Saturday, July 14, 2012


Europe still struggles to get to grips with Roma community

“Scorned” first for their ethnic identity and cultural heritage and then, “cursed” again for daring to leave the countries in which they face prejudice, Rudo Kawczynski, President of the European Roma and Travellers Forum has warned of a new wave of Roma-phobia. He is certainly not wrong in condemning Europe for its failure to address the staunch anti-Roma convictions currently running through the EU.



PHOTO   Flikr - ultimcodex, 2009

Around 10 – 12 million Roma - Europe’s largest ethnic minority, still face animosity, social exclusion and discrimination. European leaders have had little success in encouraging effective inclusion strategies among EU Member States. As such, the Roma have continued to live in poverty on the margins of society. Many Roma children can be found on the streets instead of a nurturing school environment and Roma women are still victims of archaic attitudes to the point where they suffer from several forms of violence without even recognising it, suggested by Indira Bajramovic, a pioneer for Roma women’s rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Consequently in some cases, Roma poverty rates are more than 10 times that of non-Roma living in close proximity due to the lack of service access.


Reasons why Roma have continued to be at the core of poverty and exclusion are intertwined. Low education levels – according to reports published by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights and the United Nations Development Programme, only 15% of young Roma adults (surveyed) have completed upper-secondary general or vocational education, compared with more than 70% of the majority population living nearby. Furthermore, Roma are disproportionately overrepresented among low-skilled jobs, with around 30% of Roma (surveyed) in paid employment. These statistics paint quite a morose picture of the current situation and echo the need for the EU at all levels to take action or risk leaving an entire population in circular impoverishment, particularly as policies and interventions to circumvent exclusion don’t effectively reach marginalised groups.

Despite existing legislation that outlaws discrimination, there is concrete evidence that demonstrates the limited access opportunities experienced by Roma. Case-study evidence throws up multiple of examples of when Roma have been subjected to mistreatment, however, discriminatory behaviour does not always manifest itself in such candid style. This can take shape in employers’ (negative) attitudes to Roma and unwillingness by the general population to affiliate with Roma in their communities. These sorts of practices display a clear disregard of EU values and fundamental rights of the individual. For Roma migrants there is an overflow of negative stereotypical views, the first of which stem from the fact that they are migrants, which carries its own stigma, the second because they are Roma.

According to a report by the EU agency for Fundamental Rights, on average in the seven Member States surveyed, 79% of the Roma did not report their experiences of assault, threat or serious harassment to the police. This suggests a certain sense of apathy by the Roma community and a defeatist feeling towards an improvement of their circumstances by internalising a concept of ‘nothing can or will be done’ so why ‘should I bother’ – this only creates a circle of mistrust between the Roma community and their neighbouring communities. According to the FRA report, the missing link lies somewhere between targeted interventions to address the causes of repeat victimisation and informing the Roma community of mechanisms (organisations) where they can seek support and report criminal activity.


Almost all EU countries have a Roma population; according to estimates by the Council of Europe, they form a significant proportion of the population in Bulgaria (around 10%), Slovakia (9%), Romania (8%), Hungary (7%), Greece, the Czech Republic (1.5-2.5%). Roma data is relatively difficult to come across though increasingly their plight became a focal point on the EU agenda. This set the scene for the European Commission in April 2011, to issue a communication on an EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies to improve the economic and social integration of Roma citizens in Member States. This proved to be quite a feat for Member States, under the framework the EC proposed, each of the EU’s 27 countries submitted their action plans for improving the deficient situation of their Roma communities – addressing key pillars of social and economic growth; education, employment, healthcare and housing – in effect, demonstrate an acknowledgment of fundamental rights. Accordingly, the initial framework communicated by the Commission urged Member States to allocate sufficient funding from national budgets and identify relevant structural funding to be supplemented by the Commission.

On review in May this year, the Commission declared Member States’ Roma Integration Strategies to be less than impressive. Some submitted essay length documents with meager points of reference to key pillars while even the most suitable still fell largely under par. The EC has set out rather ambitious social inclusion goals in its EU2020 strategy thus ultimately decided that half-hearted attempts at securing sufficient resources for Roma inclusion would just not suffice. It is evident that Member States have failed to adequately adopt an integrated approach to address basics, perhaps due to lack of operational resources on ground level or slippery political will. At the very least, Member States have dipped their toes in the water and taken “first steps” as acknowledged by the Commission. Though going forward, socio-economic inclusion remains at the forefront of efforts that should be undertaken.


Among the initiatives and projects being piloted to address the discrepancy between the Roma community and their national equivalents, a notable mention must go to the Roma Education Fund, which targets one of the key pillars of Roma societal inclusion. The ultimate goal is to close the gap between Roma and non-Roma. In order to achieve this, the organisation supports policies and programs, which ensure quality education for Roma, including the desegregation of education systems. As of June this year, the ‘A Good Start’ project, implemented by the REF and supported by the EU ran in 16 localities of 4 countries of Europe, in rural and urban localities of the most deprived settlements of Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Macedonia to address quality early childhood education and care services.

Evidence suggests that early childhood education and care is essential to children’s development and data shows that Roma children by and large do not have equal access opportunities. Projects like these serve to give Roma children an equal start in life, which, according to László Andor (Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion), demonstrate both moral integrity and good economics in the long run.

The Roma have been a part of Europe for centuries and without doubt Europe’s economic crisis has left a great deal of political uncertainty and financial volatility in its wake which has only exacerbated the severe circumstances of those already living in a precarious state. It’s been noted that promoting integration of Roma could have a knock on effect in raising awareness of other disadvantaged minority groups in Europe. Marginalising any group leaves society at a disadvantage at the latter end of the spectrum largely due to the fact that improving the key pillars of integration principally lie with, and are for the benefit of, Member States.

Each country should take the view of implementing strategies that promote growth of the population at large but also address the welfare needs of disadvantaged communities. It goes without saying that the EU has a central role to play in synchronising these efforts by offering recommendations and financial assistance. Co-operation on these levels and awareness on the ground level can challenge increasing structural inequalities between minority groups and the majority population.

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