Was this properly documented? Who from the NGOs did try to engage with political parties? How many times did the Roma NGOs try and were rejected?

O.Tahir – Maybe this is not a priority for them because they have projects to do and this is not part of their projects, it seems as if these NGOs are out of touch with European politics and have very limited role in the decision-making.

D.DoghiIt is true, absolutely, but it is also true that you need diversity, some people should do projects, other people should do politics, and some people could do both.

O.Tahir – Among these organizations in Brussels is the European Roma Rights Center. You have been involved with the ERRC for some time in the past.

D.DoghiYes, I was on the ERRC board for 7 years. During this time ERRC overcame several serious crises and I was happy to contribute to the mission and work of this organization because it was a very instrumental for Roma. These were good times. Now, the situation is different in certain aspects.

O.Tahir– Indeed it is, you know that in the beginning of this year the current Advocacy and Communications Director of ERRC who is from Wales published an article where he denied the existence of a Roma national identity and universal Roma language.  This was something quite unexpected and surprising to many. A protest letter was sеnt to the ERRC by prominent Roma activists, among them Prof. Hancock, Prof. Kyuchukov, Rudko Kawczynski and others, but the ERRC Board chair Ethel Brooks replied that she saw nothing wrong with this. You are someone who has been a board member of the ERRC for 7 years, what is your comment on the Jonathan Lee case?

D.DoghiWhat Jonathan Lee said in his article is not OK. It is absolutely not OK that this can be associated with the ERRC, it damages its name and the work of many Roma activists involved with ERRC since decades. Nor is it fair that the point of view of a person coming from a very small Roma group in UK tends to be extrapolated as the view for millions of Roma across Europe. I have voiced my disagreement several times, including on Facebook. I disagree with this tendency that Roma people to be called Romani. Myself, I am Roma, and I am absolutely fine with those who want to call themselves Romani, Sinti while they would still feel and agree that they are part of the bigger Roma family, but I don’t understand how is possible and acceptable that a tiny minority tries to impose its views on the majority of Roma in Europe. 

O.Tahir – Tomorrow people working in the EU Commission and Parliament can also read the Jonathan Lee’s article. Do you think that it may influence the perception of Roma by the Commission for example?

D.DoghiI think that the ERRC should dissociate itself publicly from the opinion expressed in that article. They can simply say that his opinion is personal and the organization does not share his opinion. Something like this is necessary. Otherwise, there is always a risk that this can be perceived as the position of the ERRC itself. It is pity that we ended up into a situation that we need to have this kind of fights. To say that the Roma language is not a language – and this coming from someone who does not speak the language, that is very sad. It is damaging. There is no other way to remedy this except through challenge and dissociation.

O.Tahir – Do you see anyone among the Roma employed in Brussels to challenge this?

D.DoghiProbably not. Likely they will not express themselves publicly on this matter.

O.Tahir – Why are they silent?

D.DoghiI don’t know, maybe they are too busy focusing on carrying out the projects they are responsible to implement, some of them being quite complex and demanding ones.

O.Tahir – You are currently working in the EU Commission unit responsible for the coordination of the implementation of the EU Framework for Roma Inclusion Strategies. Do you think that the European framework for Roma strategies could end up as the Decade of Roma inclusion?

D.DoghiNo. The Decade was more focused on promoting dialogue and co-operation between civil society and state institutions, but without the possibility to invest money in addressing the needs of the Roma. Now, look at the EU Roma Strategy Framework, and the multitude of financial opportunities to support its implementation. There are several policy frameworks and financial instruments advancing social cohesion, inclusion and non-discrimination, with large financial packages available for Member States. The Commission strongly encourages the Member States to make the best use of the EU funding, Cohesion policy funding, the Resilience and Recovery funding to support implementation of the national Roma strategies and the achievement of the EU Roma strategic frameworks objectives and targets.

O.Tahir – How do you see the role of the European Commission? For example, in 2020, the EU Commission President was asked by 17 MEPs to stop the EU funding of police trainings for prevention of “Roma radicalization” in Bulgaria and to denounce this practice as discriminatory. Ms. von der Leyen did not comment on the matter and the Bulgarian Ministry of Interior continues with these trainings. This is collective stigmatization and securitization of Roma in an EU Member State and probably Bulgaria is not an isolated case. How does this correspond to the Commission’s commitments to the improvement of the situation of Roma?

D.Doghi The national security of each country is an important issue, but of course, ethnic profiling must be prevented. If there is evidence of it this should be challenged and denounced formally. All the proper national and international channels could be used, and if evidence if found of such practice it should be discontinued because profiling is an act of discrimination, which is prohibited under the union law. In certain cases, even infringement procedures could be initiated. It is a bit strange that the MEPs signed such letter and yet it seems that they did not follow up closely on it. Conducting such effort is demanding, it requires hard work and skills, but there is no other way. Violations of EU laws need to be challenged through use of the formal channels and procedures.  

