The Turkish Roma Inclusion Strategy falls way short of a strategy

By Bernard Rorke

On November 5 we came down to breakfast in our hotel in Ankara to hear the news that police had staged overnight raids on the homes of nine MPs from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the party’s leaders were under arrest, and the government had shut down Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. This clampdown came just days after the round up of the editor, journalists, and managers from the independent newspaper Cumhuriyet, the closure of the country’s remaining Kurdish media, and the jailing of elected mayors in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir.

The current version of the Roma Strategy is merely a draft declaration of good intent. The devil is said to be in the detail; and the details which would make this document amount to more than a piece of paper are missing.

In this climate, our meeting to discuss Turkey’s Roma inclusion strategy had a sense of unreality about it. Phrases from the government document like  ‘involvement of civil society’, or ‘respect for human rights and difference’ rang a little hollow against the clampdown, which has since extended to the suspension of 370 non-governmental groups including human rights and children's organizations.

More than six years ago Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan held the so-called Roma opening, when he gathered 10,000 Roma and promised to sort their problems. Since then, the European Commission noted that

“Access to health services continued to improve, while medical services were largely accessible for Roma families. Procedures for the Roma to obtain civil documentation are cumbersome and should be made easier. Roma groups continued to face discrimination in social and economic life and in accessing employment and quality education. Absenteeism in school remained high, including in compulsory primary education, and child labour is a major problem in the Roma community. Urban development projects continued to disadvantage the Roma by depriving them of traditional job opportunities and solidarity networks.”

Six years on after much deliberation and discussion, in April the government adopted The National Strategy Paper and Action Plan on the Social Inclusion for Roma People. The European Commission in its newly published 2016 report on Turkey called it “a positive step forward,” and stated Turkey “needs now to step up its engagement,” and start implementing the strategy.

What’s good and what’s bad about the strategy?

The strategy’s fundamental goals are to improve the living conditions and socio-economic status of Roma people and to ensure they have access to basic public services. The Fundamental Implementation Principles largely adhere to the EU’s 10 Common Basic Principles on Roma Inclusion. They include the need to base policy making and implementation on regular gathering of reliable data rather than “hypotheses and prejudices,” and an integrated holistic policy approach which promotes transparency and accountability and engenders collaboration across institutions. 

This alignment is evident in mentions of the involvement of civil society and Roma communities, as well as regional and local authorities; in the stress on the need for public participation and policy mainstreaming. Also mentioned is the need to promote intercultural dialogue to counter majority prejudices and establish respect for human rights and difference; and prioritizing the most disadvantaged groups: women, children, youth, and people with disabilities.

Also in line with the European Commission’s recommendations, there is a plan to establish a Monitoring and Evaluation Board, one half comprised of Ministries, public institutions and agencies; the other half drawing from civil society organisations, academics and professionals; a board that meets regularly to review past progress and future activities. A sound model, but in the current political climate, the composition of such a board, especially the civil half of the equation, will remain a moot point.


However there is a swift departure from Principle No.1 on the need to base policy on in-depth research, data and evidence, rather than “hypotheses and prejudices” as soon as the paper gets to education. The main cause for Roma children not being able to “benefit from the education opportunities sufficiently” is identified as the socio-economic challenges faced by their parents, “who consider their children’s educational process as a relatively long and ambiguous investment”.

Then comes the bald statement that “Roma families do not believe in the future.” To put it mildly, this stands as an unsubstantiated generalization. In all marginalized communities deprived of a sense of agency, what parents deem to be a sufficient level of educational attainment for their children is constrained by what seems possible. Lowered aspirations are determined by survival strategies in extreme situations of social exclusion and multiple deprivations, rather than any supposed set of cultural proclivities. Inclusive education policies need to expand the sense of what is possible and foster a sense of agency and empowerment among excluded communities.

The strategy seems content to blame inequalities and segregation on the children themselves, their parents and those who ‘complain’ about segregation. From the side of the authorities, it is stated “segregation regarding student distribution is not possible but it is observed in the past that Roma children have education in different classrooms or environments or they form isolated groups among themselves.” It is unclear how different ways of ‘having education’ or becoming isolated could happen spontaneously without direct institutional interventions.

The hypothesis that complaints about segregation have led to a perception that there is segregation, which restrains Roma children from attending schools, and causes some Roma children who continue to study to “leave education just because they think that they are exposed to social exclusion”, is not entirely comprehensible; nor is it clear what evidence there is to sustain such a line of argument, which only serves to blame the victims.


While mention of anti-discrimination is somewhat qualified – “location-based and cultural prejudices against Roma people who could face discrimination …” – the call for the elimination of discrimination in accessing public services is nonetheless to be welcomed as a valuable first step. However, the experience with the EU Roma Framework since 2011 shows that without ethnically disaggregated data, and an in-depth analysis of how institutional racism operates in public service provision, employment practices, among law enforcement officers and the justice system, the extent of the problem remains an unknown. As a consequence, it is difficult to envisage the scale of interventions needed to dislodge discriminatory practices, and dispel popular prejudices.


And this is the problem with the strategy, in all of the priority areas outlined in the Action Plan, apart from the envisaged starting date of 21 December 2018, there is no indication of the scale of activities envisaged or how they might be implemented. There is no detail on which to base any assessment of how the strategic objective “to improve the living conditions and socio-economic status of Roma people” might be achieved. In short there are no targets, no data, no benchmarks, no costing, no earmarked funding. This kind of detail is missing and envisaged only to materialize in the course of research and consultation processes in 2016-2017.

In this preliminary form, this document stands as a draft declaration of intent but lacks any of the detail that would make it a strategy. The challenge is to turn this political gesture into concrete action that could change the lives of Romani citizens to make social inclusion a tangible reality.

For a full version of ERRC’s review of the strategy see here.

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