Roma Civil Rights movement


Marko Stenroos

The Roma civil rights movement as a counter-weight for religious assimilation in Finland


Minority rights began to be formally recognized in Finland, during the 1960’s (Pulma, 2006). The Roma civil rights movement followed the international movement for human rights. The United Nations adopted the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1965,1 partly due to the impact of the African-American civil rights movement. Although the Roma civil rights movement built upon this momentum, simultaneously with the positive commitment of international organizations, Roma activism has its foundations in the resistance to religious assimilation policies and practices from 1900. During the 1940’s criticisms were directed towards the Gypsy Mission, established in 1906 at Tampere. Roma agency and activism emerged as a counterweight to assimilation policies applied by the majority Finnish government.

The first Roma association, Romanien Liitto – Romanengo Staggos was established by Ferdinand Nikkinen, in 1953, as a response to, and criticism of these ongoing policies. This Roma association didn’t achieve the influence and political position to improve the lives of Finnish Kaale Roma, but it was a basis for the work of the next Roma association – Mustalaisyhdistys (the Finnish Gypsy Association), established in 1967, which reached an influential position and had an impact upon Roma policy and politics, some ten years after Romanengo Staggos. This second initiative made it possible for Roma to stand up for their equal rights. As a result, there are two characteristics of the Roma civil rights movement in 1960’s that can be distinguished; an action-based model, drawing inspiration from Swedish Roma activism, and one that sought co-operation with the influential and skilled non-Roma working together with Roma, for mutual goals.

Translation of the names:
Mustalaiskomitea, Gypsy Committee, est. 1953 – 1956. Leader Paavo Mustala
Mustalaisasiain neuvottelukunta, Gypsy Advisory Board, est. 1956 – 1967
Romaniasiain neuvottelukunta, Romani Advisory Board, est. 1968 – today, now the National Advisory Board on Romani Affairs
Mustalaislähetys, Gypsy Mission, est. 1906, today Romano Mission
Mustalaisyhdistys, Finnish Gypsy Association, est. 1967 – today, now the Finnish Roma Association

From Mustalainen (Gypsy) to Roma – one achievement of Roma activism in Finland

In this article, the word Mustalainen (Gypsy) is used (historically) only in the names of Roma associations, when reviewing the time before these names were officially changed. Self-determination is not a self-evident right of any minority group, and the current self-ascription of Roma is an outcome of ethno-political struggle, although it is still contested, both academically and in the popular public discourse. In Finland, the process of determining the naming of one’s ethnicity, is an example of the success of Roma rights and the ability of Roma to decide about their own issues. According to research done in Finland (2008), 80% of Finnish people prefer to use the word Mustalainen, regardless of its pejorative associations, just because they are used to do so (Friman-Korpela, 2014, 53). Although the term Mustalainen was common during earlier eras, the word will not be used in this text to refer Roma. The question of terminology is not without dispute in European Roma communities, but in the Finnish context (as in many other countries across Europe), Mustalainen is regarded pejorative and has a distinct racial connotation, referring to skin color (musta means black) and therefore shouldn’t be used. As an example, although the modern Finnish Roma Association was originally called Suomen mustalaisyhdistys (Finnish Gypsy Association) , the word Mustalainen was never used in their documents.

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 StaggosRomanien 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 “ a hostage” on the Gypsy Advisory Board, but nevertheless, he was able to stop plans to build segregated Roma villages in Finland.2

