Whither Roma exclusion at the end of the Decade?

By Bernard Rorke*

Back in 2005, at the launch of the Decade of Roma Inclusion, World Bank President, James D. Wolfensohn, described the plight of the Roma as ‘one of the great moral issues facing Europe’, and the Decade an opportunity ‘to turn the tide of history’; for Open Society Chairman George Soros, the Decade signaled ‘a sea change’ in Roma policy.

There was at the outset a widely shared optimism that the Decade might make a difference. One activist from the Czech Republic present at the 2005 launch, recalled how she hoped that by the end of the Decade, she would see “Roma as a natural integral everyday part of the society, visible as bus drivers, shopkeepers, visible in public institutions, that it would become unremarkable that Roma will be visible in ordinary aspects of daily life. I was quite optimistic and hoped for a bright future where our voices would be heard.”

Ten years after eight governments from central eastern Europe pledged to “eliminate discrimination and close the unacceptable gaps between Roma and the rest of society”, it’s a good time to ask what happened to all the hopes and the hyperbole, and what came of the opportunity presented by the Decade ‘to turn the tide of history’?

A lost decade?

A quick scan of Roma-related news items across Decade countries since April 2015 yields a dispiriting catalogue: far-right mob attacks on Romani neighbourhoods; reports of police violence and justice denied; accounts of forced evictions and the toll they take on young and old; and yet still more evidence that racial segregation in EU member states is a habit that too many white people just can’t kick.

One example that was both illustrative and yet particularly baffling was the news in late April 2015, that Slovak police officers are training their Czech colleagues to work in Romani communities. It was baffling in light of the kind of massed and violent raids on Romani settlements favoured by Slovak police. These raids follow a distinct pattern: authorized on vague pretexts they are designed to intimidate entire communities; they involve the deployment of extensive and excessive force and brutality; and are eventually followed by cursory, ineffective, and inconclusive investigations.

That Slovak law enforcement officers seem to operate in a climate of impunity, was rendered clear by the recent acquittal by Košice District Court of 10 current and former police officers who faced prosecution for abusing Romani children at a police station in 2009. The police filmed their humiliation and torture of the children using their mobile phones and shared the footage. The presiding judge stated:

“The evidence is not sufficient to find the defendants guilty, nor to express a conclusion beyond the shadow of a doubt that the crime took place as the prosecutor alleges.”

Without a doubt, from such depressing stuff a convincing case could be made for the Decade amounting to nowt. The ‘tide of history’ didn’t turn; Roma inclusion was not buoyed up by a ‘sea change’ in policymaking; and the Decade failed to harness the political will to include the Roma as full citizens in European societies.

In fact, critics might say things worsened for Roma over these 10 years, with the rise of far-right movements with explicit anti-Roma agendas, and a hardening of the kind of political rhetoric that scapegoats the Roma for society’s ills, rhetoric that too often constituted incitement to racial hatred. And as induced economic austerity measures continue to bite, with Roma communities disproportionately represented among those categorized as ‘multiply disadvantaged’, whole communities are barely subsisting, living from hand to mouth, and just as excluded now as they ever were.  

So, was it a lost decade? It came in with something of a bang, and critics might suggest it went out with barely a whimper last week in Sarajevo, leaving scarcely a ripple on the public consciousness, with the vast bulk of Roma communities across the 12 participating countries completely unaware that there ever was a Decade.

There however a case to be made that suggests it would be cavalier to dismiss the entire enterprise as a lost cause. It might be rhetorically gratifying to write off the Decade and damn it as a failure, but a more circumspect assessment would suggest (as Zhou Enlai never said of the French Revolution) that it is ‘too early to say.’

Decade lessons and legacies

If the Decade is to be judged on its own terms – i.e. its pledge ‘to close the gap’ between Roma and non-Roma within ten years – then clearly it has not been a success. But only the most naïve could have expected such a social transformation to be launched, packaged and completed within a decade. It was abundantly clear from the outset that undoing centuries of racism and exclusion would take far more than ten years. And there were no illusions concerning the practical challenge to sustain the political will needed to implement substantive social inclusion policies across such a motley crew of barely consolidated democracies. 

At the best of times it is virtually impossible to sustain any kind of international political momentum over a protracted period, never mind such a loose, non-binding pledge by political leaders of parties whose track record and commitment to Roma inclusion was at best tepid, ambivalent and ambiguous, and at worst wholly insincere. But some things did change, and the Decade has left a couple of lessons and legacies in its wake.

Inclusive education

As to change for the better, there is wide agreement and a body of evidence that education is where most progress is visible after ten years. It is safe to say that while some governments deserve praise for their efforts, much of the progress on inclusive education is attributable to the work of the Roma Education Fund (REF), which was founded at the launch of the Decade in 2005.

For ten years, REF has provided support to thousands of children and young people in education from pre-school to post-graduate studies; built sustainable partnerships with school authorities, civil society, and parents; and produced a significant volume of evidence-based policy research about what it takes to do the right thing.

In the course of the decade REF has shown that school desegregation is possible, feasible and better for all; that substantive Roma participation is crucial for success; and that effective cooperation on the ground delivers the kind of change that can transform the lives of tens of thousands of Romani pupils.

Yet despite all this, some Decade countries remain wedded to systems and habits that perpetuate inequality and segregation. That the European Commission had to launch infringement proceedings against the Czech Republic and Slovakia served as a reminder that ten years after these countries signed up to the Decade, systemic segregation of Romani children in education remains stubbornly pervasive.

