Roma: The Other Europeans

If there is a silver lining in the ongoing uproar over the treatment of Roma in France and elsewhere, it is that this long-standing issue of egregious discrimination is now on everybody’s radar in Europe and beyond.  When the current sound and fury die down, the appalling conditions of this marginalized minority must remain in sharp focus.  They must be addressed in their proper context that is, by using human rights as guiding principles for public policy and remedial action. 

To date, despite efforts undertaken by some European States and international and regional organizations, anti-Roma sentiments in Europe continue to be strong.  They may even be escalating as a result of the economic recession that has forced many Roma to leave their communities of origin in their quest for better work opportunities. As a result, discriminatory practices and violence have also been on the rise.

For example, there have been reports of fatal attacks against Roma in Hungary and Slovakia.  Documentation of targeted discrimination abounds, including the recently leaked circular of the French Minister of Interior ordering the evacuation of Roma camps as a matter of priority.  Moreover, the UN Committee that oversees the implementation of the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has noted that, albeit in different degrees, forced evictions as well as obstacles to adequate housing and segregation of Roma are known to occur in a number of other countries, including Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Romania, and Slovakia. 

In some countries Roma have limited access to health care and other services because they lack identity documents. According to CERD, problems in the area of education for Roma children are widespread, such as their segregation in separate classes or their over-representation in schools for children with learning difficulties.  In the past few years, the European Court of Human Rights has found European governments, including two EU countries, namely the Czech Republic, and Greece, in breach of their legal obligations regarding treatment of Roma children in schools.  Implementation of these judgments remains patchy at best.

Moreover, recent returns of Roma to Kosovo from Germany have had devastating effects on the rights of children, including their right to education. As a recent UNICEF study showed, the Roma children who were reasonably well integrated in German schools have been thrust into an Albanian-speaking environment which is totally foreign to them and where they have little or no chance of going to school at all.

Against this background, it is not surprising that the EU Fundamental Rights Agency estimated that Roma face the highest levels of discrimination in the European Union.

Their marginalization and stigmatization are often fueled by inflammatory rhetoric on the part of forces that seek political gain by stoking the fires of mistrust.  This is one of the points I raised during my visit to both legal and unauthorized Roma settlements in Italy.  There, as elsewhere, I repeatedly advocated the need to better integrate the Roma into mainstream society both in their countries of origin and in their countries of destination.  A first step towards integration entails granting access to education and other basic services, such as health care, adequate housing, and sanitation, as well as to employment opportunities.  These are all entitlements under human rights law.  The Roma children I met, their parents, and other community representatives made this crystal clear in our conversations.

I am aware that some Roma traditions may be at odds with mainstream society and may themselves amount to violations of human rights, such as forced marriages and child labor.  I am also aware that, living at the margins of societies, some Roma have resorted to crime—usually petty—which creates understandable friction.   But such issues warrant case-by-case scrutiny, not indiscriminate condemnation; they require the very same responses that are applied to all abusers and offenders, not exemplary or draconian measures that smack of stigmatization and collective punishment of a minority.

Serious efforts to address these problems have already been made both at the national level and by European Union institutions.  For example, the European Commission has clearly tried to bolster integration policies through the EU Platform for Roma Inclusion and the adoption of the Common Basic Principles of Roma Inclusion in 2009.  And at the UN April 2009 review conference against racism, 182 UN Member States  pledged to take concrete measures to eradicate discrimination against Roma and other minorities and to provide them with remedies, as well as special protection.
Much more must be done.  With the active support of the European Commission and Parliament, as well as the UN, the EU and its 27 seven members States have now a chance to change their posture vis-à-vis- the Roma issue from reactive to proactive.   They must poll best practices and human rights standards and implement them throughout the Union to ensure that all Roma people live dignified lives in one of the world’s most affluent regions, a region that is their homeland, too.