The Roma are Europe’s largest ethnic minority, representing 10-12 million people. They are also the most impoverished and excluded minority in Europe, with roughly 90% of Roma having an income below the national poverty level in their country, and less than one in three Roma being in paid employment in 2011.
Roma have faced persecution in Europe since the Middle Ages, and still experience widespread discrimination today. In 2005, a group of 12 European countries (from both inside and outside the European Union) launched an initiative called the ‘Decade of Roma Inclusion‘ in an effort to improve the situation. 2015 is the last year of the initiative, and it’s difficult to say that the decade has been a success.
To give you a better idea about the scale of Roma exclusion, we’ve put together some facts and figures about Roma, unemployment and social exclusion in the EU in an infographic below (click for a larger image).
We had a comment sent in by Ruth, arguing that the decade of Roma inclusion has failed in its overall aim to achieve inclusion of Roma. Why did it fail?
To get an answer, we talked to Andrey Ivanov, Head of Sector responsible for Roma and migrant integration at the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA). What would he say?
I don’t think failure is the correct word. The decade achieved a lot. What I think was the problem was over-ambitiousness. It was over-ambitious at the start, and it generated a lot of expectations, and not all of those expectations could be met.
I think one of the biggest achievements of the decade was to put Roma inclusion firmly on government agendas. For the first time, governments made pledges to achieve tangible improvements of the situation of Roma, and it triggered a lot of other processes which are important and will bear fruit in the long-run. So, I would say that the momentum which was established by the decade will continue and hopefully will have much more tangible results in the years to come…
To get another perspective, we spoke to Astrid Thors, the High Commissioner on National Minorities of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). What would she say to Ruth?
I think most experts agree on Ruth’s assessment that the decade did not reach its objectives. Maybe because they were not reaching out to local authorities, to the workplace, and there was also… let us say ‘counter-propaganda’ against Roma inclusion. The general atmosphere in Europe has been a challenge. However, I would say that we have seen positive results when it comes to the education of young Roma. And I think we need to take a long-term perspective, like some countries in Europe have been doing. Here we could highlight Sweden with their 20-year action plan on Roma inclusion, for example.
Next, we had a comment sent in by Raluca, who pointed out that Roma often meet additional difficulties and discrimination when trying to find jobs. What does Andrey Ivanov think should be done to overcome this discrimination?
I would say the more Roma and non-Roma engage in group activities, working together in solving their common shared challenges, particularly at local level, the easier it would be to overcome prejudice, which is basically the starting point of discriminatory behaviour in the labour market.
I think the focus at the local level is critical in this regard, because there are a lot of policies and interventions at EU Member State level or regional level, but the real challenges and problems are happening at local and community level. So, interactions between people, between communities, are the key element of this inclusion chain. And the more we help this interaction be productive and bring people together in achieving common goals, the better.
We put the same question to Astrid Thors. How would she respond to Raluca?
I think there needs to be leadership. In so many areas, when you want to have societal change, and when we’re talking about attitudes, it must start at the top of an organisation, showing clearly that discrimination is not allowed and we give people equal chances. In the same way, we need also to practice equality in other areas; for example, through anonymous job interviews giving people an equal chance. Because I think that, as soon as you see a person face-to-face, your prejudices starts to vanish. And it’s important to give people equal education, equal opportunities, and equal chances.
Finally, we had a comment sent in from Milen, wanting to know what would be the economic benefits of improving Roma participation in the European labour market. Milen argued that Europe’s Roma populations are often seen as a burden, but it seems to him that they could represent a potential source of growth, particularly as Europe has an ageing population and the Roma constitute a young workforce.
How would Andrey Ivanov respond?
Yes, this is very clearly the case, given the demographic characteristics of both the Roma and non-Roma population. One might easily see that employing Roma and helping them enter the labour market will benefit society as a whole.
What is very important to bear in mind is that including Roma in the lives of their society is not just for the benefit of the Roma. It’s not even primarily for the benefit of the Roma! It is for the benefit of societies in general. So, yes, the obvious answer is that yes, societies would benefit from a younger, more dynamic labour force.
Of course, there would be all the related economic benefits, like greater tax income and so on, but I would say that – in my personal view – the biggest benefits are not even the economic ones. The biggest benefits are healing sometimes fractured societies and communities, overcoming the massive deposits of prejudice. I would say the integration of Roma in the labour market will bring tremendous positive effects in terms of the opportunities for exercising their fundamental rights in other areas. In areas of education, in areas of access to health, political rights, and so on.
So, we often tend to put a price tag, both on the resources invested and on the benefits. The price tag is usually in monetary terms. But, I would suggest going beyond that. Yes, the benefits from including the Roma in the labour market are obvious and very large. But, there is much more than that. Let’s not forget that there’s more than that.
And, to get another perspective, what would Astrid Thors say to Milen?
I would say that Milen is very, very correct. Europe is a greying area, with many countries facing huge demographic challenges. These challenges, which are already impacting the Nordic countries and some more affluent countries, will come sooner-or-later also to countries that have joined the EU recently, or are EU partners.
There are many, many estimates that the greater the part of the population that is in the active workforce, the greater economic growth there will be, the easier it will become to also have what we believe are ‘European values’, that is the state taking care of everybody and giving chances to everybody. And there are further benefits, such as having a society where everybody feels safe, has the possibility to work, and then you can also decrease other costs for society, like social security structures, unemployment benefits, and so on…
How can we tackle unemployment among Europe’s Roma? How can we overcome the discrimination Roma face when trying to find a job? And what would be the economic and social benefits of Roma inclusion? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!