Another Decade of Roma Exclusion?


The constitutions of most European countries contain some form of commitment to ensuring the rights of minorities, as do the laws of supranational bodies such as the European Union and the United Nations. But as Albert Hourani once wrote, ‘Even in the best circumstances, the position of a minority is uneasy.’ Though it is interesting to imagine what might constitute ‘the best circumstances’—  in political, economic or social terms —it is hard to deny that most states fall short of their constitutional obligations. Minorities are often socially marginal and politically under-represented, usually for institutional reasons. As a result it is more difficult for them to gain access to housing, education and employment, which often leads to a cycle of poverty and marginalisation. 

In many cases, a necessary first step is adequate official recognition that these problems exist; in this respect, the announcement in 2005 that the following ten years would be ‘The Decade of Roma Inclusion’ seemed an important step towards addressing the economic and social disadvantages faced by the 10 million Roma people estimated to be living in Europe. The largest concentration is in Romania, at two million according to unofficial estimates. Hundreds of thousands live in other Central and Eastern European countries, usually comprising between 1-5% of the population. So far twelve countries with significant Roma populations (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Spain) have pledged to ‘accelerate progress toward improving the welfare of Roma and to review such progress in a transparent and quantifiable way’. Each country developed a national Decade Action Plan specifying its goals and targets. International partner organisations include the World Bank, the United Nations Development Program, the Council of Europe, the Open Society Foundation, UNHCR and UNICEF. From the start,  particular emphasis was placed on the importance of Roma participation, which it was said would ‘make or break the Decade’.

With four years left of the Decade, it seems reasonable to ask what progress the Initiative has made. It has been claimed that there have been improvements in the situation of Roma people in some countries. School attendance is said to have increased in Romania, whilst in Spain there are reports that the Roma are better integrated in Andalusia. In Slovakia the courts have prevented Roma from being excluded from schools. However, the extent to which the above can be attributed to the efforts of the Initiative is difficult to ascertain. There are also numerous counter-examples, such as school segregation in Croatia and the presence of Roma ghettos throughout Slovenia. Some have gone so far as to label the decade “a failure”, and to question the extent to which greater integration is even a desirable goal.

If the Initiative has so far achieved less than was expected, this should not be surprising. From the outset, it was clear that the onus would be on the participating states. The decade initiative is simply there to provide a means for knowledge sharing and target setting. It cannot compel the states to implement the plans they proposed. There was also no additional funding provided for the initiative (‘participating governments must reallocate resources to achieve results, also aligning  their plans with funding instruments of multinational, international, and bilateral donors’). The Decade’s secretariat, based in Budapest, relies on a yearly grant of €140,000 from the Open Society Institute.

Though many states continue to emphasise their commitment to improving the Roma’s lives (e.g. Montenegro), it remains difficult to assess the success of many of these initiatives, as there is usually poor monitoring of these projects’ outcomes.

The Decade has only been one side of European states’ response to the Roma issue. The other has been a continuing effort to regulate the movement of Roma people within the EU (arguably mirroring the EU’s effort to tighten control of its borders). In 2008 Italy declared a State of Emergency with regard to its Roma population, who it labelled a public threat. People were evicted from unofficial settlements and placed in camps in which they were monitored; in November 2011 the State of Emergency was declared unlawful. In France, hundreds of Roma camps have been demolished and numerous Romanian and thus EU citizens of Roma origin expelled as illegal immigrants In Germany, thousands of Roma have been sent to Kosovo, half of them children and adolescents who grew up in Germany. There have also been deportations in Sweden, Denmark and Belgium and demolitions of camps in Romania. In Hungary, homelessness has been declared illegal, a move thought to be aimed at Roma.

According to David Mark, head of the Civic Alliance of Roma in Romania (a coalition of over 20 Roma NGOs), “The announced expulsions and demolitions of camps are based on the criminalisation of an entire ethnic group, when criminality should be judged on a case by case basis in courts of law.” Not only does this affect Roma rights, but arguably the rights of all EU citizens.

It is perhaps revealing that most of these deportations have been carried out by Western European countries, few of whom are members of the Decade of the Initiative (which tend to be those countries that the Roma are sent to). One could be forgiven for thinking that the removal of the Roma, rather than their integration, is a greater priority for most EU member states. In April 2011 the European Commission reported that up to€26.5 billion has been allocated to support member states’ efforts in the field of social inclusion, including Roma. The deadline for member states to submit their proposals was 31 December 2011; only 15 of the 27 member states submitted in time.

As we enter the final phase of the Decade, it is arguably not a lack of funding or adequate monitoring that most impedes attempts to improve the lives of Roma people throughout Europe. What seems to be lacking most is the will to do so.