MORE than 50 years ago – from April 7 to 12, 1971 – the first World Romani Congress was held in Orpington, in south-east London. This pioneering event would fundamentally change the nature of Roma transnational activism and begin a search for answers to anti-Roma injustice and discrimination that would work across state borders and community boundaries.

Prior to 1971, most Roma-led civil society organisations were focused on the local and the immediate - what was happening in their own neighbourhoods and countries. Events in London, part-funded by the World Council of Churches and the Indian government, brought new connections across the 10 nations represented at this initial gathering.

A new conversation was started amongst Roma representatives from different countries, one that continues to this day. It is about shared experiences and concerns such as access to education, the importance of Romanes (the Romani language), improvements in civil rights, promoting Roma culture and identity, and reparations for the Roma genocide during the Second World War.

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The National: Members of the Roma community march to Govanhill to celebrate International Day of the Roma. Photo: Jamie Simpson

Indeed, five sub-groups were formed at the 1971 congress to discuss language, culture, education, war crimes and social matters. Those attending voted to re-adopt the earlier 1933 Roma flag – a red chakra (wheel) in the middle, with a blue and green background – as well as a song, composed by Žarko Jovanović, a Serbian Romani musician, that would become a de facto national anthem (“Gelem, Gelem”).

Since the early 1970s there have now been 11 congress meetings held in countries such as Poland, Croatia, Czechia, Italy, Romania, and, in May 2023, Berlin. The agenda items at each congress have been remarkably similar, reflecting the fact that there is still much to be done to eradicate anti-Roma racism and address the needs of the communities across Europe and beyond.

But, against this historical backdrop, why is April 8 now regarded as International Day of the Roma?

It was at the fourth World Romani Congress, held in Serock, Poland in 1990, that April 8 was chosen to respect and honour those who had first met in London in 1971. Since this time, April 8 has been widely regarded as a proud and colourful day to be celebrated in Roma culture – to bring families and communities together, hold public events, to march, make speeches and sing, dance and feast. It is a day of joy, a day of saying “we belong”.

In Scotland, International Roma Day has been publicly celebrated since 2014 – so this year is a very important one as it marks a decade of festivities and events for the Roma communities who call Scotland home. The first march was organised by a Glasgow-based charity called Romano Lav (Roma Voice) with more than 300 people gathering in Govanhill to march through the neighbourhood, listen to music and speeches, eat food and share stories.

The National: Members of the Roma community march to Govanhill to celebrate International Day of the Roma  Picture: Jamie Simpson

The banner at the front of the march that day proclaimed: “Say it loud, say it clear, Roma are welcome here”.

Whilst it doesn’t feel like a decade ago now, I can recall that first event in 2014 very fondly. I had just joined Romano Lav as a trustee and there was a sense of real optimism, hope, and spirit, largely driven by the pivotal organising work of Marcela Adamova, a young Slovakian women of Roma background who had started the charity.

Marcela remains affiliated to Romano Lav to this day, an organisation that is diverse and inclusive, fighting for Roma civil rights, social inclusion, and justice in Glasgow and across Scotland.

However, it would be fair to say that during the last 10 years, things have been very up and down. For every minor victory secured, there has been a succession of local, national, and international challenges that have greatly impacted on Roma lives and livelihoods in Scotland. It has not been easy.

Much has been said, over many years, in the academic and public policy literature on the nature of Roma “adaptability’ and ‘tenacity”, in the face of desperate times and situations, but when faced with issues such as austerity, Brexit, Covid-19, the cost of living crisis, the consequences of international conflicts and so much else, it can be difficult to maintain that sense of hope.

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Indeed, the legacies of Brexit and the pandemic still loom large in the everyday lives of Roma communities across Scotland. Issues and worries about residency and citizenship status that were produced by Brexit gave rise to fundamental insecurities that impacted on how families dealt with immediate issues of housing, education, health care and welfare, but also how people planned for what would be uncertain futures.

In a similar way, Covid-19 and lockdown served to underline some of the fault lines at play regarding the precarious nature of Roma belonging and inclusion in Scottish society. Moral panics were sharpened during the pandemic, with racist accusations of Roma as being “disease spreaders” returning to the fold. Meanwhile, families were enduring difficulties in terms of employment for themselves and securing education for their children.

The cost of living crisis has added to these existing pressures, and a recent survey conducted by Romano Lav reported that approximately 90% of respondents were experiencing financial insecurity and struggling to heat homes and having enough food on the table.

Against this backdrop, Roma in Scotland once more are set to gather from 12pm at Govanhill Park on Saturday, April 6 to celebrate the victories and organise for future challenges. The spirit of 1971 remains alive and international solidarity still matters. Opre Roma! (Arise Roma!).

Colin Clark is associate dean (research and innovation) and professor of sociology and social policy at the University of the West of Scotland. He is also a trustee of Romano Lav (Roma Voice).