An innovative two-day meeting in London – organised by Amnesty International – has brought together Roma and human rights activists from across Europe. The event, which took place on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, aimed to create a new, collaborative strategy to fight discrimination against Roma in Europe, one of the continent's most marginalized groups.
"The fundamental problem facing Roma activists on the ground is that they find themselves shouting into a precipice – and there's no echo. Their demands fall on deaf ears," explains Larry Olomoofe of the European Roma Rights Centre in Budapest. "Amnesty International can provide a platform for those local voices, and amplify them."
The new initiative will give greater focus to Amnesty International's work on Roma rights, as well as bring it closer to existing Roma groups.
"This has to be inclusive. If you're going to work with Roma you have to engage them," says Olomoofe. "So often, local NGOs - and individuals - are just dismissed. But it's reached a tipping point. The backing of Amnesty International gives more credibility to the issue."
Olomoofe believes Amnesty International's local sections can play a major role in tackling Roma's issues.
"The AI local sections and other NGOS should be given more autonomy so they can work more expeditiously. Meetings like this will form a good working relationship, so that AI can trust us in the future."
Valeriu Nicolae, Executive Director for the European Roma Grassroots Organisation, is aware of the size of the task ahead.
"So far, human rights work hasn't had much effect, as the situation for Roma hasn't improved. We also don't have enough support from civil society. Unions aren't interested; women's groups aren't interested; nor are the equality institutions. Roma NGOs have spent years being more or less ignored. But this can change."
Amnesty International will play a key role in pressurizing states. "Roma activists are easily dismissed but when it comes from Amnesty International, governments start to pay attention. They may deny it, but they will also start to act because they feel they've been caught," says Nicolae.
In the Czech Republic, Amnesty International is already starting to see the benefits of working closely with local NGOs.
"The various NGOs have different strengths. Some focus on grass roots work, some cover legal matters, Amnesty International's strength is campaigning," explains Jindra Parizkova, Human Rights Education Coordinator for Amnesty International's section in the Czech Republic.
"Our role is to reach the pubic and governments. We can increase the impact of the local NGOs by lobbying together. That's the only way this can work. For instance, we have met with Czech education minister and we see signs that they are already co-operating."
Much of the coalition's work in the Czech Republic has focused on schools. Jindra Parizkova explains: "We want to combine Roma issues with human rights education. We have ideas, such as making board games for schools, which will relate to all marginalized groups, not just the Roma."
Valeriu Nicolae agrees: "This is not just about ethnic rights. This needs to be solved within the framework of human rights."