Roma and Sinti people are still suffering systematic discrimination in large parts of Europe. They are denied basic human rights and victims of flagrant racism. As a consequence, they remain far behind others in society in terms of educational attainment, employment, housing and health standards. They have no proportional representation in public and political life.
In social terms they tend to be marginalised. Indeed, a number of them are stateless or do not even have documents to prove their identity. When attempting to migrate they are discriminated against and often refused entry or expelled. Their exclusion from society feeds isolationism among the Roma and Sinti communities which in turn encourages prejudice against them among xenophobes. More effort is needed to break this vicious cycle.
This is an enormous challenge.
Xenophobic and extreme nationalistic tendencies in today’s Europe have worsened the situation for the Roma and Sinti people. They are not seldom targeted in hate propaganda by neo-fascists and other extremists; they have suffered brutal hate crimes which have not even spared children. Many assaults are not reported to the law enforcement due to lack of trust in the police.
The problems are not new and have been on the agenda of OSCE and several other international bodies for a number of years. But conferences, drafting of plans and other investments of time and money have produced little results. Inequalities seem only to increase. Frustration is widespread, not least among the Roma and Sinti themselves.
OSCE:s Action Plan on Improving the Situation of Roma and Sinti in the OSCE Area was adopted already 2003. Five years later its implementation was formally evaluated. Though some progress was noted – not least the fact that Member States had adopted action plans for integration of these minorities and that anti-discrimination legislation had been adopted – the overwhelming picture was that the concrete situation for Roma and Sinti had not really improved.
Among the problems highlighted in this evaluation report 2008 were continued forced evictions; lack of secure land tenure; inadequate alternative housing; lack of civil and voter registration; and inability of Roma and Sinti children to attend school.
Agreed plans had had little influence on local authorities. On that level they were received with apathy and neglect. Generally, there was a lack of institutional mechanisms for sustainable progress. Said the implementation report then.
Another six years have passed; my clear impression is that these problems, and others, remain.
There should no longer be any confusion on what ought to be done. The analysis of the key obstacles is clear. The tools available to tackle the injustices are identified.
For instance, we know that education is absolutely crucial in order to break the vicious cycle. We also know that pre-schooling is a way to prepare for successful learning and avoiding drop-outs and other school failures.
We have decided that the automatic placement of Roma children in special, separate classes is wrong and should be stopped. We know that it is important for the poor minority children that they can have free breakfast or lunch in school. We have understood the value of school mediators or personnel with minority background involved in the school system. We sense the need for further scholarships to allow poor pupils to continue their education.
We know also the chain effects. If a child does not receive sufficient schooling she or he will be disadvantaged in the job market. If they cannot get a job they cannot improve their housing situation. Poor housing conditions in turn affect one’s health and also the education of the next generation of children.
Consequently we have also understood the importance of adult education as well; too many parents cannot read and write.
We do understand the crucial importance of decent housing standards. A great number of Roma and Sinti live in unhealthy, slum-like environments – in many cases without electricity, water and acceptable sanitation. Their tenure rights are in many cases questioned and evictions continue without alternatives having been offered. This is another vicious cycle.
The same goes for the health care situation. We know that the expected life length of people of this minority is considerably shorter than for the majority population. We understand that this is because of illnesses and diseases which have not been cured. Roma and Sinti are disadvantaged in the health service – they cannot pay under the table; they may not have an ID to prove that they have the right to access; they may fear a hostile reception when knocking at the hospital door.
We must also have understood that Roma and Sinti have become losers on the job market. Several of their traditional jobs have disappeared and they have difficulties to compete in the neoliberal economy. Poor education is of course a disadvantage, but even educated Roma and Sinti have had difficulties to get employed. Obviously, the reason is antiziganism.
We have also learned that there is a need of a comprehensive approach to address the combined problems of poor education, bad housing, lacking health care and unemployment. Also, that there is in all this a gender aspect – that it is greatly important that schooling and health care also reaches girls and that Roma and Sinti women have a voice in the broader society as well.
If we have grasped the genuine problems, identified the remedies and put them into strategies and action plans – why is there so little progress? What is blocking the implementation?
My conclusion is that it is the attitude of the majority population which is the key obstacle. Prejudices against this minority are deep and widespread in Europe. Even politicians are heard promoting slander against this minority, not least in periods of elections. Social gaps and injustices are a consequence of antiziganism. This has to be a major aspect of all strategies and action plans.
What can be done to ensure to change the attitudes, to combat stereotyped prejudices against Roma and Sinti people?
One aspect is to make known the Roma-Sinti history and culture. In Sweden a White Paper was recently published about the treatment of Roma during the last century: enforced sterilisation, registration on ethnicity grounds, evictions, obstacles to schooling and employment, etcetera.
The knowledge about this dark history will now be widely disseminated and also part of the curricula in schools.
Furthermore, the government has appointed a commission to combat antiziganism in the society today. The nine members of this commission have already recognised that Sweden is not free from ugly racism against members of this minority – and have already received striking examples of every-day discrimination. It intends to take action against such incidents of every-day discrimination.
The media are certainly extremely important in this context. Media could be helpful in giving information of real situations but could also spread stereotyped images of minority individuals, for instance linking crimes to Roma. Proper self—regulation has turned out to be wanting in several countries in this regard.
Another important aspect relates to the law enforcement institutions. The 2008 evaluation of the OSCE action plan highlighted the work of the police in this field. It warned against racial profiling and abusive treatment of Roma-Sinti cases. Our experience is that it is particularly important that the policemen are well educated about minority rights. The Swedish commission has already had reason to react against ethnic registration and profiling approaches.
One key phrase in the OSCE action plan was “For Roma with Roma”. That approach is necessary if results are to be reached. Authorities must work together with Roma groups who know what ought to be done – and naturally dislike gadje lecturing by so-called Roma experts. There are nongovernmental organisations with Roma representatives which too often are ignored by the authorities.
Having just returned from a study visit to Romania I feel deeply sad about the continued misery among many Roma communities there but at the same time encouraged after having met some officials both locally and in government circles who are prepared to contribute to sustainable solutions – with creativity and resources.
Implementation must now be the key. Strategy papers and action plans must be turned into real changes and reforms. The 2008 evaluation report stated that many strategies are implemented “in an ad hoc, symbolic manner with little hope of long term sustainability”.
The time for symbolism should be over. Political will for genuine implementation must now be mobilised. This is an urgent matter of human rights. But also necessary in order to protect harmony in our societies.
We cannot allow antiziganism to continue.
[This text is based on a presentation at the OECE-ODIHR conference in Warsaw 30 September 2014]