The Roma are Europe’s largest minority, with a population of an estimated 10-12 million. With concerns about integrating immigrants and the “failure” of multiculturalism making more recent news, the plight of the Roma, who are European Union (EU) citizens, seems to be an ongoing, but not acknowledged story.
Disturbing headlines often appear, but only when something truly extraordinary occurs. In July, France made worldwide news with its decision to send thousands of Roma back to Romania and Bulgaria because they didn’t have residence permits. Despite an outcry from the European Union, the United Nations and others, the EU ended up suspending its case against France, saying the French government had made sufficient commitments to amend their immigration laws. The decision was met with dismay from many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who believed the EU was too slow to react in the first place and have simply let France off the hook with their promise to change. France isn’t the only country that has struggled to integrate Roma. This past July in Denmark, authorities expelled a group of people labeled “criminal Roma” by Copenhagen’s lord mayor; in May 2008, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi issued an emergency decree declaring the presence of “third country citizens and nomads” a crisis, and authorities began evicting Roma from their camps. The EU has been silent on both issues.
Social exclusion, discriminatory attitudes, human rights violations and the continued economic crisis have put Roma in an increasingly disadvantaged position across Europe. But is anything being done about it? In fact, yes. But the EU, national and local governments and NGOs often struggle to get the assistance down to the local level where it is needed most.
“After the events in Italy and France, the European Union is paying attention to the Roma issue and is trying to find the best way to stimulate Member States,” said Tunde Buzetzky, facilitator of the Decade of Roma Inclusion Secretariat Foundation. Currently in its fifth year, the Decade of Roma Inclusion seeks to coordinate governments, NGOs and Romani civil society to work together to improve the welfare of Roma and review and track such progress in a quantifiable way.
The idea of such a “Decade” arose from a 2003 regional conference initiated by the Open Society Foundation and the World Bank, two institutions active in Central and Eastern Europe who could speak authoritatively on both the Roma’s social and economic situation. Held in Hungary, “Roma in an Expanding Europe: Challenges for the Future” led the eight countries participating in the conference to sign a Declaration of the Decade of Roma Inclusion in 2005. Now, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Spain – all countries with large Roma populations – are taking part. Each country prepared a Decade National Action Plan when they joined the initiative. Buzetzky says this serves as a “roadmap” for the implantation of programs as well as the development of policies. The Decade’s presidency rotates each year and the coordinator country also prepares a list of priorities. The Czech Republic currently holds the presidency through June 2011. Gabriela Hrabacová is the director of the Office of the Government Council for Roma Minority Affairs in the Czech Republic. She believes their proposed priorities will be a step forward for Roma communities.
“By collaborating with other European initiatives, we prompt fresh discourse re-emphasizing that the Roma belong to Europe and are fully accepted by European society,” she said. One of the Czech presidency’s priorities is the implementation of integration policies at the local level. Through this priority, the Decade hopes to motivate regional and municipal government bodies to find appropriate forms of cooperation between central and local government and encourage the use of EU programs and funding that can result in actual improvements for their country’s own Roma populations.
One example she, and others, consider important is the European Commission proposal from this past May that allows Member States to now use European Regional Development Funds to help vulnerable groups such as Roma in the field of housing. Bernard Rorke is the Director of Research and International Advocacy for Roma Initiatives at the Open Society Foundation, which works to improve the lives of vulnerable people and promote human rights. Roma Initiatives is a specific coordinating program that was created to collaborate with the Decade and empower and stimulate wider civic participation amongst Roma. He calls this initiative a “welcome step.”
“The EU endorsement of ‘explicit but not exclusive targeting for Roma’ made it possible for development funds to cover housing interventions in favor of marginalized communities, especially Roma,” he said. “The guiding principle of ‘explicit but not exclusive targeting’ needs to be extended to policy and funding interventions in education, health and employment to ensure that such measures actually make a difference in the slums and settlements for millions of Roma.”
The inclusion of NGOs like the Open Society in the Decade is crucial. They are often the ones on the ground, working directly with the Roma, and who see the progress, or lack of it, on a daily basis. However, the frustration of getting the help where it needs to go has been an ongoing problem that all groups involved have struggled to solve.
The Decade is focused on helping individual governments improve the Roma situation in their own countries. When the Czech Republic held the EU presidency in 2009, they proposed an “Integrated Platform for Roma Inclusion” based on results from the first EU Roma Summit in 2008. Among other things, it called on Member States to design concrete actions for ensuring Roma access to education, housing, health, justice and employment and make better use of EU funds set aside for Roma inclusion. EU funding is available for many programs that would assist Roma, but NGOs and at times even governments do not have the technical assistance and support to leverage the money in a sustainable way. Money is sometimes not used effectively, which can lead to an increased stigma – we try and help them, but the situation remains the same.
