National Roma integration strategies failing Romani children

Newly published reports on Roma integration strategies show little signs of tangible progress in 2012, especially in addressing the rights and well-being of Roma youth. European Union member states must act soon to prevent another ‘lost generation’ of Roma.

Bernard Rorke
7 June 2013

A Roma girl listening to the story of the Romani flag. Demotix/Diana Topan. All rights reserved.

“Civil society organizations are the eyes and ears for Roma people on the ground,” declared European Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding at a recent roundtable discussion with NGOs on Roma integration. One year into the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies (NRIS), the eyes and ears of civil society delivered their verdict on progress made by Member States, and there is little to cheer about. 

The newly-published Civil Society Monitoring Reports on the implementation of national Roma strategies covers six EU and two accession countries. The reports are rich in detail, judicious in tone, and contain a wealth of sector- and country-specific policy recommendations about what it takes to make a difference in the lives of deprived and excluded Roma citizens.

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.

UNICEF explicates the reality: Roma children in all countries across Europe remain at risk of systematic violation of their rights, reflected in severe poverty, social marginalisation, discrimination, and the denial of equal access to services and of equal opportunities in society. The Civil Society Monitoring Reports confirm anew UNICEF’s observation that “policies are rarely ‘in the best interests’ of the Roma child and the voices of Roma children and young people are often not taken into account.”

Strategy deficits across most of the surveyed countries included poor use of EU funds for Roma inclusion, failure to address the lack of reliable baseline disaggregated data necessary for "robust monitoring mechanisms,” no steps taken for mainstream gender equity across the priority policy areas, and no systemic moves to end school segregation. What is more alarming, especially in terms of combating discrimination and racism, is evidence of stagnation and regression in many countries. Furthermore, a child-centred 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 neighbourhoods, 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 neighbourhood 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 neighbourhoods, 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 Slovakia, a number of municipalities classified settlements as waste dumps and carried out forced evictions and demolitions of settlements on ‘environmental grounds,’ often without providing alternative accommodation to families with small children.

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 centres, 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 like a joke in the worst possible taste.

Back in 1989, the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child proclaimed that "the child shall enjoy special protection ... to enable him to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity." National governments, who have ratified this legally binding Convention stand accused of failing, and on the evidence contained in these monitoring reports, continue to fail in their obligations toward millions of Roma children right across Europe.

When it comes to the rights and well-being of Roma children, the gap between rhetoric and realization is an affront that should inspire outrage and indignation among all right-minded citizens. Yet the gap between what is and what ought to be remains very stark.

The monitoring reports confirm the European Commission’s assessment that Member States have failed to adopt integrated approaches to inclusive education to close the gap between Roma children and their peers, and that some stubbornly persist in perpetuating a system of undeclared apartheid.

De facto segregation is more than an abuse of human rights. It amounts to a willful and malicious squandering of Roma communities' most precious assets—the intellectual capacities of future generations. Substandard, segregated education leaves young people unable to progress beyond elementary levels of schooling, and unable to compete in the labor market. Moreover, it isolates Roma children from wider society from an early age. Segregation perpetuates and exacerbates existing divisions and inequalities in society.

While Europe dithers and deliberates over what needs to be done, days, months, and years simply slip by in the lives of hundreds of thousands of Roma children. Every day a child spends wrongly placed in a special school, or consigned to a run-down shabby segregated school, is a day lost forever. Every day a child is denied the care and attention that should come with the fundamental right to quality education is a day of squandered potential. And every year, new groups of Roma children are enrolled into systems structured to fail them, systems structured to deny them equal opportunities in a manner that will blight their life chances forever. 

Such abject policy failures are not beyond remedy. There is no shortage of precise policy recommendations backed by authoritative research and good practice. For many years Open Society Foundations and the Roma Education Fund (REF) have provided support to thousands of children and young people in education from pre-school to post-graduate studies; built sustainable partnerships with school authorities, civil society, and parents; and produced a significant volume of evidence-based policy research about what it takes to do the right thing. These interventions have shown that change is possible, and REF partnerships have shown how to nurture the political will and consensus needed to deliver quality inclusive education to Roma children.

However, to have a systemic impact across Europe, such interventions would need to be scaled up one hundred-fold. EU funds could be harnessed for change, but, to date, have yielded little in terms of sustainable impact on Roma inclusion. The forthcoming 2014–20 round of EU funding will bring much needed improvements. Yet reforms may take years to have any impact. When it comes to educational opportunities, these will be lost years for hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged children. Europe cannot afford a lost generation. Immediate action is needed. 

On the occasion of the 20th anniversary the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, UNICEF stated "The Convention demands a revolution that places children at the heart of human development—not only because this offers a strong return on our investment (although it does) nor because the vulnerability of childhood calls upon our compassion (although it should), but rather for a more fundamental reason: because it is their right."

If the values promoted by the European Union are to mean anything, new and old democracies alike should revisit their international and binding commitments under the Convention. They must rise to the challenge to ensure that the Convention's four core principles - non-discrimination; devotion to the best interests of the child; the right to life, survival, and development; and respect for the views of the child - apply equally to all children, Roma and non-Roma alike, and reform their National Roma Integration Strategies to comply with these principles.

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