It’s time to end the shameful exclusion of Roma

Nejad doesn’t have any formal job, so he collects trash in his horse cart to take to the dump. Photo: Jodi Hilton

Adriatik Hasantari is the Director of Roma Active Albania and the vice chair of ERGO Network. He holds a University degree in Medicine, and has been fighting discrimination and anti-gypsyism for fifteen years.

A few years ago, I walked into a pharmacy to get some painkillers. A young Roma mother and her sick child were already at the counter, holding a prescription. The pharmacist ignored them and turned to me: “How can I help you?” he asked. As the young woman nodded in subordination, I asked for the pharmacist to assist them first. The man obliged but we got into a heated exchange. Why did I care for a sick Roma child? They have so many children anyway, he said.

This episode is still haunting me. Though as an activist I have witnessed many cases of anti-gypsyism, this one crystallizes one shocking realization: that racism can prevent certain groups from getting even the most basic care. It’s a deeply entrenched form of discrimination that involves everyone, from residents and the local physician to the highest ranking politicians.

Many of the 10–12 million Roma who live in Europe still live in a state of abject poverty. Around 80 percent of those living in EU countries earn less than is necessary to meet their most basic needs. Two thirds of young people – a majority of them women — are unemployed or out of school, while 46 percent do not have access to toilets. Nearly half of young Roma women aged 15–19 years are married or in a union.

No community in Europe has ever been subjected to such stigma and brutal stereotyping for so long. Take jobs. Today, in order to get employed, a young Roma graduate has to prove they won’t steal from the company’s cash reserve. Or housing: Romani families are often forcibly evicted from their homes and end up in remote or poorly serviced areas. In the most shocking cases, Roma communities are attacked by armed mobs.

There have been efforts to end this appalling situation and I’m proud that our advocacy efforts have paid off. The European Union’s Framework for national Roma Integration calls for incorporating Roma-specific policies within its 10-year strategy for economic growth and development. It urges EU and accession countries to eliminate discrimination and empower Romani people to live in dignity, to find jobs, to get health care, and to vote and be elected.

Fatmira (left), a Roma activist, in a Roma neighborhood in Fushe Kruja, Albania. Photo: Karen Cirillo

In Bulgaria, a campaign brought together Roma and non-Roma activists to fight hate speech. In Slovenia, public servants took courses to understand the community’s cultural traditions, multiple challenges and met with Roma representatives to better target their services. Austria introduced free after-school tuition for Roma children.

Still, progress in European countries has been slow and patchy. Ultimately, it will take a massive push to change the way ordinary citizens and politicians perceive the Roma and to make discrimination punishable by law, across Europe. But these won’t be effective without the following:

First, the Roma need to become visible in national surveys and should be allowed to obtain legal documents. Many lack IDs and this is keeping them poor and voiceless. In addition, no household surveys specifically targeting the Roma have been carried out since 2011. For instance, estimates of the number of Roma in my home country of Albania range from 8,300 to 120,000. That is not a normal margin of error.

Last week, UNDP, the European Union and others announced that they would be collecting fresh new data. I welcome that. But more importantly, that information needs to be used to both paint an accurate portrait of the Roma’s living conditions — not all are living in need — and to take decisive action.

The area of Cukarica, a settlement in of Roma in Serbia, receives no city services, but people there manage to bring in electricity and water by attaching to local systems. Photo: Jodi Hilton

Second, there needs to be sustained funding. The countries of Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans, for instance, rely heavily on financing from international donors. Yet national action plans targeting the Roma offer few solutions for mobilising funds. At the same time, the window of opportunity is closing. International funding is drying up as other important issues emerge, such as the refugee crisis.

Finally, civil society organisations that have been working hard to put Roma in the spotlight are being dangerously sidelined amid fear and political polarisation. It’s crucial that they can report realities on the ground, train Roma leaders and help associations organise themselves better.

With support from the European Commission, Roma Active Albania, the NGO I lead, is working to empower civil society organisations operated by or for the Roma to change the reality on the ground.

The countries of Europe have signed up to Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, which requires that no one be left behind. Roma exclusion needs to be tackled at the source, by eliminating anti-gypsyism. Only then will we end decades of hostility towards Europe’s largest ethnic minority.

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