ECMI Minorities Blog. Roma as Tokens? Reference Groups and the Practice of Deciding First and Informing After

Solvor Mjøberg Lauritzen, Jan Selling & Marko Stenroos
Image courtesy: / Denis Kuvaev

AuthorsSolvor Mjøberg Lauritzen, Jan Selling & Marko Stenroos   |

​​​​​​​* Dr. Solvor Mjøberg Lauritzen is assistant professor of Critical Romani Studies at Södertörn University, Stockholm, and associate professor of Education at MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion and Society, Oslo. She is currently leading the research group Critical Romani Studies at MF, and the RCN-funded project MEMOROBIA: Memorialisation of Romani enslavement in territories of contemporary Romania, where she focuses on the inclusion of slavery in European curricula. Her publications focus on Roma and education, peace education, and antigypsyism/anti-Romani racism.

* Dr. Jan Selling is associate professor, subject coordinator, and senior lecturer in Critical Romani Studies at Södertörn University. He is a profiled researcher in the field of antigypsyism studies. As a curator for the civil rights section of the RomArchive, together with leading international scholars, he researched the history of Roma and Sinti emancipation which has resulted in the 2022 monograph “Romani Liberation. A Northern Perspective on Emancipatory Struggles and Progress”. At Södertörn University he teaches Romani history, Romani rights, antigypsyism and comparative racism.

* Dr. Marko Stenroos received his Ph.D. in 2020 from Helsinki University in social and cultural anthropology, with a thesis entitled “Social orders, tensions and saviourism: An ethnography of Finnish Roma policy implementation”. He is currently a planning officer at the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, where he is developing the new Finnish national policy on Roma up to 2030. He has published on Roma policies and their implementation, Roma education, Roma participation, and Roma history.


Roma as tokens? Reference groups and the practice of deciding first and informing after 

“I was involved in all these things and talked to the municipalities, did the activity. Then they end and you think: What have we really done?”

The above quote comes from a participant in Valeria Radjepagic’s research on Roma youth participation in reference groups. According to Radjepagic “this is a quote showing that some of the Roma youth who have participated in my research believe that their work has not led to anything. (…) If you don’t see the result of your participation, then your motivation to participate can disappear.”

That research endeavour is linked to the Swedish 20-year strategy for Roma inclusion that was adopted in 2011. Half-way through the implementation process, in September 2021, the European Commission called on the member states to adopt national strategies based on a new framework. The Commission argued that the old inclusion paradigm has failed, and there was a need for a new course. The Swedish government, however, concluded in a report that the Swedish strategy would not be changed in any substantial way: “No revision (…) is deemed necessary with regard to the objective of promoting participation through empowerment, cooperation and trust.”

Ironically, this conclusion was followed by a summary of the critique put forward by the Roma Reference Group:

“The Government Office's Roma Reference Group shares this assessment but has pointed out that forms of participation and influence need to be improved. Often Roma influence and ownership is lost during the processes. This also implies the possibility to participate on equal terms, both in terms of being able to devote time to the work and being paid for it.”

In the following we will outline some of the critique made of the reference-group-system, focusing on limitations concerning agency and autonomy, the weight given to “organisations”, and discriminatory recruitment procedures. We will also discuss what the way forward could be, in order to reach the goal of quality participation proposed by the European Commission strategic framework for equality, inclusion and participation for 2020-2030


Roma deprived of agency in reference groups

In Sweden, national minority participation is regulated in the Act (2009:724) on National Minorities and Minority Languages, with paragraph 5 stating that responsible authorities shall both enable national minorities to have an influence on matters affecting them and consult them as far as possible on such matters. The consultation should take the form of structured dialogue. In addition, the obligation to consult with the Roma minority is also specified in the Swedish strategy for Roma inclusion, which promises that Roma participation and Roma empowerment will be ensured throughout the work.

To meet these obligations, different models of participation and consultation can be used. The commonly chosen model for the Roma minority is to create “reference groups”, but it has been criticized. A recent report by Stenroos, Jääskeläinen and Attias comparing the Nordic Roma strategies, concludes that

“Roma actors in Sweden do not feel that their involvement in Roma policy-making is meaningful and satisfactory. The monitoring group [reference group] receives the meeting documents related to Roma policy decisions for comment, but there are no Roma representatives at the actual meetings. A Roma representative describes the situation by saying ‘they invite us to the door but do not let us in’. The problem in this model is that the monitoring group works with finalised documents and policy decisions which the Roma members will be able to comment on, but not directly influence during their preparation” (p. 39). 

The previously quoted comment from The Government Office's Roma Reference Group regarding the European Commission strategic framework for equality, inclusion and participation for 2020-2030 is a clear example of this practice. It is obvious that the Roma Reference Group has been presented with a ready-made conclusion and asked to comment on this. The fact that the group, for example, argues that the forms of participation need to be improved, and that influence and ownership is lost in the process, is merely included as a comment and does not influence the actual conclusion. This is not a meaningful participation.

Following the principles of meaningful participation, the involvement in the procedures of decision making is equally important to being present when the decision is being made. Without being part of the processes, the participation easily becomes phony.

