Civil society paves the way for Roma inclusion

Swden shopping street

Roma panhandler in Sweden, 2013 [sigfrid lundford/flickr]

This article is part of our special report Roma Inclusion.

SPECIAL REPORT: Europe’s largest minority continue to be marginalised and discriminated against despite EU initiatives to improve their well-being. Almost half of the existing ten million Roma in Europe live on the edge of poverty and the majority of them face social exclusion every day.

National governments either lack political will to implement EU recommendations or are slow in using the available European funds allocated to Roma inclusion.

Civil society organisations remain the main actors helping Roma to integrate in local communities.

“Even if a lot has been done for Roma, it is not enough,” said Anne-Marie Sigmund, the former president of the European economic and social committee (EESC) and a Roma activist. “There is a missing link between what is done at the European scene and at the local level.”

Vicious circle

Long-lasting discrimination and segregation is the reason Roma face poor living conditions, said Ákos Topolanszky, the EESC rapporteur on Roma.  

Roma children face segregation at school, with the highest drop-out rates seen in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Without basic education, Roma cannot get a job and the economic crisis has worsen the situation.

Finland, Austria, and Bulgaria have launched local services to provide job counseling and vocational training. But those small-scale projects are only directed to a limited number of people.

Unemployed and with no education, Roma cannot afford a place to live. They rely on social housing and more often end up settling in a ghetto. Topolanszky believes that if the government would help with the housing problem, Roma would travel much less.

Permanent housing would ensure that Roma children can attend school and complete their education in order to find suitable employment. According to Topolanszky, the Finnish government established a social programme in the early 1970s ensuring housing for all the Roma. It has been one of the most successful integration policies of Roma in Europe, he said.

But Roma themselves can be reluctant to embark on permanent housing schemes. And the absence of a sedentary lifestyle means schooling also becomes a problem.

Don’t preach to the converted

A number of initiatives have been proposed and adopted at EU level but none of them are legally binding. This means that the integration of Roma remains under the sole responsibility of every member country.

“Top-down actions are not the right way forward,” said Sigmund. “You preach to the converted if you keep on taking actions at European level.”

EU governments cooperate with the Commission to adapt their yearly national strategies on Roma. They receive progress reports and recommendations on what needs to be improved. Brussels also offers financial support to local projects targeted to Roma.

The responsibility lies ultimately with the national and local administrations to take advantage of the EU support but Roma integration does not seem to be high on the national agenda.

Awarding the civil society

As a result, a lot of the work on the ground is done by non-governmental organisations. They play an important role in closing the gap between the minority-group and the society they live in.

The EESC will award a prize to the three organisations that have achieved significant results in integrating the Roma at the local level.

The prize is awarded to different civil society initiatives from different areas. This year the committee decided to choose Roma as the theme for the prize.

“The aim of the EESC’s Civil Society Prize is to showcase best practices among NGOs throughout the EU so that other organisations can emulate that work,” said Jane Morrice, the EESC vice-president.

“We therefore chose people who suffer seriously from discrimination in the European Union,” said Morrice. “We wanted to highlight the valuable work that is being done to work with, accept and integrate Roma into society in the member states.”

Morrice said the committee received more than 80 applications from organisations that have done work in housing, education, and training. 

”It was good to see those projects in particular where the Roma themselves were involved in the work within the organisations,” she said.

Two-way process

The social and economic integration of Roma requires not only European, local and regional effort but also from the Roma community.

“There is a need to change the mind-set of how people perceive the Roma and also how Roma see themselves,” said Topolanszky.

Sigmund gave the example of a Sinti family established in Sweden. The youngest daughter in the family organised courses to teach the older Sinti women how to write and read. These kinds of initiatives are a great way to integrate with the local community, Sigmund said.

But cooperation is the best way to bring the two communities together, according to Sigmund. As an example, she quoted the one of a Romanian priest who made no distinction between the Roma and the rest of the village. The priest involved both sides into building a well. After the work was completed, the Roma were no longer seen as different but part of the community.

“They were brought together by working together,” said Sigmund. 

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