The Platform also called on the European Commission (EC) to provide analytical support and promote cooperation between all parties concerned with Roma issues in the context of a European platform. Buzetzky says there is a strong advocacy in the EC and European Parliament that is supported by many groups, like the Decade, to start serious work on a European Roma Policy.
“It’s an ongoing process and far from the end,” Buzetzky continued. “In my opinion, the Roma issue is still very scattered among the different DGs (Directorate-Generals) of the EC. This should be centralized and better coordinated.”
Viviane Reding is Vice-President of the European Commission and Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship. She believes the EU and Member States have a joint responsibility for Roma inclusion.
“Within the European Commission we are committed to using all the tools we have to work with the national, regional and local levels – and of course Roma communities themselves – to improve Roma inclusion,” she said. “In April, we set out an ambitious policy program to help make policies for Roma inclusion more effective – in particular by making full use of EU funding available – and in September we established a Roma Taskforce including senior officials from all relevant Commission departments to analyze how EU countries are using EU funding and identify ways to improve the funds’ effectiveness.”
Rorke listed these actions as positive and reiterated the Open Society’s call for a pan-European Roma strategy to be endorsed at the EU level. “The Commission’s Communication in the wake of the 2nd EU Roma Summit in April 2010 marked the clearest declaration of intent to date,” he said. “It openly recognized the need for a coordinated and coherent policy response that is proportionate to the scale of the problem.” He added that even though the Open Society calls for a comprehensive EU policy, they insist that the primary responsibility for the rights, security and well-being of Roma citizens lies with national governments.
Progress so far
There appears to be progress at higher levels. However, information on whether or not such policies are being implemented and the measurement of the results of such policies is harder to come by. Buzetzky believes this is a gap that needs to be addressed in the Decade’s second half.
“Decade processes don’t always reach regional and local structures, administrations and service providers; policy measures are often stuck on a local level,” she said. “Also, governments mostly refer to the Decade when they communicate their initiatives but are less focused on results and real outcomes.”
During the 2009 Macedonia presidency, Decade organizers visited each participating country, interviewed governments and NGOs involved and prepared a survey based on the information gathered. The study found that while all the partners are positive about the impact of the Decade, there was concern that progress was slow, the availability of data was not sufficient and there was no appropriate monitoring and evaluation system set up by the governments. Rorke believes there are a host of reasons for the disconnect between Brussels and the regions.
“Up until now the lack of coordination, the lack of political will, and a combination of inertia, indifference, and in some cases, plain ol’ prejudice at local and national level account for the stalled progress on Roma inclusion,” he said. “This translates into the failure of any substantive ‘trickle down’ of EU funding to promote social cohesion and combat poverty in a systemic fashion for Roma communities.”
The Czech presidency priorities include implementing integration policies at the local level, focusing on local and regional government.
“The objective of the priority is to motivate regional and municipal government bodies to implement integration policies, to find appropriate forms of cooperation between central and local government and to obtain feedback,” said Hrabacová. Their plan is to address legislation affecting integration on a local level as well as focus on housing, education and social work.
Rorke bemoans the lack of quantifiable data on Roma and governments’ seeming inability or unwillingness to collect it. “If governments lack basic data they cannot devise effective targeted policies,” he said. “A recent Open Society Foundation report, “No Data – No Progress,” confirms our long-held assertion that the lack of disaggregated data is a major barrier to progress and weakens the impact of policies to promote equality and nondiscrimination.”
Both Hrabacová and Buzetzky point out that most of the Decade’s successes have happened at an EU or national government level.
“The Decade is a reference point and a moving power behind government efforts,” said Buzetzky. “Roma activists are involved in advisory and consultative bodies to the governments and DecadeWatch reports – joint surveys of Roma civil society organizations, published three times already – measure critical inputs of governments.”
Reding said EU institutions have made available funding to support and complement Member States’ actions on Roma integration and currently 12 of the 27 Member States have support programs in place for the Roma. She shared an example of a successful program in Spain called ACCEDER that through grassroots efforts helps Roma find jobs. In the program’s ten-year history, more than 23,000 Roma have found work throughout the country. She believes improvement has been made, but more work is left to do.