A consequence of this “decide first - inform after”-model is, according to the 2020 Civil society monitoring report on implementation of the national Roma integration strategy in Sweden, the general inefficiency of the Strategy:  

“The Roma do not see logic or motivation in receiving the measures offered when they are not anchored with them. (...) At the same time, the Roma are deprived of agency and options to take responsibility for their own opportunities, since resource distribution and power hierarchies entails the power of initiative will always be on society’s terms. Therefore, the measures will be ineffective and not leading to any results.”

The above quote also points out how existing power hierarchies contribute to the ineffectiveness of the current reference group system.


The emphasis on “organisations”

The weakness and fragmentation of Roma NGOs in Sweden were also identified as causes for the problems related to representation and actual influence over policy-making. According to Wickman’s inquiry of 2019, the Swedish inclusion strategy will fail if the system is not changed. The inquiry proposes the establishment of an Agency for Roma Issues, with real Roma influence and a declared mission to strengthen Roma NGOs. Specifically, the inquiry suggested that the Agency should

“initiate, promote and support measures to increase the empowerment and influence of the Roma minority, with a particular responsibility to empower women and children and young people; contribute to the further development of Roma civil society by implementing various activities; and organise a regular national gathering where Roma minority organisations, activists and other experts from and representatives of the minority can meet and discuss issues of importance to the minority”

On this point, the inquiry echoes the Delegation for Roma Issues 2006-2010 which was the first major inquiry adapting a full-fledged rights perspective and making serious efforts to integrate Roma persons in policy development. The final report of the Delegation had an extensive and quite radical catalogue of measures aiming at equal rights for Roma. To safeguard its implementation, an Agency for Roma Issues was suggested, following the model of the Finnish Roma Delegation, which creates a permanent interface between Roma civil society and government agencies.

The Delegation, however, had been established by the social-democratic government shortly before it was replaced by a centre-right government. This political shift did not influence the autonomous work of the Delegation, but it changed the preconditions for the realization of its demands. In 2011 the centre-right government decided to launch the "Roma inclusion strategy", although without taking into account several of the recommendations made by the Delegation. Above all: the idea of empowering Roma through a permanent Secretariat, which should provide actual monitoring power and influence over the inclusion policy, was investigated twice and then dropped without any alternative.

As Roma in Sweden do not have NGOs of strength comparable to that of, for example, the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, the power disadvantage identified by the Delegation persists. Still, Swedish authorities continue to emphasise “Romani organisations” in their collaborations with Roma civil society, turning a blind eye to the fact that the system does not work.

This is problematic both because it leaves out critically important voices from the Roma minority who are not associated with an organisation, and because it encourages the rapid creation of new organisations with few members and activities, as this is what is needed to be selected as a reference person. Commonly, the same persons reoccur in different “reference groups”, whereas Roma without affiliation to an organisation have little chance of being heard. This is a challenge for democratization of the participation processes among Roma and enables the gate-keeping system.

To take the launch of the latest FRA-report as an example. The Raoul Wallenberg Institute was responsible for the launches in different cities, in, using their own words, “close cooperation with Roma civil society”. Five Romani organisations are listed as collaborators. Only two of them have webpages including the names of individual members, making it close to impossible to understand what such organisations do, and what individuals work in them. It also seems that several organisations are run and represented by persons from the same sub-group and family, the geographical representation is limited to two cities, and three groups were completely left out, including the two largest Resande (Travellers) and Arli. But this is just one example.


Recruitment procedures

In the latest call for participants in the Government Office's Roma Reference Group, Roma are encouraged to nominate candidates. At the same time, it is emphasised that “only persons with competence in Romani language and culture may propose participants”. This is highly problematic from a democratic point of view.

Roma in Sweden is a highly heterogeneous minority, often described as comprised of different sub-groups. The two oldest and most endangered Romani dialects in Sweden are Swedish Romani (Scandiromani) and Finnish Romani (Kaale). Forced assimilation and harsh discrimination has led to a situation where the languages have become almost extinct, and many Roma from these groups have been deprived of the opportunity to learn their language.

Making linguistic competence in Romani chib a prerequisite for nominating candidates directly discriminates these two groups of Roma, and a likely result is that the perspectives from these group are not sufficiently represented in the reference groups.


Recommendations towards achieving Roma autonomy

In 2021, the European Commission concluded that the old inclusion paradigm has failed and called on member states to adopt national strategies based on a new framework, which would ensure quality participation. As already mentioned, according to the Swedish government “No revision (…) is deemed necessary”. Considering evaluations, research outputs and critical Romani voices, we argue that there is a need to brush the dust off the report by the Delegation for Roma Issues 2006-2010, and reconsider the recommendations made there.

If Roma are to have real influence over decisions made about Roma, there is a need to move away from the present practice of reference groups. Therefore, we recommend:

  • Roma should be involved in all stages of decision-making processes, including the preparation phase, instead of only being informed when decisions are made. The Delegation for Roma Issues 2006-2010, the White Paper (2011-2014) as well as the Commission Against Antiziganism (2014-2016) employed a thorough dialectic working-group process involving Roma, which could be used for inspiration.
  • When reference persons are consulted, they should be selected on the basis of formal competence rather than based on a more-or-less permanent membership in reference-group, work or memberships in organisations. University-educated Roma must be heard and considered.
  • To consider establishing an Agency for Roma Issues following the model of the Finnish Roma Delegation


This blog post was prepared by the author in their personal capacity. The views expressed in this blog post are the sole responsibility of the author concerned and do not reflect the view of the European Centre for Minority Issues.


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