Violeta Naydenova / Apr 2017
There seems to be no hope for European Roma. Despite millions spent on integration and inclusion policies by the European Union and individual countries, they remain the poorest and most marginalized population on the continent. According to a report of the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency, 80 percent of the EU’s six million Roma are at risk of poverty; in Spain, 98 percent of Roma fall below the national poverty threshold, and in Greece, 42 percent of young Roma have not completed any formal schooling.
The disheartening statistics go on and on, but, as shocking as they might be, they reveal nothing we did not know: the situation of Romani citizens is bleak and not improving.
Some populists and right-wing politicians will use the new report as an opportunity to once again hold the Roma, known pejoratively as “gypsies”, responsible for their own ostracism, presenting their situation as a lack of willingness to integrate. That’s a convenient argument for the majority, which then feels morally legitimized to do only the bare minimum for its fellow Roma citizens. But it doesn’t hold: Slovak and Czech Romani citizens do not segregate their own children in “special schools” for children with mental disabilities; Bulgarian Roma do not evict themselves from houses where they had been living for over 60 years; and Italian Roma do not choose to live in camps where they lack access to running water and electricity.
Why isn’t integration working? An entire system is in place to improve the situation of Romani communities. Within the context of the EU Roma Framework, set up in 2011, the European Commission reviews annually the implementation of National Roma Integration Strategies. Budget-wise, EU structural funds are allocated to member states for the implementation of their integration strategies – between 2014 and 2020, a total of 1.5 billion euro has been ear-marked for member states to implement inclusion programs.
On paper, everything looks in order. But there is one major flaw in the system: Roma are excluded from the very process that is supposed to help them integrate. Each year, around 250 million euros are allocated to member states for the integration of marginalized communities, but Roma organizations are not included in the process, they are not even informed about how the money was used or what kind of results the spending produced.
In order to challenge this lack of inclusion in policy discussions and development, a group of 250 Roma organizations from nine European countries issued a joint statement at the 10th European Platform for Roma Inclusion, which took place in Brussels last November. They asked for a simple reform of the EU Roma Framework: Roma should be involved in the planning, monitoring and review of policies that affect them and how structural and national funds for Roma are spent.
Moreover, the organizations urged the European Commission to do away with the myth of Roma unwillingness to integrate by recognizing that racism is the main obstacle to inclusion and to adopt a zero-tolerance policy on anti-Gypsyism. According to reports from the Pew Research Center and the Eurobarometer on discrimination, Roma are the most hated minority in Europe: 82 percent of Italians and 64 percent of Hungarians have a negative opinion of Roma, and only 63 percent of EU citizens say they would feel comfortable having a Roma work colleague. Inclusion policies cannot succeed if society turns a blind eye to segregation, hate speech, and discrimination.
Across Europe, Romani activists are organizing to challenge negative prejudices and call out empty promises made by politicians. In Bulgaria, Roma organizations are reforming the National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues – a government body for minorities' inclusion which has traditionally lacked transparency and has not included Roma communities in its decision making. In France, Roma activists are working to provide accommodation to Roma families who have been the victims of forced evictions. In Hungary and in the Czech Republic, Roma non-profits offer early childhood education to children in segregated neighborhoods with the hope of enrolling them in quality, mainstream schools.
If there is any hope for Roma, it comes from Roma themselves. Thousands of Romani citizens are ready to work towards reforming EU policies on Roma inclusion and to implement national programs tackling anti-Gypsyism. They should be the first place EU institutions and national governments turn for expertise and guidance. Only through cooperation with Roma civil society, that leads to co-created policies, can integration succeed.