ERRC welcomes report on access to public services

03 April 2001

The European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), an international public interest law organisation which monitors the situation of Roma in Europe and provides legal defence in instances of human rights abuse, welcomes the publication of "On the Margins: Roma and Public Services in Romania, Bulgaria and Macedonia". The report, written by Open Society Institute consultant and ERRC board member Ina Zoon, edited by Mark Norman Templeton and published by the Open Society Institute, is a call to action to improve Romani access to social protection, health care and housing. With reference to the report, ERRC Executive Director Dimitrina Petrova stated, "On the Margins marks a watershed in documenting abuses of economic and social rights against Roma in southeastern Europe. Denial of the core issues of discrimination in the provision of basic services is a strategy no longer available to the governments concerned." The report additionally includes a supplement on housing in the Czech Republic. The full text of the report is available on the Internet at:, and hard copies of the report are available by contacting: The executive summary of On the Margins follows:

The Roma, comprising between 2 and 7 percent of the populations of Romania, Bulgaria, and Macedonia, generally are the poorest of the poor with the lowest level of physical health and the most miserable accommodations. As the most vulnerable social group in these countries, Roma are overrepresented in all categories in need of social protection: the very poor, the long-term unemployed, the unskilled, the uneducated, members of large families, and individuals without residence permits, identity documents, or citizenship papers. In all three countries, existing government programs to improve the lot of the unfortunate and the downtrodden, if implemented fairly and justly, would have to focus their efforts on the Roma. Social safety nets, applied without favor or prejudice, would catch the Roma at a rate proportional to the challenges that they face. At the very least, in a system devoid of ethnic bias, the Roma would benefit from these government programs at a rate similar to that of the rest of the population.

Instead, many of the social protection, health care, and housing programs in these countries effectively screen out the Roma from support they desperately need. Mobility patterns and practices can make it difficult for Roma to meet social protection requirements and to obtain or keep official documents such as birth certificates and identity cards-all of which governments may require for receipt of social support. Governments may define the family unit in such a way that those who are indigent and not married in a civil ceremony -- which includes the vast majority of young Romani families -- cannot qualify for family benefits under health care laws. Governments may characterize long-standing Romani dwellings as "temporary" because they are not part of the official city plan, which may result in Roma not establishing official residency and not receiving certain types of benefits.

Furthermore, some government officials and their representatives abuse their discretionary powers. Some social workers overestimate the true wealth of Romani clients, thereby disqualifying them from receiving social support. Some doctors and health care personnel refuse to accept Roma on their patient rolls and will not treat them, even under emergency conditions. Some municipal officials allocate less transportation and sanitation services to Romani neighhorhoods than to others with similarly sized populations.

Governments, needless to say, can make choices about the types and levels of services that they will provide. They also may need to adjust those programs as they undergo transitions from one economic system to another. And they may need to change their policies in response to unexpected social and political challenges.

But government policies and government officials should not -- and legally cannot -- deprive Roma of access to public services that are available to the rest of the population. Indirect and direct discrimination in the provision of those benefits worsens the living conditions of Roma, who, as a group, are already most in need of social, health, and housing support. In the past few years, however, instead of helping, governments have withdrawn assistance and used their energies to keep the Roma on the margins of society.

This report documents the ways in which the Romanian, Bulgarian, and Macedonian governments and their representatives discriminate against the Roma in the provision of social protection benefits, health care, and housing. The supplement describes similar discrimination against the Roma in access to housing in the Czech Republic. The report shows how particular, facially neutral policies have a disparate impact on the Roma, and how certain government officials discriminate directly against Romani claimants requesting services.

1. Legal Standards

This study begins by outlining relevant international, regional, and national antidiscrimination legal standards and principles. It establishes that most forms of discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity violate international and European law. It shows that with regard to the provision of social benefits, international treaty bodies have stated that governments should not distinguish among recipients on the basis of their race directly or indirectly. The report shows that the constitutions of the countries under review affirm the principle of equal treatment under law and incorporate ratified international human rights treaties directly into domestic law. Nonetheless, despite the clear international and regional standards and constitutional provisions, only Romania has developed general antidiscrimination legislation, and it remains to he seen how meaningful those laws will be.