Strengthening the Finnish Roma movement: the emergence of a new Roma association

A group of activists (Roma and non-Roma) established a new Roma association in 1967, the Finnish Gypsy Association (Suomen Mustalaisyhdistyksen – Finlands Zigenarförening ry). The aims of the association were to achieve an overall improvement of the living conditions of the Roma, change attitudes towards Roma through work on anti-discrimination campaigns and to foster the cultural traditions of Roma in Finland. The Association also published journal, called Zirikli. The first management group consisted of the chairperson, journalist Kari Huttunen, and the members of parliament Georg Backlund, Gun Hemming, Taisto Kentz, Allan Nyman, Kristina Olsoni, Jacob Söderman (who later became Minister of Justice in 1971, and chairperson of the Advisory Board). Also on the management board was artist and singer Anneli Sari (external link). The official founding meeting was held at the end of 1967, at Svenska Social och Kommunalhögskolan, where Jacob Söderman worked at that time. Söderman had studied law, which enabled him to address human rights issues in a professional way. Ferdinand Nikkinen, who had established Romanengo Staggos some 10 years earlier, participated in the first meeting of this Association together with his son, Reima Nikkinen, who went on to become active in Roma politics. The chairperson, Kari Huttunen, was also active in Roma issues, Romani language and culture. He initiated negotiations with the Gypsy Advisory Board and demanded changes in Roma policies, beginning a new era in Roma politics. How this association differed from the Gypsy Mission is in the participation and role of the Roma within it.

When evaluating the reasons why Roma were re-organizing during the 1960’s, attention must be paid first of all towards the situation in Sweden. Sweden had modified its Roma policies in 1960 and by 1967, all Swedish Roma had the right to permanent housing, whilst other resources were allocated to support Roma. Meanwhile, the Roma in Finland were still living in very poor conditions, without equal rights. The impact of ‘push and pull factors’ were clear; more and more Finnish Roma began to migrate to Sweden in the hope of better living conditions, made possible as the prohibition against Roma immigration was removed in 1954.3 As this percentage was relatively high, and the Swedish press started to take an interest in the case of the Finnish Roma. This attention put pressure upon the Finnish government to address their “Roma problem”. At the same time, societal attitudes internationally supported and encouraged more attention being paid to the civil rights of differing minority groups. The movement amongst African-American civil rights activists, is a good example of the mentality of that era. In 1970, the Finnish government did introduce an initiative to include racial discrimination in the national criminal code (Friman-Korpela, 2012: 217).

Two factors influenced the emergence of an active Roma politics at the close of 1960’s; a common understanding of the benefits of improving conditions, both by the Roma and non-Roma, and the attention given to the situation of Finnish Roma, from Sweden. When a common approach was found between Roma activists and those people in the powerful positions in the Finnish society, the Finnish Gypsy Association had something that Romanengo Staggos lacked, in governmental connections, an established position amongst Roma and the Finnish authorities and, at some points, better resources. However, during this time, the Gypsy Advisory Board remained strongly influenced by the policies and practices of the Gypsy Mission, and the Gypsy Committee, with money and resources flowing to children’s homes for Finnish Roma and not actually benefitting the Roma population. Critics from Sweden directed their concerns to the Gypsy Advisory Board, but were unable to improve the situation of the Roma.

The second factor was the concern expressed about the plight of Finland’s Roma, in Sweden. Katarina Taikon, had published an autobiography in 1963, and through that became a major figure in Roma activism. Gunni Norström was deeply influenced by the book and became interested in issues faced by Finnish Roma in Sweden. Nordström was actively involved with Roma politics, both in Finland and in Sweden. It was her idea to invite Katarina Taikon to visit Helsinki, to give a speech in 1966. Taikon’s presence and the message she brought, was so powerful and clear that the Finnish press and authorities began to pay attention. When the chair of the Gypsy Advisory Board, Paavo Mustala, shared the stage with Katarina Taikon during her address, Katarina started to poke him in the stomach, saying, “We are society – you and me. You cannot treat Roma like that. You have to recognize your mistakes and correct them” (Nordström, 2012). The leader of the Gypsy Advisory Board, Paavo Mustala, resigned in 1968 and the Finnish government set up a new Romaniasiain neuvottelukunta, or Romani Advisory Board. Katarina Taikon gave great encouragement to the establishing of the Finnish Gypsy Association and to a change in Roma politics, in Finland.

