The first steps of the Finnish Roma civil rights movement
In order to understand the rise of the Finnish Roma movement, it is necessary to look at the Gypsy Mission, established by Oskari Jalkio, together with a number of evangelical friends. The role of the Mission is important, since the rise of Roma activism can be considered as a counter-weight to the Gypsy Mission’s assimilation policies following WWII (1939 – 1945). The Gypsy Mission still exists today, renamed the Romano Missio (Romani Mission), however, its role in history of Finnish Roma politics is critically examined. One perspective emphasizes its pioneering status, and another, its negative and assimilation policies. Whichever perspective is adopted, the overall attitudes and social ‘norms’ of different eras need to be remembered, in order to understand the social and political conditions of the time.
After 1945, the Mission’s aim was to be linked directly to the national church and the Finnish government. According to Hinkkanen (2014), during the years 1947-1966 there were five priests on the Mission’s board in total, with four of those from the Evangelical Free Church of Finland. Maintaining the connections to the state, there were also three members of parliament on the Gypsy Mission’s management board, during that period, whilst two of them were appointed as Minister for Social Affairs. Through these connections between civil society and government, we are able to observe the role of social networks, from the perspective of power and domination. During this time, only one or two of the board members were from the Roma community (Hinkkanen, 2013: 18). It wasn’t only a question of a lack of representation of Roma people on the Mission’s board of directors, but also of the ideology of assimilation that informed its work. The model for the Mission’s practices came from the Norway. In Norway, the Norsk Misjon blant hjemløse association established work camps, family camps and children’s homes. Between Finland and Norway in 1948 and 1949, mutual study visits took place and the Gypsy Mission was advised to establish a strong relationship with Finnish governmental bodies and a children’s home for Roma children, to start moulding them into ‘normal citizens’ from an early age. At the outset, the Gypsy Mission struggled to deliver its plans for the camps and a children’s home. There was, however, at least one work camp established for Roma in 1943 (Hinkkanen, 2013). Roma activist, Väinö Lindberg, remembers visiting his father in that kind of work camp. He also remembers the starvation people were suffering from during that time. Lindberg has been active in Roma politics since the early 1970’s, and is still member of the National Advisory Board on Romani Affairs.
The Ministry of Social Affairs received the first action plan, from the working group in the Gypsy Mission, in 1949. Regardless of the connections and the positive attitudes from the Ministry, the budget with the application was rejected. The Gypsy Mission didn’t give up, and in 1951, “...the Gypsy issue as a racial issue” was noted in the state budget, with a plan to establish camps and children’s homes, precisely like those in Norway. In 1953, the first Roma children’s home was established, with the purpose of removing children from Roma parents, in order to reduce the “...negative influence” of Roma culture and language, and to adjust children to ‘normal’ society. Grönfors (2012), has written about children’s experiences of the children’s home, and many were at least quasi-assimilated.
The year of 1953 was a successful one for the Gypsy Mission, as it was now in the position to influence Roma policies and had a substantial budget for its activities. During the same year, a government committee for Roma issues (the Gypsy Committee or Mustalaiskomitea) was established, with no single representative from the Roma community, but a strong presence from the Gypsy Mission. This Committee acted during the years 1953-1955 and was also known by the name of its leader, as (Paavo) Mustala’s Committee. It influenced Roma policy until 1968 (Friman-Korpela, 2012:211) and was established initially as a temporary body, to study the social conditions of the Roma in Finland. A permanent Mustalaisasiain neuvottelukunta, or Gypsy Advisory Board followed in 1956. During its first two decades, the practices and policies of this Gypsy Advisory Board amounted to an anti-Roma agenda. In its first decade, it had been criticized by Sweden’s Roma activists, but the Gypsy Advisory Board persisted and in 1965, proposed the creation of an ethnic register of Roma people (Friman-Korpela, 2012: 213-214). As it was in 1956, the modern Advisory Board is overseen by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, whilst its official name has been changed to the National Advisory Board on Romani Affairs more recently. According to Friman-Korpela (2012), it is due to this earlier Advisory Board of the 1950’s, that we have a governmental body for Roma issues today in Finland.
Following the co-operation of Mustala’s Committee and the Gypsy Mission, power and resources were concentrated in the hands of those considered harmful by many Roma. These two bodies, the Gypsy Committee (Mustalaiskomitea) and the Gypsy Mission, as both government and the non-governmental organisation sector, had a clear vision regarding the assimilation of Finnish Roma. The actions by, and the aims of the Gypsy Mission did not go unnoticed among Finnish Roma. In 1946, a Kaalo man, Ferdinand Nikkinen, had collected the signatures of 364 Roma people, on a petition to the Ministry of the Interior, criticizing the actions of the Mission and demanding an end to them. Roma activists also demanded a removal of the control over Roma policies from religious bodies, and a shift in responsibility to the national state institutions. Missionary work amongst Finnish Roma should not be done as part of a process of assimilation, he argued.
Considering the time and the means of communication in that era, the work of Nikkinen was remarkable and demonstrates the profound concerns the Roma population had about the assimilation policies practiced by the Mission and justified by the state. The letter with these 364 signatures appeared not to make any difference to the situation, however, as Roma voices were not listened to. By 1963, the Gypsy Mission had already established three separate children’s homes, funded by the government and local municipalities, such as Helsinki and Espoo. Visits by Roma parents were strictly limited. Being considered ‘outsiders’ by the Roma community, but also from Finnish society, these Roma children faced exclusion from all sides. Roma customs are learnt at home, but the children at these children’s homes didn’t have a chance to learn the cultural nuances, which made their attempts to return to the Roma community, at a later stage, more complicated. One of those who grew up in these children’s homes, reported that he felt lucky to find a Roma support person, as a mentor after leaving the children’s home, from whom he learnt about Romani culture and language.
As a result of Nikkinen’s actions, the first Roma association was officially established in 1953, the Romanengo Staggos – Romanien Liitto many of its members being Roma. It is noteworthy that the word Roma was used, replacing the term Mustalainen in the political discourse of Roma activism. The first moves toward human rights, civil rights and Roma rights can be read in the stated mission of Romanengo Staggos with its focus on social and cultural justice. Nikkinen renewed this signed statement, for the Ministry of Interior in 1955, because he felt that the voice of the Roma had disappeared in the earlier governmental structures. The response from the Ministry was again discouraging, who described Roma as, “Just a small minority group, to invest on small errands” (Hinkkanen, 2013). The Association slowly faded away; they lacked the resources of the Gypsy Mission, and governmental connections to influence Roma policy. Interview of Ferdinand Nikkinen’s son, Reima. The only concession from the government side was when they invited the Roma farmer, Viljo Mäntyniemi, to become the first and only Romani member of the Gypsy Advisory Board. Mäntyniemi was also the chair of Romanengo Staggos. At that time, part of his acceptance rested upon his membership of the Gypsy Mission. The journalist Gunni Nordström recalls how Viljo Mäntyniemi was “...like a hostage” on the Gypsy Advisory Board, but nevertheless, he was able to stop plans to build segregated Roma villages in Finland.