Today the European Union sent the strongest possible signal that social inclusion and equal treatment of Roma must be a priority for the entire continent. It announced a new set of measures focused on ending widespread disparities in education, employment, health, and housing, and called on member states to devote more money to Roma integration.
European Commission vice president Viviane Reding stated that if member states are serious they need “to move up a gear” in their efforts on Roma integration, and follow up with concrete action. The Commission’s progress report on the National Roma Integration Strategies (NRIS) is coupled with a recommendation addressed to EU countries spelling out what needs to be done in member states for effective Roma integration. The recommendation provides member states with an opportunity to step up and unanimously renew their commitment to the EU Framework’s bold ambition to make a difference to the lives of millions of Roma citizens.
The big question is whether today’s “EU Roma package” will make that difference. The answer lies with member states, for progress on Roma inclusion depends on governments fully availing of the opportunities offered by the EU Roma Framework, and making smart use of EU funding to support effective policies in education, employment, health, and housing. The European Commission has demonstrated its political will to make a difference; it’s now time for member states to do likewise.
Two years on from the submission of the Roma strategies, Reding declared that “the moment of truth has come. If member states are serious about Roma inclusion they need to deliver more than paper.”
The message to member states is clear and unequivocal—effective social inclusion must be accompanied by rigorous implementation of antidiscrimination legislation and respect for fundamental human rights.
The Commission’s sense of urgency is to be welcomed, and judging by events on the ground in the Czech Republic and Slovakia in the last week, is entirely well-founded. In the Czech town of Duchcov, police made 22 arrests following running street battles with neo-Nazis during an anti-Roma rally by the Workers' Social Justice Party. Police officers confiscated 38 weapons including iron bars, baseball bats, knives, and “various tools.”
In neighboring Slovakia, a six-week-old infant was taken to hospital unconscious following a mass police raid on a Romani settlement in Moldava nad Bodvou. According to an NGO eyewitness, the settlement was surrounded by 20 police cars, and a special police unit wearing balaclavas started demolishing fixtures inside people's homes and making mass arrests.
Police deny any allegations of brutality and media reports that a minor suffered injuries in the course of the raid. They dismissed reports of injuries and damage as efforts by “inadaptable citizens” to receive financial compensation “for fixtures and property that they damaged or depreciated themselves or that had been damaged prior to the operation.”
That much more needs to be done was made abundantly clear by newly published Civil Society Monitoring Reports on progress with national strategies. The monitoring, conducted by civil society coalitions and supported by the Decade of Roma Inclusion Secretariat and the Open Society Foundations, covered six EU member states and two accession countries. While national contexts vary and progress is uneven, across most of the countries surveyed common themes included:
- poor use of EU funds for Roma inclusion;
- a lack of reliable baseline disaggregated data necessary for “robust monitoring mechanisms”;
- no steps taken to mainstream gender equity across the priority policy areas;
- no systemic moves to end school segregation.
What is more alarming, especially in terms of combating discrimination and racism, is evidence of stagnation and regress in many countries.
The Commission’s assessment largely concurs with the civil society findings. The recommendation marks a robust wake-up call to member states on the need to move from vague intent to concrete implementation, and a clear insistence that social inclusion must be underpinned by effective antidiscrimination legislation and “specific measures to ensure equal treatment and universal rights.”
In specific policy areas, the Commission calls upon member states to:
- enforce immediately school desegregation and end the inappropriate placement of Roma pupils in special needs schools;
- eliminate the barriers to (re)entering the labor market;
- ensure equal treatment and improved access to prevention, basic, emergency, and specialized healthcare services;
- end spatial segregation and facilitate local integrated housing programs paying particular attention to public utility and social service infrastructure.
With regards to “horizontal policy measures,” the Commission calls on member states to screen their national, regional, and local administrative regulations and practices in order to identify and repeal any discriminatory and segregating measures. Furthermore, policies to fight segregation should be accompanied by appropriate training and public information programs addressed to local civil servants, civil society representatives, and Roma themselves.
