Today is International Roma Day, an appropriate occasion to reflect on where Roma stand in Europe.
Nine years ago, governments of eight countries gathered in Sofia, Bulgaria to declare a “Decade of Roma Inclusion” and pledged to undertake a concerted effort to address the socio-economic disparity between Roma and non-Roma, as well as the persistent discrimination facing Roma in all facets of daily life. The decade spawned a parallel effort in the European Union in 2011. States have responded to both initiatives with varying degrees of effort and enthusiasm.
Despite this political recognition of an unconscionable social crisis, Roma remain among the poorest, unhealthiest, least educated and most marginalised European citizens. The data are devastating: Across Central and Southeast Europe, 90 percent of Roma live in poverty. Fewer than one third of adults have paid employment. Only 15 percent of young Roma have completed secondary or vocational school. Nearly 45 percent of Roma live in housing that lacks basic amenities. Life expectancy in Roma communities is 10-15 years less than in non-Roma communities, with many Roma lacking access to insurance and health care.
The collapse of Communism and the integration to countries of the former Communist bloc to the EU expanded the rights of EU citizens to millions more, including Roma. EU citizenship brought with it the right to free movement across EU borders. While fears of a major wave of Roma migration have proven unfounded, in the expanded EU some Roma (as well as non-Roma) do choose to migrate in search of a better life. They have not been received well in many countries.
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In Italy and France, illegal evictions of Roma and destruction of their homes and property is a matter of state policy and practice. In September, 2013, then French Interior Minister (now Prime Minister) Manuel Valls stated the goal of such policies succinctly: “The majority [of Roma] should be delivered back to the borders. We are not here to welcome these people.”
In France, over 21,000 evictions were recorded by the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) in 2013. This number is remarkable, considering how few Roma have actually migrated to France: An estimated 20,000 Roma migrants in a country of 65.5 million people. (The number of evictions is higher than the estimate because some Roma were subject to multiple evictions.) Compare that to 1 million destitute refugees from Syria pouring into Lebanon.
In Italy, the ERRC recorded 14 separate forced evictions in Milan alone in 2013; the true number no doubt is higher. In March, a spate of evictions took place there without the legally required written notice or chance to challenge an eviction decision in court. As a result, hundreds of Roma have been left homeless, chased from place to place. Some have been housed, and become ill, in temporary shelters. Many children are among the homeless. They have to stop attending school, often because they are too sick, embarrassed or exhausted to make it to class.
Even in Sweden, with its progressive social welfare policies and its defence of the rights of Roma throughout Europe, news emerged in 2013 of a police database of 4741 “travellers”, most of them Roma or persons linked to Roma, ostensibly compiled as a crime prevention practice. Fortunately, the Swedish authorities acted quickly to denounce the database and investigate its circumstances, with a government commission finding the database to be illegal.
However, a very recent event exemplifies perfectly how deep-rooted the negative prejudices are: Diana Nyman, the chairman of the Roma Council in Gothenburg, was invited by the Swedish government to deliver a speech at the release of the white paper on discrimination of Roma and travellers in Sweden and she was placed in a four-star hotel in Stockholm. The hotel did not let her enter the breakfast hall, because the staff did not believe she was a guest there.
Despite these depredations, some Roma still see life in France, Italy, Sweden or other countries in Western or Northern Europe as preferable to their lives in their countries of origin, where they face rampant discrimination, frequent violence and a hostile majority population.
In Hungary, an extremist party that just won 21 percent of the votes in recent parliamentary elections makes the fight against “Gypsy criminality” a keystone of its political platform. In Slovakia, the intentional murder of three Roma by an off-duty police officer in 2012 was not investigated as a hate crime; the defendant received a sentence of nine years in prison when the normal sentence for such an offense is 25 years.
In Serbia, Macedonia and the Czech Republic, Roma children continue to be segregated in schools for children with disabilities, six years after the practice was declared illegal by the European Court of Human Rights. Interestingly, Roma children considered by the Czech state to be disabled did just fine in mainstream schools after they emigrated to the UK, despite the fact that they had to learn a completely new language.
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In Romania, more than 1,500 Roma are consigned to living at the edge of a garbage dump in Pata Rat that the EU has made clear does not comply with international safety regulations. Some of these families were moved there by the Cluj municipality after forcibly evicting them from their homes in the city centre with no notice on a cold winter’s day.
In early April, the European Commission convened a “Roma Summit” and issued a report assessing how member states are doing in addressing the interconnected problems of poverty and discrimination which the Roma are facing. The report noted “the persistence of segregation” in education, a large and in some cases widening employment gap between Roma and non-Roma, big differences between Roma and non-Roma in health insurance coverage, and an “absence of progress” in addressing the need for housing. Finally, the report noted that discrimination remains “widespread”.
As the EU is quick to point out, primary responsibility for addressing poverty and human rights abuses lies with the states themselves. But the EU, through its legal framework and its budget, has a powerful set of incentives at its disposal to push states in the right direction.
With European elections just around the corner, an influx of anti-EU and extremist politicians into the European Parliament is predicted by many pollsters. In this climate, Roma and pro-Roma activists wonder whether the EU will maintain its focus on addressing the needs of Europe’s largest and most marginalised minority.
With political will in member states and enlargement countries weak at best, continued attention by the EU is imperative. The EU must rigorously enforce the EU human rights law. It must ensure, as a condition of entry, that human rights standards are met by aspiring EU members. It must move from encouraging, to requiring regular state collection of disaggregated data and reporting on implementation of inclusion and integration efforts, with a particular focus on progress to stem human rights abuses such as segregation in education, hate crimes and forced evictions.
Finally, the EU must provide funding support to Roma watchdog organisations at a national level in member states and enlargement countries. A strengthened Roma civil society is the best partner for the EU to help ensure that member states are meeting their commitments toward all its citizens.
Robert Kushen is the Chair of the Board of Directors of the European Roma Rights Centre. He is engaged in many other initiatives related to Roma, including as Vice Chair of the Roma Education Fund Board and as Chair of the Board of the Roma Initiatives Office of the Open Society Institute.