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Roma People in Europe: A Long History of Discrimination


Racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance have proved particularly difficult to eliminate in Europe. The Roma, one of Europe’s oldest minorities, have endured a long history of discrimination and disadvantage throughout Europe, which has only recently begun to be acknowledged and addressed. The Roma form one of the largest ethnic minority groups in Europe. Nearly 80% of the European Roma population (around 10 million people) live in EU Member and candidate Member States.

Discrimination and human rights violations keeping Roma in poverty

In 21st Century Europe, despite all the groundbreaking laws and mechanisms in place to ensure that human rights are respected, millions of Roma are still discriminated against. Racial discrimination occurs when individuals or groups are treated differently to others on account of their ethnic origin, without objective justification. It can be direct (where a law or policy singles out a particular group for differential treatment) or indirect (where an apparently neutral law or practice has the effect of disadvantaging a particular group). Both forms of discrimination are prohibited under international human rights law; nevertheless, racial discrimination is the thread running through most of the human rights violations suffered by Roma people (Amnesty International 2010e). Amnesty International has documented how, in both the East and Western Europe, the Roma continue to face obstacles in accessing basic goods and services and securing equal rights to housing, healthcare, education and work. Millions of Roma still live in informal settlements with no or inadequate sanitation, startlingly high levels of unemployment and limited access to healthcare services. Throughout Europe, the Roma are poorly represented in political and administrative structures and face considerable difficulties in integrating into mainstream society while preserving their distinct cultural identities.

In many European countries, there is a lack of reliable and up to date data measuring the social inclusion of Roma. This is often due to the reluctance of states to collect ethnically disaggregated data. This lack of data makes it difficult for states to develop programmes tailored to the real needs of disadvantaged Roma and to measure the success of such programmes. The data that does exist paints a disturbing picture of the marginalisation of Europe’s Roma. A World Bank report published in 2005 concluded that the life expectancy of Roma in Central and Eastern Europe was on average 10 years lower than the rest of the population (Ringold et al. 2005, cited in Amnesty International 2010e).

A United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) study of the situation of Roma in Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic published in 2003 found that infant mortality rates among the Roma population were twice that of non-Roma. The marginalisation of Roma is reflected in statistics on their housing situation. The UNDP report on the situation of Roma children across south-eastern Europe estimated that 25% of Roma lived in shacks, compared to 3% of non-Roma, and that 55% of Roma homes were not connected to a sewage system (UNDP Regional Bureau for Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States 2003, cited in Amnesty International 2010e, p 5).

Across Europe, Roma struggle to find regular employment. A detailed survey of 402 working-aged Roma men and women in Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia carried out in 2006 by the European Roma Rights Centre found that only 38% were in paid employment; almost two-thirds reported that they had been refused employment because they were Roma (Hyde 2006). A survey of 3,510 Roma in 7 EU countries carried out by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency in 2008 revealed that 15% of respondents were illiterate and 31% had received less than 6 years of formal education (Fundamental Rights Agency 2009, cited in Amnesty International 2010e, p 6). The result, as the 2003 World Bank report concluded, is that the Roma are “poorer than other groups, more likely to fall into poverty, and more likely to remain poor” (Ringold et al. 2005, cited in Amnesty International 2010e, p 6).

Call for a comprehensive EU framework strategy on Roma inclusion

The last decade has seen an increase in the attention being paid to the rights of Roma, particularly at the international and intergovernmental level, where a number of initiatives have been developed. These include the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) Action Plan on Improving the Situation of Roma and Sinti within Europe, the establishment of a Roma, Sinti and Travellers Forum by the Council of Europe, various European Union initiatives and, most significantly, the Decade for Roma Inclusion 2005–2015. This last initiative has seen 12 participating Member States commit to improving respect for the rights of Roma in four key areas: education, employment, health and housing, through a series of national action plans. As with other national initiatives, however, these initiatives have suffered from a lack of concrete targets, fitful implementation, particularly at the local level, and ineffective monitoring. As a result, there has been little concrete improvement in respect for the rights of the great majority of Roma.

Breaking the cycle of prejudice, poverty and human rights violations requires more than piecemeal measures in each of these areas. It requires comprehensive, proactive policies to promote the social inclusion of Roma and combat entrenched discrimination in the provision of essential public services and in society at large. It requires concerted action at all levels – international, national and local. It requires political will and long-term commitment. Above all, it requires the voices of Roma to be heard and heeded.

Sporadic and incomplete responses by the EU and its Member States have failed to secure structural and sustainable improvements in the situation of millions of Roma in access to education, housing, health and employment. The EU has both a responsibility and the tools to take a more active role in addressing one of the most extensive and complex human rights problems within its territory. However, it still has no integrated and comprehensive policy specifically targeting discrimination against Roma. Amnesty International is calling for a comprehensive, human rights-based EU framework strategy on Roma inclusion to make more effective use of existing EU funds and instruments (Amnesty International 2009c, p 30).

Ultimately, the main responsibility for ensuring that Europe’s Roma can access their human rights to housing, health, education and employment, and to participate in public life, lies with national governments. For too long governments have failed to develop or implement national plans that effectively reach out to disadvantaged Roma. The policies of national governments and local authorities often actively obstruct the access of Roma to essential goods and services. It is time for governments to put an end to such discriminatory practices and to make the social inclusion of Roma a real priority. 

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