2. Social Protection

The report assesses the extent to which governments discriminate against the Roma or fail to provide minimum support through social protection programs. It outlines the level of benefits provided under particular programs; reviews eligibility criteria for particular forms of support; discusses how these criteria relate to characteristics of the Romani population; reviews prohlems faced hy Roma in complying with these procedures; identifies cases in which regional or municipal administrators appear to have used their power in an arhitrary and discriminatory manner; and reviews administrative and legal appeals processes. The key findings with regard to social protection are:

  • Poverty and unemployment rates in Romania, Bulgaria, and Macedonia are two to two-and-a-half times higher for Romani families than for the rest of the population.
  • Governments provide a variety of benefits to persons in need, including social support, food pantry distributions, monthly assistance for the payment of rent, support for heating, emergency help, child allowances, additional benefits for families with children, maternity benefits, and birth grants.
  • The amount of each benefit is insufficient to cover the overall needs of the beneficiary.
  • In determining eligibility for benefits, governments impose a number of criteria, most of which have a disparate impact on the Roma. These criteria include: a means test; a domicile requirement; work responsibilities; identification documents; limitations on the size of living quarters; and bans on foreign travel, corporate ownership, and housing sales.
  • There are a variety of additional harriers for Roma in obtaining social protection benefits, including difficulties in accessing government facilities; forced choices between types of social support; allocation of funds by the government to other socially disadvantaged groups; delay or nonallocation of funds; time limits on the receipt of benefits; poor relations between Roma and social workers; and lack of knowledge about these programs in the Romani community. 

Administrative and legal appeals processes are seldom used and rarely result in redress.

3. Health Care

The study assesses the extent to which governments or private persons discriminate against Romani patients and interfere with their ability to obtain adequate health care. It reviews the general status of Romani health in each of the three countries; highlights the relative cost of medical care and discusses health insurance plans; describes the view of Romani patients put forth by the media; identifies cases of direct discrimination against Romani patients by doctors and other medical personnel; discusses how legal provisions impede the ability of Roma to receive health care; outlines other barriers to Romani access to health care; shows problems that Roma confront in obtaining emergency care; and discusses general levels of staffing, equipment, and facilities in Romani neighhorhoods. The key findings with regard to health care are:

  • The health of the Roma is generally worse than the health of the population at large. Their life expectancy is many years shorter than the life expectancy of the majority. Their children have a higher infant mortality rate and a higher rate of vitamin deficiencies, malnutrition, anemia, dystrophy, and rickets than their non-Romani peers.
  • Governments have health care and health insurance systems designed to provide treatment to persons who receive social support benefits or are otherwise in need.
  • Many Roma, however, do not receive the medical treatment they need due to direct and indirect discrimination.
  • The media has created an image of Romani patients as people who cannot follow doctors' directions or respect the rights of other patients.
  • Some health care professionals and facilities discriminate directly against the Roma. They may decline to accept Romani patients and may subject Romani patients to verbal abuse and degrading treatment. They may segregate patients on the basis of race and decline to provide medical certificates documenting injuries inflicted during racist attacks.
  • Health insurance systems predicate coverage on eligibility requirements that may have a disparate impact on the Roma, such as marital and citizenship status, family size, and level of educational achievement.
  • There are a variety of additional harriers for Roma in accessing health care services. These harriers include lack of information in the Romani community, unlawful practices of the local authorities that lead to loss of health insurance or the impossibility of obtaining health insurance without payment of a contribution, and abuse of power by social workers.
  • Roma do not have equal access to emergency medical facilities. Emergency center operators often refuse to send an ambulance when they assume the request is for a Romani patient, and they give priority to calls from non-Romani neighborhoods. Doctors and nurses avoid, postpone, or refuse to attend to patients in remote Romani communities, especially at night.

If they exist, health care facilities in Romani neighborhoods are understaffed and underequipped as compared to the facilities serving non-Romani neighborhoods.