The Communication gets explicit on earlier calls to governments to “get convincing” on combating discrimination. It calls on member states to take adequate measures to fight racism, stigmatization, and anti-Roma rhetoric in society; to promote the benefits of Roma integration, sensitize public awareness of cultural diversity; and raise awareness among Roma of their rights, duties, and possibilities to seek redress.
The theme of Thursday’s EU Roma Platform is “making change for Roma children and youth." The European Commission made clear that, in order to break the cycle of exclusion, NRIS must prioritize the rights and well-being of Roma children and young people. The demographics spell out the necessity for addressing this: 35.7 percent of Roma are under 15, compared to 15.7 percent of the overall population of the EU. The average age among Roma is 25, while it is 40 over the whole EU.
The Civil Society Monitoring Reports confirmed that a child-centered approach is missing from the strategies. Beyond the sphere of education, it seems that, for many member states, the basic notion that all policies impact children’s well-being and development has yet to sink in.
The Bulgarian report provides a vivid description of the environment for thousands of children in segregated Roma neighborhoods, which lack basic infrastructure and services, schools and kindergartens, playgrounds and recreation areas, and access to public transport. For example, in the largest and poorest Roma neighborhood in the western Bulgarian town of Dupnitsa, around 90 percent of the dwellings have neither a bath nor an inside toilet. Around 40 percent of the people do not have their own bed, households are crowded, and a fifth of dwellings do not have legal access to water and electricity. Across Bulgaria, in terms of extending basic services to Roma neighborhoods, progress in the first year of the Framework was described by survey respondents as “negligible.”
In the Czech Republic a combination of massive sell-offs of municipal housing stock, rent deregulation, and rising indebtedness has forced many families from regular housing into hostel-type accommodation. This has become a lucrative business, sustained by the payment of housing subsidies. The report states that “overcrowded and neglected, with shared sanitary facilities, hostels are thoroughly unsuitable as a way of providing stable homes for families with children.” While some municipalities try to assist emergency cases, others have openly declared their intention to “export their local integration problem to other municipalities,” and block any development that might benefit local Roma.
In Romania the most remarkable developments of housing policy in 2012 seemed to be forced evictions and “resettlement” of Roma families in remote locations far from city centers, often without basic amenities. In cases documented by ERRC and Amnesty International, families with young children have been forcibly evicted—in breach of international law—and relocated to waste dumps, abandoned toxic industrial sites, and remote fenced-in patches of agricultural land.
This is a mere snapshot from the country reports on housing policies for Roma in 2012, but just pause to imagine the impact forced evictions, squalid living conditions, malnutrition, and lack of basic sanitation has on the long-term “well-being and development” of our youngest and most vulnerable fellow citizens. Add to that the findings of the reports on health, employment, and education, and it’s clear that, for Roma children and young people at least, the EU 2020 agenda for inclusive growth must seem hopelessly remote.
As is evident from the agenda for the eighth EU Roma Platform, the Commission is fully cognizant of the gap between what is and what ought to be in terms of the rights and well-being of Roma children and young people. The EU Platform gathers practitioners, educators, and experts drawn from international agencies, foundations, and civic organizations with vast experience. There is no mystery about what needs to be done among those dedicated to making a difference for young Roma from early childhood to young adulthood. The platform is an opportunity for a coalition of the willing and the right-minded to ensure the next generation of Roma is not a lost generation; an opportunity to commit to doing the right thing by our youngest rights-bearing fellow citizens. Let it not be a lost opportunity.
This latest Communication is an eloquent testament to the political will at all levels within the European Commission to ensure that Roma inclusion remains a policy priority for Europe in a time of prolonged crisis. However the real test of political will lies with the primary duty bearers: the member states.
In this Year of the European Citizen, a unanimous endorsement of the Commission recommendation could mark a real step forward towards integration, respect for fundamental human rights, and making a tangible difference to the lives of Europe’s Roma citizens. And now is the time for responsible democrats who have been elected to lead, to do so and step up for equality, justice, and social inclusion.