What comes to mind when we hear the word “Roma”? The picture that emerges from media reports is that Roma migrate from the Eastern parts of the EU to settle in the West and North. There they tend to come into conflict with the authorities and the locals when settling in sometimes illegal settlements. It is common to read articles focussing on petty crimes committed by some Roma and of repeated violent attacks against Roma people.
Do the headlines give us the full picture of everyday life for the ten to twelve million Roma in the EU? Of course not. For a start, the vast majority do not migrate to other countries, and there are hardly any nomads left among today’s Roma. Furthermore, being Roma does not inevitably mean a life of discrimination and marginalization. I have met Roma teachers, doctors, professors.
However, the Roma are the most discriminated against minority group in the EU. A FRA (European Union Agency for Fundamental Human Rights) survey highlighted that 60% of Roma respondents had experienced discrimination when looking for work, and only a very small minority get education beyond 5th grade. Discrimination perpetuates the vicious circle of poverty and social exclusion: exclusion from education leads to exclusion from employment, which leads to increased poverty, which forces people to live in poor or segregated housing which, in turn, affects their educational and employment opportunities, as well as their health. And the circle starts again…
Marginalization does not just carry a social cost. It also results in skills and talents that can benefit our economies going undeveloped. The Roma population is growing: in a decade, one out of five people in some Eastern European countries will be Roma. In a difficult global market, can Europe realistically afford not to promote the full social and economic inclusion of all its peoples?
To break this cycle of poverty, social exclusion and discrimination, we need an integrated approach that promotes access to housing, employment, education and health care simultaneously.
In many Member States there are a multitude of Roma inclusion strategies and policies. However, they sometimes address myths and prejudices rather than reality, because surprisingly little data has been collected on the Roma by national governments. But how can policymakers hope to develop effective policies without knowing the situation on the ground?
In April this year, the European Commission established an EU framework for national Roma integration strategies. This marks a promising new start for more targeted and sustainable national level approaches, with effective use of EU funds, and systematic measurement of progress on the ground.
All of this must be done not only for, but with the Roma. They must have a say, and take responsibility, in determining their own future. Equally important, their non-Roma neighbors must also be involved. To develop a more positive relationship between the majority and Roma populations, we need to address mutual fears and acknowledge where problems exist on both sides. We cannot continue to ignore violence and discrimination against Roma, just as we cannot ignore the theft, begging and trafficking committed by some Roma. Only an open discourse can bring us forward and break down hostile attitudes. This is the only way to fight prejudice and build community cohesion where it counts: at the local level.