Listening to the concerns of people often left behind

Making the most of the long summer break in Brussels, my colleagues and I have been working on developing our priorities for the next coming year. In the current context of growing inequalities, we believe it is more important than ever that we focus on not leaving anyone behind – especially those in the most vulnerable situations. We want to work closely with our 47 members to influence European Union and Member State decision-makers to ensure that the policies they support have the wellbeing of people at their heart. With this in mind, I attended two interesting discussions this week.

The first discussion, was about – and with – a group often left behind – Roma women. Soraya Post was the first Roma woman in Sweden to be a candidate for a political party, and today she is a  Member of the European Parliament, raising awareness of the extreme social exclusion of Roma people in the EU. Jana Balazova from the European Commission informed participants that the Commission is supporting Member States financially to develop their own national platforms, and while the National Roma Strategies in 2011 did not sufficiently address gender, the Council recommendations two years later focused more on women. On the website of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights you can explore data on the situation of Roma people by country in the areas of education, employment, living standards, health, housing, discrimination and participation. I was particularly struck by some of the figures; 19% of Roma women have never been formally educated, compared to 2% of non-Roma women living nearby, and 44% of Roma women have felt discriminated against because of their ethnicity compared to only 4% of non-Roma women living nearby. Marta Pinto from the European Roma Information Office emphasised the challenges presented by low levels of education, segregated schools, early marriage, a lack of housing, racism towards Roma children and discrimination from employers. The solution includes enabling Roma women to access education and participate in public life: “women’s participation is a part of democracy”, Marta said rightly.

The second discussion was about the perceptions of violent radicalisation among people living in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Brussels, Molenbeek. Martin Griffiths, the Director of the European Institute of Peace explained that while the EIP was founded with the goal of resolving conflicts elsewhere they are now studying “their own backyard”, by interviewing people living in Molenbeek to understand their perception of violent radicalisation. Molenbeek is one of the poorest areas in Brussels with the largest population with a foreign background, predominantly a Muslim community from North Africa. Among its findings, the study shows that people living in Molenbeek feel that they experience a lack of opportunities, social isolation, and discrimination from outside their community, and some of those interviewed do not see the value of education as they do not believe it helps them in the labour market. Their everyday concerns are universal – the future of their families. Primarily, they worry about issues such as unemployment and education, and not terrorism and extremism. Molenbeekois believe that dialogue is key to tackling radicalism. Religious and diversity education fosters dialogue, and is especially important for young people that lack such knowledge and are more susceptible to radicalisation. Leaders and positive role models, such as a police force closer to the community would also foster more dialogue, the interviews discovered. Bart Somers, Mayor of the Belgian city of Mechelen and a member of the Committee of the Regions urged politicians to invest in their neighbourhoods and walk the talk of democracy, human rights and non-discrimination. Local authorities have to be inclusive in order to build trust, which is necessary for citizens to feel comfortable enough to raise the alarm if they believe a friend or family member is being radicalised. Non-governmental organisations play an important role, but they are not a sustainable solution, said Mr Somers.