4. Housing

This report assesses the extent to which governments discriminate against the Roma or fail to address the inadequate housing available to the Roma. It mentions the national strategic plans for improving housing conditions for the Roma; outlines the types of housing conditions for Roma in a given country; reviews issues involved in property ownership; examines particular communities that suffer from segregation, such as those separated from other areas by walls or displaced en masse; details differential treatment in the provision of basic municipal services; and describes harassment of Roma in their homes and apartments. The key findings with regard to housing are:

  • Poverty, overcrowding, and lack of infrastructure dominate Romani neighborhoods. In many places, twice as many Roma live in half the amount of space as the rest of the population. The housing itself is often decrepit and barely inhahitable.
  • Government strategies to address Romani housing problems are nonexistent or lack substance.
  • A large number of Romani families do not own the land on which their houses are built and do not have building authorizations or proper property contracts for their houses.
  • An equally large number of Roma do not reside legally in the apartments that they occupy.
  • Roma have not received a fair share of the agricultural land returned to those who once owned or worked it.
  • A significant number of Roma live in segregated communities. Some of the people in these communities were forcibly displaced from better neighborhoods; others took up residence hecause they had no place else to go. Many Romani communities are located near garbage dumps. In other places, walls or other physical barriers separate the Romani communities from the majority population.
  • Some Romani settlements lack electricity. The houses may have been built illegally, the residents do not have clear legal status, or the electric company and local authorities failed to introduce electricity into the Romani area while providing it to nearby non-Romani dwellings. Local electric companies have installed antitheft devices in Romani, and only in Romani, neighhorhoods.
  • Municipal transportation networks do not reach many Romani settlements. Buses often stop at the edge of Romani neighhorhoods. Where there is puhlic transportation, the buses often do not run as frequently and are of lower quality than those that serve other neighhorhoods.
  • Most garbage collection is less frequent in Romani neighhorhoods than in non-Romani areas. Public health prohlems arise frequently from insufficient solid waste disposal.
  • In some Romani communities, people are forced to drink contaminated water, to share one source of water among dozens of families, or to travel considerable distances to reach the water source.

Authorities and private gangs frequently invade Romani houses and destroy Romani property.

5. Recommendations

The study concludes with a set of recommendations that call on the countries to develop and implement meaningful legislation to protect the Roma and other groups from public and private discrimination. The report urges the governments to allocate appropriate funds to the social protection, health care, and housing needs of their Romani populations. It encourages government leaders to foster and strengthen their relationships with Romani community leaders. And it calls on the international community to lend technical expertise, financial support, and monitoring mechanisms to bring about equality for the Roma.

6. Supplement and Appendix

The supplement on housing in the Czech Republic confirms that similar living conditions and discriminatory policies and practices exist wherever there is a significant Romani population. The research on Romani housing in the Czech Republic is part of an effort to study access to public services by the Roma in other Central European countries.

The study focuses on racial segregation practices, systematic evictions, and the increasing ghettoization of Czech Roma. It documents direct discrimination in the rental of municipal apartments. It also documents the existence of dozens of local regulations that bar access to housing to people without clean criminal records, without a university education or without permanent residence. It argues that the implementation of these regulations has a disparate impact on Czech Roma, leading to indirect discrimination.

The appendix attempts to show, in descriptive rather than analytical terms, what it is like to live in several types of Romani settlements in Romania.

7. Methodology

This study is based on interviews that the author conducted in Romania, Bulgaria, and Macedonia from October through December 1999. Subsequent trips in 2000 to these three countries and the Czech Republic, during which the author spoke with government officials, legislators, social workers, Romani activists, and Romani residents, verified and expanded on the information initially gathered. The report also draws and builds on the work of several recent studies, including Dena Ringold's report for the World Bank, Roma and Transition in Central and Eastern Europe: Trends and Challenges, and the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities' paper, OSCE Report on the Situation of Roma and Sinti in the OSCE Area. The report, except where noted, covers legal developments through August 2000.

Although the author undertook significant efforts to determine which discriminatory practices occurred in which countries, it was impossible to gather sufficient evidence ahout all types of practices across all of the countries. Therefore it is important to note that just because the discussion of a particular country does not establish that a specific discriminatory practice takes place there, it does not mean that Roma do not suffer from that practice in that country. This written report focuses on what the author documented during her trips to these regions, not on addressing the status of every problem faced by the Roma in the countries under review.

Although the report presents the problems confronting the Roma in the relatively neat categories of social protection, health care, and housing, the reality is complex. The typical Roma faces all three types of challenges -- and more -- every day. In the end, the only way to improve the lot of the Roma is if Romani communities, national governments, and the international community together take on the massive problems of discrimination and poverty that beset the Roma.

European Roma Rights Center
1386 Budapest 62
P.O. Box 906/93
Telephone: (36 1) 4132200
Fax: (36 1) 4132201


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