O.Tahir – You are right, but now we come to perhaps the most important question. Where are all these highly educated Roma when their community is in a trouble? Thousands of young Roma received scholarships from the Roma Education Fund at the time when you were there. However, we see very few of them showing up, taking a public stand, defending their community. Isn’t that strange?

D.Doghi – First and foremost, to be Roma is hard. There is a very strong stigma attached to being Roma. People tend to hide this. In many cases you have more to lose than to gain. Hiding one’s identity is a rather naturally adaptive response, a sort of surviving strategy or coping mechanism. Consequently, those Roma who are educated and become professionals stand a good chance to make a career, although this seems to be easier for those who are less identifiable as Roma because of the complexion of their skin. Such Roma will grow the layers of the middle class in their home countries, but this comes with a loss for Roma identity, I agree.

O.Tahir – But the scholarships were given to them because they claimed to be Roma.

D.DoghiBut not to be Roma.

O.Tahir – But they said they were Roma.

D.DoghiNo, no, not to be Roma as a ‘product’, but to become educated individuals, graduates and professionals in diverse areas of life, while retaining a clear and strong Roma identity. What we did was to encourage them on this path. To support this, I have developed the alumni network of Roma scholarship recipients, and have further strengthened the professional development scheme, providing both graduates and ongoing students with computer and language trainings, participation to camps, to seminaries and events, and encouraged them to introduce themselves to the world as being Roma students who can offer skills and competences. Requesting anything beyond this, through a scholarship programme would be unethical.

O.Tahir – Yes, just these young people are not so visible today, maybe this is a problem?

D.DoghiEven bigger problem is that for 10 years we have demonstrated a successful scholarship model and the countries did not take over this model. It is only to some extent that this is done, for instance in North Macedonia, particularly at high school level, and a small tertiary education scholarship scheme in Montenegro. The governments were supposed to take over the model and implement it at national level, with own funding, but this did not materialize sufficiently. By the way, in Bulgaria this idea was met with a strong opposition by the general population. The same happened during the launching of the Decade of Roma Inclusion in 2024. Bulgaria was probably the only country where state proposed policy measures to support Roma inclusion have prompted backlash from society and protests on the streets.

O.Tahir – What happened to the scholarship program? Does the REF still exist?

D.DoghiTo my knowledge, the scholarship program of REF is almost dead now. REF still exists but there is a huge difference with what it used to be in the past, and this view is shared by many Roma with whom I interacted in the past seven years. The scholarship program I managed had an annual budget of EUR 2 million distributed as scholarships to 1500 University students. That is gone, unfortunately.

O.Tahir – Do you have any information about the career development of these young people? Do you know anybody of them? Are they successful professionals today?

D.Doghi –  I am not aware of the current whereabouts of the REF scholarship graduates. While I was managing the programme we did two tracer studies to see their progress and assess their career prospects, including the challenges they face and how long it takes them to find a job, and how REF could help them further. Some components of the professional development scheme were updated in this regard, based on the findings, but to my knowledge no other reports were produced in this regard, or at least not at that scale. 

O.Tahir – My last question: what the best strategy is in times of growing anti-Roma sentiments in Europe: To be invisible or to be visible and to resist?

D.DoghiYou have to be visible, to make yourself visible, of course. First, many cannot be invisible because of their skin complexion or living conditions, even if they would try to hide their identity. Hiding is not helping the cause of Roma equality and inclusion. The viable option is to fight using advocacy means, along finding ways to unite ourselves and act together to a larger extent, and to step into politics at local and national level.

O.Tahir – Do not you think that many Roma are already too disillusioned with the mainstream political parties, especially in Eastern Europe?

D.DoghiI know, but there is no other viable way. It is a hard work, no doubt. It is also crucial who is doing it, with whom and whether the right momentum is chosen. Genuine leadership among Roma is scarce and nowadays some Roma self-proclaimed ‘leaders and visionary’ individuals and their affiliated organizations claim to legitimately represent the voice and interests of Roma internationally, but their underlying foundations are shallow, their claims are exaggerated and behind them there is a small number of Roma overall. While this can surely sound disheartening, I still believe that genuine involvement in politics, through people who have the best interest of Roma at their heart, is essential for advancing the goals of equality and inclusion of Roma, and for fighting anti-Roma racism and discrimination.

Dan Pavel Doghi was leading the Roma team of the EC DG Justice unit of Non-Discrimination: Anti-Racism and Roma Coordination since May 2021.  Previously, he served as Chief of the OSCE ODIHR’s Contact Point for Roma and Sinti Issues (CPRSI), Senior Adviser on Roma and Sinti Issues, as the Higher Education Program Manager of Roma Education Fund (REF), and also as the National Director of REF Romania Office. During 2009-2016, he served as a member of the Board of Directors of the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC).

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