By now most everyone is familiar with the circumstances that brought down Hosni Mubarak in Egypt: widespread unemployment, huge numbers of disaffected youth, and extreme poverty helped fuel the uprising against his regime. What most of us miss are the similarities between the situation of youth in Egypt and their Roma peers in Europe.
“We don’t want what we have.” This was a young Egyptian’s sharply uttered demand for change during the revolutionary protests. On the heels of Tunisia, the youth revolution brought historic change to Egypt—ousting a dictator who ruled for thirty years—that continues to reverberate throughout the region. Nondemocratic regimes can no longer ignore the jobless and frustrated youth in the North Africa and the Middle East. But the ushering in of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe more than 20 years ago, has not made life of Roma youth any better than what Mubarak made for "his sons, the youths of Egypt."
Data from the United Nations shows the striking similarities: one quarter of both Egyptian and Roma population is between 18 and 29. Seventeen percent of young Egyptians have not completed basic education and 10 percent have never enrolled in school. Equally shocking numbers plague Europe, where 21 percent of Roma have not completed primary education, 9.5 percent never attended school. Without proper schooling, the fate of unemployment and poverty is unavoidable. No community, or country for that matter, can progress with the youth living in poverty.
Paradoxically, in Central and Eastern Europe, communist dictatorship was more generous to young Roma. While governments denied freedoms, young Roma had better schooling and more chances to find jobs. The collapse of communism meant the collapse of these opportunities. This has created a collective memory that gives Roma youth no reason to believe in democracy, and to their parents it gives a legitimate reason to feel nostalgic for a sense of material security delivered by communism.
As compared to their Egyptian peers, young Roma face an additional hurdle—they are subject to ethnic discrimination in every country of Europe. It starts from the very first moments of their lives—even before they have left their mother’s womb. Pregnant mothers either cannot afford health care or face medical professionals who mistreat them. The cycle of discrimination continues as young Roma are placed in "special" classes for children with special needs—despite having none—rejected by other pupils, and biased treatment of teachers. From a very young age, Roma are already at a severe disadvantage in the labor market as compared with their peers.
These circumstances are not the exception but the rule for almost every person of Roma origin.
Roma are the youngest ethnic community in Europe, with birth-rate twice the average of majority families. The UN shows that the median age for Roma is 19.3 years, compared to 33.6 for the overall population. Roma demographics are not just about population growth but substantial labor force and other socio-economic consequences. The UN warned already in 2002 that if significant improvements in Roma access to education are not achieved soon, labor forces in Central and Eastern Europe by 2015 will have large and growing unskilled and uneducated components. This will generate significant amounts of structural unemployment. We are already in 2011 and have not seen significant improvements that will prevent the worst-case scenario.
Furthermore, the Roma youth represent not only labor but also political potential. Political parties, both those in power and those fighting for it, recognize the power of Roma votes and traditionally buy such votes cheaply. Despite this, over the last 20 years the internal process of political emancipation of Roma has become evident through the increased number of young Roma civil society leaders and advocates. The youth revolution in Tunisia and Egypt is definitely an inspiration and encouragement for the yet insufficiently organized young Roma to demand change.
This year, the European Union will supply national governments with a policy framework and money to turn poverty into equity, and discrimination into equality. The success of this framework will depend on the political will of governments and their ability to design and implement policies and that use these funds to compensate decades of injustice. Moreover, European democracies must keep their promise of equality of opportunities and future for all. Only then—despite the similarities—young Roma have a reason not to follow in the path of Egypt’s youth, but instead a reason to cheer “We believe in what we have.”