Enough of soup, preaching for the Roma

Reima Nikkinen said to Jacob Söderman that the ‘soup and preaching’ approach was not doing any good for Roma (Hinkkanen, 2013: 36). The first years of the Finnish Gypsy Association were very busy. In a repeat of the methods of Ferdinand Nikkinen, the Association sent a new petition to the Finnish government. The decision to send the petition was made in the inaugural meeting in 1967 and in 1968, and when petition was ready, there were 533 Roma signatures. This petition set out a manifesto for the equal rights, fighting discrimination in Finnish society, and paying special attention to the problem of housing for the Roma. The petition was handed in to the Prime Minister at the time, Mauno Koivisto, who later became the President of Finland. A TV documentary (external link) about Roma struggle was broadcasted by Yle TV in 1973, where this moment of handing in the petition was recorded. This documentary, amongst other works by journalists and TV reporters, played a significant role in promoting Roma issues to the wider public. Opinion was also influenced by Hortto Kaalo, a Romani band, which released a song with a strong political message about Roma rights.4

Kari Huttunen continued as a chair of the second board of Finnish Gypsy Association. Unfortunately, there was also dispute at this time, within the Association. Veijo Baltzar, who had been a member, moved to the Gypsy Mission and accused the Association of being ruined by Communists, impacting negatively on Romani lives. Baltzar worked as a press secretary for the Gypsy Mission and published an article in Nya Pressen in 1970, about the Association and its connections to Communism. The Gypsy Mission requested Söderman to be dismissed from the government Advisory Board (Halmetoja & Pulma, 2012: 238); Gunni Nordström recalls that the propaganda against the Finnish Gypsy Association and Communism started immediately after its first official meetings.5 Commenting on this episode, Söderman has stated (Hinkkanen 2013: 32) that “ politics didn’t have anything to do with the setting up of a Roma association. It was established because a group of active people wanted to improve the lives of Roma...”. Whatever the case, Roma involvement with national party politics might have sent a strong message to majority Finns about the demand for equal citizenship.

In 1968, the journalists Evert Kumm and Gunni Nordström-Holm visited a meeting of the Finnish Gypsy Association. This was the beginning of the Nordic co-operation that increased the pressure on the Romani Advisory Board (Romaniasiain neuvottelukunta) and Gypsy Mission. The Nordic Roma Council (est. 1973 as Pohjoismaiden romanineuvosto, or Nordiska rådet) influenced Roma policies, especially during the 1970’s – 1980’s. One of the central figures was Finnish Romani, Aleka Stobin, who was active both in the Nordic Roma Council and in Stockholm’s Finnish Roma Association (est. 1972). According to Nordström6, Roma associations in both Sweden and Finland were advocating the recommendations made by the Nordic Roma Council, but which both governments experienced as challenging to implement. As a journalist Nordström published many articles about Roma in Sweden and Finland. The problem in Sweden was that Finnish Roma were considered as immigrants, not as an ethnic minority similar to Swedish Roma, and they didn’t receive the same status as Swedish Roma, but instead had to rely on the services of the Swedish Immigration Office (Nordström, 2012: 199-200). In interviews conducted with Roma who moved to Sweden in 1960’s, as teenagers and adults, they described moving to Sweden as “...moving to paradise” or “ felt like moving to America”. Although Finnish Roma didn’t have the same minority rights as Swedish Roma, many of them secured apartments and they could get work. They were not discriminated against and marginalized as in Finland, where they had nothing. Nordström defines the Finnish Roma in Sweden at that time as socio-political refugees.

The migration of Finnish Roma to Sweden, for better living standards, positively impacted upon policies towards Roma in both countries. This strongly influenced Roma social, political and economic issues and created the necessary ties for co-operation between Sweden and Finland. This process was even more meaningful for the Finnish Roma, as much good practice came from Sweden. Most noticeable were the changes in the improvement of Roma housing. In 1969, a study about Roma housing problems and social conditions was conducted by Helsinki University, as the new Romani Advisory Board began its work in 1968. As a result, municipalities started to receive funds from the state to improve Roma housing. This model was adopted from Sweden and the law (huoltolaki), was changed through the efforts from the new Advisory Board. In 1975, another law to improve Roma housing conditions was passed (Tervonen, 2012: 193). Improving Roma housing was one of the biggest achievements of that time. Although the policies of the 1940’s and the 1950’s had aimed for that, Finland managed to avoid creating Roma ghettos.

