Harper to study Roma human rights issues in European Union

By Regina Lynch

Krista Harper, assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Center for Public Policy and Administration, will study Roma human rights advances and attitudes in Eastern Europe next semester as a European Union Policy Affairs Research Fellow.

Harper, who will conduct her studies in Hungary and Belgium, is the first anthropologist to receive the fellowship from the Fulbright Scholar Program.

Roma, commonly misidentified as Gypsies, migrated to Europe from the Indian subcontinent in the 14th century and have long been regarded as outsiders and nomads by other Europeans. “This perception leads the majority to believe they don’t have to care for them,” says Harper.

Anti-Roma persecution peaked in the early 1940s, when the Nazis targeted them for extermination. The death toll has been estimated as high as 220,000. More recently, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and widespread unemployment rekindled anti-Roma hostility around the continent. Roma “still face discrimination and persecution every day,” says Harper, and they are “so romanticized in popular imagination that many Americans don’t realize they are an ethnic group.”

In her project, titled “On the Margins of Europe: Roma Human Rights Movements and the European Union’s Eastern Enlargement,” Harper will study what the prospects are for Roma social change in the coming decade. The bulk of Harper’s field work will consist of interviews with Roma rights activists and public officials in Hungary and Belgium. In addition, she will do documentary research focusing on media coverage, archival sources and secondary sources in Hungarian.

Harper is planning on returning to her project in the 2006-07 academic year, when she will supervise the anthropology department’s European field study program. She hopes to bring Roma scholars and activists to work at the Center for Public Policy and Administration and recruit Roma students from Eastern Europe to study there. Harper also plans to write a book based on her study and possibly create a documentary film. “Most films about Romas are either about music and dancing or abject misery,” says Harper. “It would be nice to produce film images in collaboration with Roma activists and scholars to present Roma communities and to challenge stereotypes.”

While in Hungary, which just recently joined the EU in May 2004, Harper will spend three and a half months conducting research based at the Minority Research Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest. There, she will research different levels of Roma civil rights movements, from grass roots groups to international organizations. Specifically, Harper plans to study Roma activist and institutional responses to recent media controversies around health disparities and women’s reproductive health. “This is a human rights issue, with Romas having shorter life expectancies than the majority sometimes by as much as 10 years,” says Harper.

In the final six weeks of her project, Harper will work as a visiting researcher at the Institute for International and European Policy at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, where a group of scholars is working on minority rights in the European Union. Harper will focus on how Roma activists will approach possibilities and problems that come with being part of the EU, with Bulgaria and Romania, two more countries with large Roma populations, slated to join within the next four-to-five years. “In 10 years there will be over 3 million Roma citizens in the EU,” Harper says. “It is important to understand them as a minority now.” Harper will focus her research in Belgium on what kind of identity the Roma will try to promote and how their vision might differ from those in the EU bureaucracy.

The European Union Policy Affairs Research Fellowship allows scholars to go to EU countries and conduct research in Belgium on EU institutions. Harper has been working in Eastern Europe for more than 10 years and studied in Hungary in 1996 as a student on a Fulbright scholarship.