The Roma of Europe are forced to live in segregated poverty, with no secure housing, substandard education and health services, the constant threat of violence, and little access to employment. Blatant racism in the region fuels an unwillingness to provide these communities with the dignity and rights available to others.
“We are discriminated against from the moment we are born - in separate maternity wards; to the moment we die - buried in a separate section of the graveyard.” A Roma activist from Trebišov in Slovakia sums up the experience of his community.
Take a closer look at many European countries, and you will see a shocking disconnect between rhetoric and reality. Countries that have formally agreed to protect and promote all their population’s rights are ignoring and often violating those of their Roma communities.
The Roma, one of Europe’s oldest minorities, have endured a long history of persistent discrimination and disadvantage. In 21st-century Europe – despite all the ground-breaking laws, moral standards, checks, measures and mechanisms in place to ensure human rights are respected, for which Europe is so often lauded, the Roma remain largely excluded from public life.
Whether as part of a deliberate policy of segregation, or the uncaring consequence of entrenched racism, governments and municipal authorities separate the communities into shoddy housing and second-rate schools, uproot and relocate them illegally, and fail to protect them from racist violence.
The financial deprivation most of these communities face is exacerbated by their exclusion from the mainstream of work and services, insecurity of home life, and a sense that no one in power is listening to them or cares what they have to say.
Their exclusion then fuels the further discrimination and cultural isolation they face as they go through life, looking to study, work and start families of their own. They are perceived as unsanitary, uneducated, rootless – all because, from birth, they could not enjoy their rights to health, education, housing and basic services.
This widespread discrimination makes them an easy target, for example, for forced evictions – which are illegal under international human rights law. Because they find obstacles in their way when they try to rent homes, and they are often effectively excluded from access to social housing schemes, they are left with no choice but to find accommodation wherever they can – often in informal settlements with little legal or physical security. When municipal authorities want to ‘clean up’ the area, or bow to pressure from wealthier neighbours to move the community along, or make space for new infrastructure or ‘regeneration projects’ – the Roma communities have little recourse or protection.
Even so law requires that they be fully consulted and offered alternative accommodation with access to basic services. This rarely happens. They often find themselves in even more excluded situations, further away from the mainstream community and sharing extremely overcrowded housing and sanitation facilities. If they are lucky they will have been able to grab their personal possessions before they had to leave. Much harder is rebuilding their social networks, finding new schools and work.
One of the routes out of the vicious cycle of poverty and marginalization – and a right all Roma children are entitled to – is education. Yet the trap of exclusion denies this route to many of them.
Across the region, they continue to be placed in substandard, segregated classes or schools, with reduced facilities and vastly simplified curricula. Sometimes this is all the authorities will allow them – intentionally placing them in schools geared for those with mental or learning disabilities, despite rulings from the European Court that this is illegal, and despite laws in their own countries to prevent such discrimination. In other cases the families may themselves choose the second-rate schools so their children will be with other Roma and not bullied and marginalized by the kids from the majority population and their teachers.
Such segregation is not only a result of racism within educational systems, but also one of the main factors that contribute to discrimination and intolerance within today’s European societies. It also has a knock on effect on Roma being able to access their other human rights – such as being allowed to seek a livelihood and participate in the public life and decision-making that affects them.
As the activist from Trebišov describes – from cradle to grave, the Roma life experience in Europe is one of total exclusion.
Across the region, Romani communities are working hard to claim their rights with the support of local NGOs. Some cases of discrimination have gone to the European Court, and much campaigning has been done on pushing for implementation of European law to protect Roma rights, using local courts for reparation.
For more on forced evictions in Europe see here.
For country examples of forced evictions and their consequences see Italy, Romania, Serbia.
For country examples of the inability to access education See Slovakia and Czech Republic.
For more on discrimination in Europe in general, and the human rights implications see here.
Travel the world to find out about human rights and poverty. Learn about and take action on maternal mortality, human rights abuses in slums, the need for access to justice for those whose rights have been denied. Meet people and communities, listen to their stories, tell your own.