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Ethnic Statistics

21 July 2004

Dimitrina Petrova

FROM THE POINT OF VIEW of human rights defence, ethnic statistics can be defined as a component of:

a) a right: the fundamental right to be free from racial discrimination should be interpreted as implying the right of the victim to obtain statistical data broken down by race/ethnicity, if such data would be critical evidence proving discrimination.

b) a duty: the positive obligation of the government to ensure effective equality irrespective of race or ethnicity should be interpreted as including the collection, processing, analysis and use of impersonalised statistics disaggragated by ethnicity.

In 2004, the complaint that there are no reliable statistics on Roma has become trivial. So has the call on governments to collect them. Criticism and recommendations regarding this issue are coming from all quarters, including governments of countries with significant Romani populations. Over the last six-seven years, the European Roma Rights Center has been among the most consistent advocates of collecting ethnic data for purposes of fighting racism and discrimination and for drafting viable equality programmes. Our position has been initially developed in the context of implementing anti-discrimination law to benefit
the members of the most disadvantaged groups in European societies. More recently, as part of accession obligations, governments of European Union candidate countries worked with the Employment and Social Affairs Directorate of the European Commission on Joint Inclusion Memoranda, to be followed by National Action Plans. In the process, the deficiency of reliable Roma-related statistics loomed large as a major obstacle to rights based policy of Roma inclusion. The ERRC addressed the issue in most of its advocacy interventions in this regard.

Although in the late 1990s the case law of continental Europe did not know the link between racial discrimination and figures, statistics on racial disparities had been successfully brought in the courts of UK and some countries outside Europe as evidence in discrimination cases. Then in July 2000 the European Council Race Equality Directive (EC Directive 2000/43, para.15) explicitly included statistics among the possible means establishing discrimination. This provision – as well as many others in the Race Equality Directive – improved the prospects for future antidiscrimination litigation – especially when challenging systemic inequalities.

In recent years, the need for statistics on Roma became ever more acute, as governments have begun to develop special programmes related to Roma.

A common defect of all these programmes is that they are not based on reliable demographic, labour, health, education and housing statistics broken down by ethnicity. The reasons for the miserable state of Roma-related data include:

1. misperception that personal data protection laws prohibit the gathering of ethnic data;

2. failure to understand the strategic importance of ethnic monitoring for the fight against discrimination;

3. fear that ethnic statistics can be misused to harm the respondents;

4. weakness of political will of governments drafting programmes for Roma integration, lack of vision of genuine reform based on quantitative assessment of needs and readiness to allocate adequate resources;

5. fear in governments that they may be embarrassed if statistics reveals ugly corners in their societies;

6. methodological difficulty of the question: who should be counted as "Roma", those who state their Romani ethnicity or a much larger group defined
through external attribution;

7. methodological difficulty of dealing with the refusal of Roma to "admit" their ethnic belonging - a refusal which differs widely across space and sub-ethnic identity.

Perhaps all of the above obstacles were present in a recent story covered by the Hungarian media. The Ministry of Health had commissioned a sociological survey on Romani health, involving the gathering of both objective and subjective data. On the subjective (opinion) side, the survey sought to measure attitudes toward Roma in the medical profession, as well as Roma's perception of how the health care system treats them. In November 2003, the professional association of doctors and nurses in Hungary rebelled against the survey. A public debate followed. Purportedly, at stake were the doctors' honour, the freedom of social research, and the future of the government's policies on Romani health. Eventually, the debate subsided, unresolved. The results of the study were shelved. The Ministry of Health did not make them public, nor did it take a stand against the survey for which it had paid. Much-needed figures on Roma's access to healthcare remain officially out-of-reach, whereas unofficially
available to those who care.1

This issue of Roma Rights revisits and recapitulates Roma statistics from several angles. Andrei Ivanov and Susanne Milcher present the UNDP experience in assessing the development needs of Roma in Eastern Europe. Ferenc Babusik reveals the dilemmas that Hungarian sociology has been trying to solve when collecting data on Roma. Lilla Farkas looks at the issue from the prism of international law, revealing the paradoxical epistemological situation of knowing while not knowing the numbers of Roma. Sasha Barton comments on the British practice of ethnic monitoring and presents grounds for optimism even as it transpires that Gypsies and Travellers in the UK have not benefitted from ethnic monitoring. Claude Cahn notes that the European Union has not yet provided meaningful guidance on ethnic statistics.

Together, the articles take the Roma rights approach to ethnic statistics to a new level, by building a more detailed case for numbers and percentages. This effort is meant as a response to the positive tendency to step beyond rhetoric and to get down to business in many of the departments where Roma related programmes and projects are being drafted.


  1. The ERRC took the research results paper from the victims of Hungarian style censorship, translated them into English, and will be soon circulate copies, as well as publish a summary in the next issue of Roma Rights.

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ERRC submission to UN HRC on Hungary (February 2018)

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