The Open Society has created a program to do just that. Called “Making the Most of EU Funds for Roma,” it strives to strengthen Roma inclusion on the local and European political level as well as use their expertise and involvement in different phases of project development and implementation. This involves a combination of technical assistance, monitoring project development, mentoring for Roma representatives involved in such initiatives and supporting access to EU funding for NGOs and smaller municipalities involved in Roma projects. To date, the program has leveraged some six million euro in funding for more than 70 projects aimed at boosting Roma inclusion in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia; an additional 11 million euro of projects are currently under evaluation by national authorities. Hundreds of Roma have been involved in the design and preparation of these projects, which targeted about 23,000 people. This is the kind of program that Commissioner Reding is particularly interested in – making sure all EU funding available to support Roma inclusion is used in the most effective way possible.
Getting and keeping the Roma involved in projects aimed at improving their lives is a problem with which all the groups struggle. The Decade is adamant about a high level of Romani participation. Each Decade meeting contains one or two Roma activists from each country and Buzetzky says many of the government representatives are also Roma.
“Overall we can say that there is a good mixture of Roma and non-Roma in the Decade working for the same goal,” she said. “However, on a national level, the governments set up advisory bodies consisting of Roma civil society representatives. In some countries these bodies work well, in others the title is there only and the body is not functional.”
Rorke says that even though, thanks to funding in Roma NGOs, the number of Roma activists has greatly increased, it is still very small compared to the Roma population. He adds that the majority of Roma never even come into contact with other Roma in these positions and what’s needed is some grassroots work to bolster the civil society and educate Roma citizens on their right to vote.
“Until Roma communities have the political weight commensurate with their numbers, governments and political parties will continue in their neglect and refuse to address the issue with any sense of seriousness, and wider public contempt for Roma will remain undiminished,” he said. He shares an example of a voter registration campaign recently held in Serbia. Open Society, Roma NGOs and 120 grassroots activists held public meetings and went door-to-door to promote voting and active citizenship. The result was that 44,000 Roma registered to vote in the June 2010 elections for the Roma National Council.
Buzetzky believes a very difficult aspect of the problem is that Roma themselves have to “break the wall.”
“People who are hungry and have no access to basic utilities can concentrate on survival only,” she said. “Communities on a local level should be strengthened to be able to stand up and fight for their own rights and place in the society.” She adds that the Open Society is a great help in this area, but more remains to be done.
Ms. Reding concurs, stating that the Roma have a joint responsibility to work together to improve the situation. “National, regional and local government have the main role in actually spending EU funds on specific projects and making sure they are successfully used on the ground,” she said. “On the other hand, the EU has an important role in coordinating these efforts and in helping share good practices so that different cities, regions and countries can learn from one another’s experiences.”
Buzetzky believes a shift in attitude would do a lot for forward movement.
“A changing of attitude is the most critical issue in terms of real change,” she said. “Governments should recognize that to pretend to do something, run some programs, is not enough. Complex and highly professional work is necessary to tackle the existing issues [as well as] a long term commitment that is not limited to election periods.”
It’s a big task, but the work that the Decade has begun is a starting point for a full European Roma policy. The groundwork has been laid, what is and is not working has been explored and the importance of coordination and cooperation between NGOs and the EU has been established. Long term initiatives with a goal of sustaining social dialogue, concerned involvement of all parties and direct investment to strengthen the civil sector will ensure these measures direct permanent change.
Priorities of the Czech Republic’s Presidency of the Decade of Roma Inclusion
1. Inclusive Education: Based on the policies of past Decade presidencies (Republic of Serbia –fight against discrimination in education; Slovakia– an integrated school system and multicultural education), the Czech Republic chose to focus on inclusive education, especially on evaluating methods for the collection of separate ethnic data to identify the academic results of Roma children.
2. Well-being and Rights of Children: Based on concerns about the living situations and the rights of children that should be reflected in all priority areas, this priority stresses the need to focus on the living situations in which Roma children in Europe find themselves. The Czech Presidency wants to stress the need for a safe environment in which children can receive the care necessary for their personal development and education. The Czech presidency realizes that Roma children face different challenges in different countries and they want to focus on the possibilities of increasing Roma children’s educational opportunities and the opportunities for individual development in the current environment.
3. Roma Women: This priority focuses on a discourse on the emancipation of Roma women and on women as an important link in the shaping of integration concepts.
4. Implementation of Integration Policies at Local Level: Focusing on local and regional governments.
5. Media and the Image of the Roma: Media sensationalism and the sensitivity of issues presented by the media in connection with the Roma often form a generally negative media image of the Roma, which is then presented to general society. For the successful implementation of integration measures locally, it is necessary to promote a positive perception of these measures to society. For this reason, the Czech presidency aims to highlight ways of presenting Roma in the media and point out the pitfalls faced by Roma in the media.