In Bulgaria, the latest REF country assessment speaks of worsening conditions where ‘unchallenged ethnic segregation of Roma in education, is exacerbated by an increasingly socially stratified education system.’ And in Hungary, the decision by its Supreme Court to allow the Greek Catholic Church to lawfully operate as a segregated Roma-only school, effectively exempts religious-run schools from anti-discrimination provisions in the law, reviving the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’.

These recent developments are a cause for real concern and stand as a corrective to any overly optimistic prescriptions. However, the difference in Europe today is that segregation of Romani pupils no longer goes unquestioned, unchallenged and accepted as routine.

There is now a broad and basic understanding in the wider society that segregation of Roma pupils is a pernicious practice. At the end of the Decade, even the segregators know that what they do is fundamentally wrong and runs contrary to any shared notion of “European values”.

The EU Roma Framework

Another durable legacy of the Decade is the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies. George Soros described the Framework as “a copy of the Decade and an expansion of it to all EU Member States.” Indeed the EU Framework is so closely modeled on the Decade that it effectively rendered the Decade redundant.

Back in 2005, one ambition of the Decade was to invite more governments to join up. The original eight were joined by Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Spain. So it was beyond all expectations that by 2013, all 28 EU Member States would have submitted National Roma Integration Strategies under the remit of an EU Framework; that the Commission would link Roma integration to its wider Europe 2020 strategy for growth; that the European Council would issue country-specific recommendations on Roma integration to Member States; and that the first ever legal instrument on Roma, a Council Recommendation on effective Roma integration measures in the Member States, would be adopted. Neither could many have foreseen back in 2005, that an EU Roma Task Force would oversee the use of EU Funds to promote Roma inclusion, and that a minimum 23.1% of the Cohesion policy budget would be earmarked for investment in people - through the European Social Fund, allocating at least 20% of this amount in each Member State to combat poverty and social exclusion with an “explicit but not exclusive” focus on Roma communities. 

On combating racism and discrimination

One important Decade lesson for slow learners among governing elites was that an emphasis on development, partnerships, social inclusion and societal cohesion, simply cannot paper over the cracks when it comes to racism and discrimination.

Combating discrimination was relegated to a ‘cross-cutting theme’ in the Decade, and Decade National Action Plans failed to make the link between tackling racism and promoting social inclusion. The National Roma Integration Strategies submitted to the European Commission in 2011 were no better.

The European Commission and the European Parliament have come to fully absorb this one key lesson from the Decade – that there can be no progress on Roma inclusion unless direct and indirect forms of discrimination are tackled head on, unless the institutional racism that Roma face every day is fully exposed and effectively dealt with.

The latest Commission Communication on the EU Roma Framework issued in June 2015 is very forthright in delineating the failures of Member States to confront anti-Gypsyism - one of Europe’s oldest hatreds; the failures to ensure equal access to quality education for Roma children and persistence of segregation in schooling and housing; and the failures to properly transpose and enforce EU anti-discrimination law at regional and local level to protect the rights and dignity of Roma all over Europe.

At the end of the Decade of Roma Inclusion, Europe is moving towards official recognition of anti-Gypsyism as a long-standing and deeply rooted form of European prejudice; there is full acknowledgment of the need to combat institutional racism when it comes to the misuse of EU funds; and a clear decision that the EU will not abdicate its human rights obligations.

But let’s not get overly celebratory, for when it comes to combating the words, deeds and institutional practices that denigrate and dehumanize our Roma fellow citizens, it is the practical impact that will count. The reality at the end of the Decade is that many segregated Roma communities in urban slums and rural wastes are even more isolated, more excluded, and feel less secure and safe than before.  

Talking to one of those young Roma leaders who was so optimistic at the launch of the Decade, the bitter sense of disappointment and disenchantment came across:

We were very optimistic back then. But now, it’s a disaster, a full disaster. Things became hopeless in Bulgaria ... I left for Germany and started over … Germany is a much more tolerant place we live among many minorities. All Roma want is the opportunity to work and live normally … Sad to say the only way to live a normal way of life is to leave Bulgaria.

Tens of thousands of Roma from Romania, Bulgaria and increasingly Hungary, see no future for themselves or their children at home. Emigration is perhaps the most poignant testimony to the failure of the Decade to at least deliver hope for a better future.

Clearly the Decade did not (indeed it could not) deliver the kind of social transformations required to lift millions out of poverty, undo centuries of exclusion, and eliminate popular prejudice and structural discrimination.

But it did set a very necessary, audacious and public agenda: identifying key inclusion policy priorities, insisting on the need to set clear targets with earmarked resources within fixed time limits; tracking progress with regular and robust monitoring mechanisms and calling for structured Roma participation.

This actually existing and imperfect Decade template for social inclusion marked a real departure in that it raised the stakes in advocacy terms, and it shone a harsh light like never before on what had long been Europe’s hidden and neglectful shame.

Hitherto, anti-Gypsyism had been routinely accepted as a banal fact of life, racial segregation deemed as natural as winter following autumn, and acute poverty understood as a “cultural predisposition”.

By the Decade end, there is at least wide recognition that Roma exclusion is one of Europe’s biggest democratic deficits, ethically repugnant and economically unsustainable; a recognition that has translated into the EU Framework, with no illusions of the enormity of the task that lies ahead.

As we move forward, and leave the Decade behind, the most that can be said is that there is a far deeper understanding of what is at stake, and what it will take to undo the damage done and fulfill the promises of democracy for all of Europe’s Roma citizens.

* This text is adapted from A lost decade? Reflections on Roma inclusion 2005-2015 Written by Bernard Rorke, Margareta Matache and Eben Friedman. Edited by Bernard Rorke and Orhan Usein. Available here.

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