Making a Difference for Roma by 2020

The European Commission is currently assessing submissions by Member States in response to the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies. Based on a review conducted by Open Society Foundations of strategies submitted by Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, it is clear that they fall way short of what is needed for the Framework to live up to its billing as "10 years to make a difference" to the lives of millions of impoverished and excluded Roma citizens.

These five countries were founding members of the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015. At the launch of the Decade in Sofia in 2005, their governments pledged to work to eliminate discrimination and close the unacceptable gaps between Roma and the rest of society; develop National Action Plans in the four key priority areas of health, housing, employment, and education; and demonstrate progress by measuring outcomes in implementation.

In theory, with this experience behind them, and the fact that the Decade and the EU Framework priorities are identical, these five countries were best placed among Member States to meet all the European Commission’s requests contained within the April 5 Communication and deliver comprehensive strategies.

In practice, while there is discernible progress in many areas, duly noted in the evaluations, it is clear that much more needs to be done to meet the Commission’s ambition "to make a difference by 2020." The National Roma Integration Strategies submitted to the Commission can only be regarded as first drafts, as work in progress. The documents are replete with weaknesses already evident in the Decade National Action Plans. The analyses contained in some of the strategies are astute and provide evidence of how government thinking has evolved over recent years on the issue of Roma inclusion. Good intentions need to be bolstered by concrete targets and timelines, allocated budgets, the kind of data that allows for "robust monitoring" of progress, and a recognition that national integration strategies cannot succeed without resolute and unequivocal action to combat racism and discrimination.

The Commission confirmed the obvious when it stated that "Member States do not properly use EU money for the purpose of effective social and economic integration of Roma." It noted that a lack of know-how and capacity to absorb EU funds is compounded by weak inclusion strategies and bottlenecks at national regional and local levels. The declared intent in the Communication is to "surmount capacity issues," and work with Member States to address new needs, simplify delivery, and speed up the implementation of priorities.

The verdict from Open Society’s Making the Most of EU Funds for Roma is clear: all strategies fail on two counts: first, they fail to describe how EU funds will be better used for Roma inclusion, and second, they fail to fulfill the criteria set by the EU Framework and draft EU regulations.

There is little in the National Roma Integration Strategies to improve absorption capacity of EU funding instruments.  When it comes to housing, it is a matter of concern that, apart from Slovakia, there is no mention in the strategy of article 7(2) of the European Regional Development Fund regulation which allows funds to be used for housing and infrastructure for marginalized Roma communities. This is a gap that needs to be filled in next time round, and a revised strategy should, at the very least, be cognizant of the possibilities under this amendment and reflect these developments in their National Action Plans to address the appalling living conditions of many Roma communities which have been likened to the developing world.

Across the countries, the lack of reliable ethnically disaggregated data remains a major stumbling block. States object that the collection of such data is illegal. As clearly shown in the Open Society report No Data No Progress, the reality is that ethnic data—as one component within disaggregated data—can be generated and used in ways that protect the privacy of individuals and groups while providing critical information to help policymakers fight racism and discrimination and draft viable equality programs. The European Commission should issue guidelines on the interpretation of its regulations on ethnic data collection and processing to clearly and authoritatively prevent any misconceptions or misinterpretations that the regulations are an absolute prohibition on the use of data regarding ethnicity. The Framework Communication called for robust monitoring, but there is a danger that old habits of weak monitoring and perfunctory reporting, evident since the launch of the Decade, will persist as long as governments fail to collate reliable baseline disaggregated data.

The Framework Communication didn’t place much emphasis on gender equity and it comes as no surprise to see this reflected in the failure of the National Roma Integration Strategies to address adequately the multiple discrimination faced by Romani women. While the Hungarian strategy was credited for including a sound analysis and general ideas about improving the situation of Romani women what’s missing is specific measures, deadlines and resources to address the problems identified.  The importance of "explicit but not exclusive targeting" of Romani women cannot be overstated: first as a legitimate affirmative action in its own right; and second for the wider, long-term impact on the community and wider societal cohesion. The Commission’s own report on Ethnic Minority and Roma Women in Europe states: "Investing in Roma women … lays the foundations for a longer-term and effective inclusion of future Roma generations."  It is imperative that the principle of gender mainstreaming be fully incorporated into the strategies in a consistent manner across all Member States.

The Roma Initiatives’ report Beyond Rhetoric contained a wealth of general and country-specific recommendations that should be incorporated into the strategies. They were not, and the health sections of the National Roma Integration Strategies need to be revisited and thoroughly revised.  Member States should ensure that strategies contain all necessary measures to ensure the elimination of individual and systematic discrimination against Roma in healthcare services by providing access to quality healthcare and social services to the Roma at a similar level and under the same conditions as for the rest of the population.

Ensuring at least two years of high-quality preschool education for each Roma child has been one of the targets of the Decade since its inception. With regards to access to education, the Communication merely called on states to "ensure that every child completes primary school" with a cursory mention of pre-school and early childhood interventions. Elsewhere, the Commission was far more explicit in highlighting the key role such interventions can play in overcoming the educational disadvantage faced by Roma children. It stated that "although their needs are greater, participation rates of Roma children in Early Childhood Education and Care are significantly lower than for the native [sic] population, and expanding these opportunities is a key policy challenge across the EU."  In their current form the strategies are not up to the meeting this challenge.

Early childhood interventions are crucial to success in primary and secondary education. Concise targets and firm indicators need to be in place so that Member States ensure that all Roma children have access to quality integrated education, and measures taken to reduce the gap in secondary school completion rates.

The Communication states that Romani children and young people should not be subjected to discrimination, or schooled in segregated settings. What’s lacking in the National Roma Integration Strategies is a firm and unambiguous commitment to end school segregation, and to desist from the practices of misdiagnosing Roma children as "mentally handicapped" and sending them to special schools in defiance of the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights that such practices are discriminatory and unlawful.

The Open Society Foundations' insistence that National Roma Integration Strategies cannot succeed without resolute and unequivocal action to combat racism and discrimination has been echoed by the European Parliament resolution of May 8, 2010. More recently, the need to link social inclusion priorities with robust anti-discrimination measures and a zero-tolerance approach to anti-Gypsyism was reaffirmed on February 1, 2012, by a declaration adopted by the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers.

The resolution underlined the need for all Member States to adopt specific and comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation in line with international and European standards; to set up anti-discrimination bodies equipped to promote equal treatment and to assist victims of discrimination; and to ensure that this legislation is effectively implemented. These recommendations need to be fully incorporated into the National Roma Integration Strategies. The revised strategies should reflect an unambiguous recognition of the interdependence of inclusion and anti-discrimination as a prerequisite for meaningful integration.

The Open Society Foundations supported civil society dialogue and advocacy in each of these five countries, and cooperated with governments in the process of consultation between the April 5 Communication and the December deadline for submission of strategies. Some governments’ openness to consultation and dialogue was encouraging, but if these strategies are intended to make a tangible difference to the lives of millions by 2020, it is clear that the conversation has barely begun.

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