International Roma politics and activism

The international Roma movement reached Finland in the 1970’s. According to Friman-Korpela (2012, 232 - 234), the Romani Advisory Board was initially reserved and cautious about creating international connections. A flag for the Romani people was approved at the International Romani Union’s (IRU) First World Romani Congress in London” (1971), but wasn’t openly acknowledged by Finnish Kaale until the 2000’s. Although Friman-Korpela suggests that the connection to the international movement wasn’t systematic, there was some co-operation. Voitto Ahlgren and Taito Lehmusta participated in the IRU’s “Fourth World Romani Congress” in 1990. Finnish Roma also participated in a Roma summer school that year, in Vienna, Austria and there it was agreed that the next summer school would be arranged in Finland. In 1991, the Roma summer school took place in Karjaa, organized by the Finnish Roma Association, Nordic Roma Council and IRU.

Although the government’s Romani Advisory Board had some reservations about the international movement, the Finnish Gypsy Association had their own international connections. Aleka Stobin, from the Nordic Roma Council was one of the main coordinators for Finnish Roma to participate in the International Roma conference and cultural festival, in 1976 in Chandigarh, India, which was marked by a meeting with the then Prime Minister Smt. Indira Gandhi. The conference was arranged by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR). Step by step Roma policies focused more on maintaining and empowering Roma culture instead of controlling and assimilating Roma. In Romani Studies, Saga Weckman, a Finnish Romani woman, published the article, “Researching Finnish Gypsies: Advice from a Gypsy” (external link), in a Finnish anthropological journal in 1978.

Roma politics and activism after 1970’s

According to Friman-Korpela (2012; 2014), Roma policies in Finland were directed at a politics of control through the 1950’s and until 1960’s, Roma voices were mostly silenced by national policies. After 1945, Finland saw a determined period of assimilation policies by the church and by the nation state. During the 1970’s the living standards and social wellbeing of the Roma started to improve significantly, mostly because of the empowered Roma activism and a general recognition of the global importance of human rights.

After joining the European Union, the government’s National Advisory Board for Romani Affairs became more and more connected with European level Roma politics, creating strategies for Roma inclusion, and participating in the European Roma movement. In 2001, when Tarja Halonen, President of Finland, gave an address to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, proposing that “...serious consideration be given to the need to create, for the Roma, some kind of consultative assembly to represent them on the pan-European level”. As an result, the Council of Europe established the European Roma and Travellers Forum (ERTF) was created in 2004. Vice President of the ERTF was Finnish Roma, Miranda Vuolasranta, who has actively been involved with Roma issues at both national and EU level for many years. Following the initiative of President Halonen, an umbrella organization for Roma associations was established in 2007, the Suomen Romanifoorumi (Fintiko Romano Forum – The National Roma Forum of Finland). Vuolasranta was appointed the first chairperson of the management board of Fintiko Romano Forum. Simultaneously with EU Roma issues, Roma identity in Finland was emphasized and strengthened when, in 2003, a monument dedicated to Roma who died in the war between 1939-1945, was unveiled. The Finnish Roma inclusion strategy (2010-2017), states that “The vision of the programme is that Finland will in 2017 be a forerunner in Europe, in promoting the equal treatment and the inclusion of the Roma population”. Although the first Roma strategy did little to recognise or address the dimension of migration, the next volume of the policy aims to tackle the problems of migrant Roma from the EU. Today, the situation of the Roma from eastern, south-eastern and central Europe in Finland, resembles the situation of Finnish Roma in Sweden, in the past:

“Since 2008 the EU Roma citizens from Eastern Europe, particularly from Romania and Bulgaria, have been migrating to Finland, especially to the capital city, Helsinki. The LERI local team in Helsinki, decided to focus on the rights of the Roma migrants, since the responses towards their human rights situations are much more narrowed. The 200-300 Roma migrants in Helsinki generally encounter homelessness, unemployment, violence, discrimination and exclusion...”7 (Saarinen, Puurunen, Markkanen & Enache, forthcoming: 2018)

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