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Andrzej Mirga: We should be cautious about making empty claims

Czech Republic, 23.5.2013 6:44, (Romano vod'i)
Andrzej Mirga (PHOTO:
Andrzej Mirga (PHOTO:

First Roma university student in Poland

Andrzej Mirga was born in 1954 in the small Roma hamlet of Czarna Gora, Poland. He was the first Roma student ever to study at Jagellon University in Krakow, specializing in ethnography. He also taught there from 1980 – 1992.

Another ethnology student at the university remembers first meeting Mirga as follows:  "As a student of ethnology I initiated research into the Romani settlement in Czarna Gora. I was interested in the Mirga family (Andrzej's parents) there. I slept in their home and ate every meal with them whenever I went to the Polská Spiš area. At the time Andrzej was attending high school in Nowy Targ. His father worked during the week in Czechoslovakia and commuted home every Friday evening. He also served the function of the settlement chief. During the era of the separate Slovak state he had fought in the war and been a member of the Slovak National Uprising. He wanted Andrzej to become a lawyer. After Andrzej, graduated from high school they sent him to take the entrance exams at the law faculty. On that day the Bialka Tatrzanska river flooded, the bridge collapsed, and Andrzej's father carried him across the river on his back to the bus so he could make it to the exam on time. He didn't get in, so he decided to try the ethnology department the next year, as he personally knew the professors who came to the Spiš area to do research. Andrzej was a good student and also a brilliant mountain climber. He had an only one accident, in the Alps, where he broke his jaw. His graduate thesis was on the topic of 'Spiš Highlander Perceptions of Gypsies'. Later he became an assistant professor in the ethnology department, where he worked until about 1990 or so. He was writing his doctorate on the topic of state policy on Roma, but he was overwhelmed with work in the Roma Association and never finished it. After the 1989 revolution he was very active in the Roma Association at Auschwitz."

After his work as an educator, Andrzej Mirga decided to work on behalf of the Roma community. He held various offices in several international Roma organizations and advisory bodies. After the fall of communism he was a co-founder of the first Roma association in Poland, which he directed from 1991-1995. As an association member he played an essential role as a mediator during the case of a violent mob attack on Romani people in the town of Mlawa in 1991. He was also the organizer of two historical commemorations on the occasion of remembering the Roma Holocaust, one in 1993 and one in 1994 at Auschwitz-Birkenau and in Krakow. In 1995 he represented Romani people at a Days of Remembrance ceremony in Washington D.C.

Mirga reminisced about the start of his political activities in an interview with Jens-Hagen Eschenbaecher as follows:  "Actually the establishment of the Contact Point for Roma and Sinti as part of ODIHR (the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights at the OSCE) in 1994 was an historic event in and of itself. It was the first time an international organization had created a structure exclusively devoted to Roma and Sinti affairs. The OSCE was one of the first organizations to describe the specific problems of that community, whose circumstances had sharply deteriorated in the late 1980s and early 1990s after the fall of communism and during the war in Yugoslavia. Another milestone was the adoption of the Action Plan for Roma and Sinti by the OSCE at a meeting of its Council of Ministers in Maastricht in 2003. That plan, which was consulted in detail with Roma representatives, was considered a fundamental success. It provided the member governments with guidelines for creating strategies to target improvements to the lives of members of the Roma and Sinti communities in the OSCE area." 

Testimony to the US Congress

Andrzej Mirga spent a total of three academic years (1999-2011) at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Together with Nicolae Gheorghe, he wrote and published the important political study "Roma in the 21st Century:  Political Strategies". He also repeatedly testified to the Helsinki Commission of the US Congress about the situation of Roma in Central and Southeastern Europe, first in 1994 and then several times over the course of the next 14 years as part of the Project on Ethnic Relations.

Slovak Government Plenipotentiary for Roma Affairs Miroslav Pollák met with Mirga last year in Bratislava and says his focus is on the actual implementation of integration measures and strategies, emphasizing active cooperation directly with Romani representatives. "What he was mainly interested in was the strategy for Roma integration up to 2020, because that is currently a topic for all of Europe and evaluation of those strategies is underway. Naturally he was very interested in whether the Roma themselves were being cooperated with, whether that cooperation was transparent, whether there was an ongoing discussion of the strategy, whether any kind of evaluation process would follow the implementation, what the community's stand on the issue was, and in general how the documentation of the process was designed," Pollák said.

The situation is not improving

Currently Andrzej Mirga is working as an activist and adviser on Roma and Sinti affairs at the OSCE. He was appointed to that position in 2007, replacing Nicolae Gheorghe. He is also the director of the Contact Point for Roma and Sinti Affairs at the Warsaw office of ODIHR. He lectures and writes on Roma and Sinti topics. After his many years of activism and political work, he does not not see today's situation as rosy, saying:

"Everyone knows that the gap between majority societies and Romani people is enormous in most countries in all aspects of life. This fact was clearly attested by a report on the situation of Roma and Sinti published by ODIHR in 2008. Discrimination and exclusion are an integral component of the everyday lives of Roma and Sinti. Every day they are confronted with racially motivated violence, unemployment, poverty, low levels of educational achievement and in some places with high rates of child mortality. Nevertheless, the overall picture is not completely dismal. Generally speaking, there is a much more widespread awareness of these persistent problems than there was a few years ago. New laws and political strategies have been adopted. In many states subsidies supporting Roma integration have been increased." 

When asked which stereotypes about Roma are the most dangerous, Mirga said:  "One of the most frequent stereotypes is that Roma suffer from a predisposition to criminal behavior. All my life I have heard the most unbelievable hyperbole about statistics on so-called 'Roma crime'. I'm not saying Roma people have never broken the law, but we should be cautious  about making empty claims about Roma and crime in general."  

Adéla Gálová, Adam Bartosz, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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