Agents of Change for Roma Rights

On 7 December the European Roma Grassroots Organisations Network invited to its annual meeting, on ‘Generation of Change?’. Participants quickly agreed to replace the question mark in the title with an exclamation mark; concluding that the Roma movement has the agency to make change!

‘Here [on a European level I am treated well and can speak to decision-makers, but at local level when I am demonstrating for Roma rights I am arrested by the police. There is a big gap between being an agent of change in practice…’

– Ms Ivanka Čonková, ERGO Network’s Young Roma Advocate

Members of the European Parliament shared their views on how to improve the situation for Roma people in Europe. Mr Péter Nidermüller said that education and combating segregation has to be priorities, because ‘at a very early age Roma children already knows very well what discrimination is’. Ms Soraya Post solutions was to strengthen the Roma movement, target the mainstream society and politicians, and work in coalitions and partnerships. Ms Post pointed out the disproportionate allocation for funding for Roma inclusion versus migration exclusion has to be addressed.

Mr Stefan De Keersmaecker from the European Commission conveyed their wholehearted intention to ‘put the social agenda back on the agenda’, and move forward on Roma inclusion. The European Social Fund can be used for Roma inclusion, and the Partnership Principle and the Monitoring Committees enables civil society to be involved in both programming and implementation of the funds. Participants raised concerns with administrative and technical barriers to access funding, and the limited ability for NGOs to act as watchdogs. De Keersmaecker replied that the management is shared, and sometimes Member States put in place additional rules and barriers for beneficiaries to access funding. In this case the Commission encourage civil society to raise their concern with the Monitoring Committees, and contact the Commission. Funding for technical assistance should be used for institutional reforms, including NGOs and other stakeholders involvement in policies.

Mr Jan Jarab from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights added the importance of paying more attention to policing, law enforcement and forced eviction. He also remarked the absence of employers in the dialogue to find solutions for access to the labour market. In terms of funding, it is important to find sustainable long-term solutions, instead of depending on philanthropists.

Ms Valerie Morrica presented the World Bank’s new consolidated research on equal opportunities for Europe’s Roma. Roma has long been a part of the World Bank’s work on poverty reduction, today they focus on benefits of investment, instead of the costs of exclusion. Levelling the playing field is a must, not a luxury. If governments do not invest in young people now, it will later have a hard time filling the labour market. World Bank favours an integrated life-cycle approach. Education is the biggest equaliser to society; starting at birth, making education systems more inclusive, involve social workers and families. Focusing on education alone is not sufficient, one also need labour market activation, such as enabling parents second chance education so they can become role models for their children, and work with cultural discrimination by service providers. Finally, if you are not connected to basic services and have a safe place to grow you will not produce results in the other areas. One therefore needs to improve living conditions, including gentrification, and services such as roads and transport. Focus should be on the most disadvantaged, ensure solutions tailored to the needs of different Roma communities, and develop exit strategies for future funding. Ms Morrica shared that the most successful projects involves well trained, connected and accepted social-workers in the communities, which can make the link with its government. The World Bank is still struggling though with addressing the root causes of discrimination, as they lack evidence.

Participants added important perspectives; To not only focus on disadvantaged Roma, as it downplays discrimination that affects all Roma; even the ones with high education cannot access employment; International governmental organisations should live as they learn and employ Roma people, otherwise it will continue be hard to convince national authorities that they should do the same, and; Address also corruption, as it makes it very difficult for NGOs and funders to talk to governments when they are corrupt.

I also had the opportunity to learn about the Roma Genocide Remembrance Initiative, funded since 2010 by the European Commission, and organised by International Roma Youth Network, in partnership with among others European Youth Forum and Jewish youth organisations. They recently published a collection of articles about ‘Education for Remembrance of the Roma Genocide’.

Together with its members ERGO Network has also developed an online Roma React platform, including an interactive map and blog. Contrary to what many may think Roma people living in poverty – young as old – are online. They priorities a cheap smartphone to access a space free from anti-gypsyism, using social networks and connecting with its community across Europe.