Institutional racism – Europe’s Roma suffer the most.

Editor’s Blog: Produced in collaboration with the EU Buzz team 

Europe’s Black Lives Matter protests against racial profiling and race-based police violence (ENAR2020), and the impact of the pandemic particularly on the socially excluded, forced the European Commission for the first time to state that the existence of structural racism needs to be acknowledged. 

Despite all the anti-discrimination legislation laid out across the European Union, one group of European citizens are persecuted repeatedly inside the Union. The Roma** are Europe’s largest ethnic minority with 10 to 12 million Roma in Europe, of which 6 million are citizens of an EU Member State – So, a population bigger than several EU countries. According to the third Eurobarometer survey on the perception of Roma in the general European population, 61% of Europeans think that discrimination against Roma is widespread in their country.

The Council of Europe, based in Strasbourg, (not to be confused with the Council of the European Union), has produced many reports on Roma and Travellers and notes that there is a significant lack of data on Roma which leads to the continued poor socio-economic circumstances which they face. Both the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) and the European Court of Justice have highlighted a need for disaggregated data by ethnic origin to evaluate the impact of Roma-targeted policies, in particular desegregation measures in housing and education. For the majority of Roma, their existence is fraught with social exclusion, discrimination and segregation which results in restricted access to education, difficulties in entering the labour market, low income and poor health.

In 2016, the FRA published a comprehensive study focusing on Roma and identified that 8 out of 10 Roma lived on an income below the respective national at-risk-of-poverty threshold. Almost half of Roma have limited or no access to drinking water, sanitation or electricity. 27% of Roma and 30% of Roma children live in a household that faced hunger at least once in the previous month, because they could not afford to buy food. Life expectancy for Roma is 10 years lower than that of the general population in the countries. Despite high proportions of long-standing chronic illnesses, Roma encounter barriers to accessing healthcare services, as few have health insurance and most live in segregated areas. Ironically, 82 %) of Roma are not even aware of the existence of organisations offering support and advice to victims of discrimination.

The statistic for labour market participation, education and healthcare are equally disturbing. One of the key reasons for these appalling statistics is that funding is not ring-fenced solely for Roma projects, and Roma themselves are not fully engaged in defining and administering the projects. Take the example of the European Social Fund (ESF): According to the Commission, the specific investment priority (9.2) on Roma integration allowed 10 Member States to programme more than €1.5 billion for the integration of marginalised communities, including Roma. By the end of 2019, 3.9 million participants who were migrants, of a foreign background or part of a marginalised community, such as the Roma, had received ESF support. “Including” and “such as” demonstrate how the Commission is seeking to twist the narrative on funds and support given to Roma. Roma are not migrants, nor of foreign background, they have been in Europe for over 600 years, and yet the Commission seeks to stigmatise them further by grouping them with the influx of migrants arriving from overseas, with all the negative connotations that have only propagated further animosities. 

Statistics and evidence from the Commission and NGOs highlight that Roma communities have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus crisis. Certain Member States applied discriminatory restrictions to their Roma communities in the form of stricter lockdowns exceeding the precautionary principle (e.g. walls built, roadblocks put in place, drones used for surveillance purposes or policed checkpoints established to prevent residents from entering and leaving Roma villages). Furthermore, as with the false association with migrants, the fear engendered by the pandemic has fuelled anti-Gypsyism discourses, discrimination and anti- Roma rhetoric across the media and social networks, which has frequently been echoed by public authorities themselves.

Yes, the European Union has publicly advocated for better Roma inclusion since the 1990s, but little has changed despite decades of initiatives and funding. Instead of addressing the root causes, the Commission favours introducing more strategies, passing the responsibility to the Member States. An EU framework for national Roma integration strategies up to 2020 was introduced in 2011. It aimed at tackling the socio-economic exclusion of, and discrimination against, Roma by promoting equal access to education, employment, health, and housing. That framework ended with few changes for the Roma people. ‘A union of equality: EU Roma strategic framework for equality, inclusion and participation’ (2021-2030) has now replaced it as part of the Commission’s ‘A new push for European democracy’. However, the non-legislative strategy which merely draws upon the policy learnings from the previous framework, slightly adapted to consider the coronavirus pandemic challenges, remains non-binding and therefore weak and ineffective.

The Treaty on European Union (TEU) defines equality and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities, as some of the EU’s shared values (Article 2 TEU). The fight against social exclusion and discrimination and the promotion of economic prosperity, social cohesion and solidarity between Member States feature among the European Union’s common objectives (Article 3 TEU). The EU Member States have the primary responsibility to improve the living conditions and inclusion of Roma people, whilst the EU acts as the coordinator. However, despite more than two decades of EU policies for Roma inclusion, we are far from any significant inclusion of Roma people in European society.

(**The umbrella-term ‘Roma’ is commonly used in European Union (EU) policy terminology. It encompasses several groups, including Roma, Sinti, Kale, Romanichels, Boyash/Rudari, Ashkali, Egyptians, Yenish, Dom, Lom, Rom and Abdal, as well as Traveller populations (gens du voyage, Gypsies, Camminanti).

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