EU-wide, Roma civil society begins its third year of integration assessments

September 3, 2019

The year 2020 will mark the final year of the current EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies (NRIS), within which Member States have developed their Roma integration policies. Since 2012 the Commission has been reporting annually on the implementation of the NRIS by the Member States, and since 2016 the Member States have been reporting on their implementation to the European Commission themselves. Previous civil society efforts to produce “shadow reports” about the implementation from a civil society perspective were given a boost in 2017 when DG Justice funded the Roma Civil Monitor (RCM) project.

The project involves more than 90 civil society organizations throughout all EU Member States (with the exception of Malta) as well as four large NGOs with experience working internationally on Roma-related issues - the European Roma Grassroots Organisation Network (ERGO), the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), the Fundacion Secretariado Gitano (FSG) and the Roma Education Fund (REF).

Monitoring reports are available for the first (2017) cycle, which investigated how the Member State strategies combat antigypsyism, how they fit into each country’s policy framework and, for the countries with the largest Roma communities, what the impact of mainstream education policy is on the Roma minority. A full synthesis report on all the Member States is also available from this first cycle; one of its recommendations was that the European Commission should strengthen the interdependency of EU financial mechanisms such as the ESIF and the European Semester with EU policy and the NRIS so that Roma-related “enabling conditions” for receiving funding will be widely applied in post-2020 EU cohesion policy.

The findings of the second (2018) cycle are also now available. During this cycle the reporting in all countries focused on education, employment, healthcare, housing and how the Roma integration strategies are or are not being implemented in those policy areas.

Next week representatives of the Roma civil society coalitions will meet at CEU in Budapest to discuss which topics they are hoping to address in the third cycle reports. This time the focus will be on what has been missing from the implementation or from the strategies themselves, so the content will vary more from country to country.

The project has also produced a synthesis of the initial comparative findings of the Roma civil society groups in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, the EU countries with the biggest Roma populations. This 2017 report found that across the board, implementation of the NRIS rests exclusively with the executive branches and has not yet become something legislatures deal with. This means executive branches are not yet being held accountable for their performance in this regard to publics nationally.

So far, the executives’ use of the NRIS in these countries has been more associated with developing guidelines than with the implementation of policy, which necessarily depends on political priorities. The five countries represent diverse degrees of decentralization and models for public administration, but what they have in common is that implementation of the NRIS depends more on the political will and priorities of local government leadership than it does on national leadership. While Roma remain underrepresented both as voters, as candidates and as office holders, the successes they have been scoring in terms of representation in these five countries – most recently in Slovakia - tend to happen at local level, representing disadvantaged regions with big Roma populations.

Some local governments across these five countries can be said to be succeeding with Roma integration, but there are also cases of local governments implementing deliberately repressive policies or discriminatory measures against Roma, such as the fact that Roma in all of these countries experience ethnic profiling by police. Most local governments still do not have access to the know-how needed to design, fund and implement meaningful Roma integration strategies. In all five countries, EU funding remains the most important source of funding for local interventions in Roma integration. Effective use of such funding requires skills many local governments do not possess, and national programming for it is usually planned in a top-down manner that frequently does not meet local needs.

Wider recognition of the Roma on paper is also no substitute for access to the knowledge necessary to meaningfully include Roma participation in policy planning and decision making. In all five countries, not just Roma integration policies but also human rights policies more generally, local development policies, and Roma civil society itself largely depend on financing from the ESIF, EEA /Norway Grants and other external sources. Since the 2008 crisis, national funding for civil society has significantly decreased in these five countries. The repercussions of the public funding that some NGOs access in order to provide various services also has obvious drawbacks: NGOs often are required to keep silent about their criticisms of policy and practices in order to receive such funding.

There is also a major power imbalance between civil society and the state that is rarely addressed by policy in these countries. The main criticism is that there is a lack of national monitoring mechanisms regarding mainstream policy and its impacts on Roma. While state authorities typically view ethnic data collection (probably incorrectly) as a violation of personal data protections, Roma civil society often argues for gathering anonymized ethnic equality data in order to devise effective anti-discrimination and desegregation measures and assess how mainstream policies affect Roma integration. Reluctance by public authorities to engage with ethnic data is often viewed by civil society as a pretext to avoid addressing the efficiency of their policy interventions. The NRISs for these countries do not yet include any baseline indicators or provisions for impact assessment, even as this lack of ethnically disaggregated data is a primary contributor to the fact that many patterns of discrimination therefore remain invisible to officials.

For example, despite the prohibition on the segregation of Roma children into either “special schools” or ethnically homogeneous ones - as well as rulings from national courts and European Court of Human Rights judgments punishing such discrimination - these civil society reports confirm that Roma children are still denied access to quality integrated education in all five countries. Segregated, separate facilities are still being built with public funds, and the existing opportunities for active desegregation are not being used. The European Commission’s infringement procedures against the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia seem to have had little discernible impact on Roma school segregation so far.

The kinds of data that are collected reveal further disturbing patterns. As the report notes:

In the five countries, rates of grade repetition are higher in regions with sizable disadvantaged Roma communities. Funding streams have targeted the issue, although in most cases interventions do not address the structural problems that lead to it. Schools use grade repetition as an easy tool that allows them to not teach effectively. Grade repetition has not been addressed by policy in any of the five countries in recent years. All schools have to collect data and report to the relevant ministry about grade repetition, but schools do not face any financial consequences if grade repetition reaches a certain level.”

Additionally, there is very little attention paid in the five countries’ strategies to the gender perspective. Issues such as early marriage, trafficking, and violence against women are often incorrectly analyzed and essentialized by authorities as the consequences of ethnic “tradition”. Policy also tends to endorse patriarchal norms by conceiving of (not just) Roma women’s role as primarily that of caring for children.

Discrimination against Roma remains widespread and goes effectively unchallenged. The official bodies responsible for combating discrimination are not independent enough, resourced enough, or powerful enough to tackle this. Not surprisingly, there is a low level of human rights awareness among many marginalized Roma communities, as well as widespread skepticism concerning justice and law enforcement.

Civil society also reports that there is no evidence of policy interventions to overcome residential segregation, and some countries are even witnessing a growth in the number and size of localities with concentrated, socially excluded populations, often in appalling conditions lacking basic infrastructure and access to basic public services. The disparities between non-Roma and Roma living conditions remain stark across all five countries. While the situation varies from country to country, many local authorities still favor demolitions of Roma-inhabited properties and mass evictions of Roma inhabitants, flouting international human rights treaty obligations and ignoring winter moratoriums. The authorities do not offer the people affected any consultation, information, reasonable notice or access to legal aid, and most egregiously, they do not provide adequate alternative accommodation. In August 2019, planned demolitions of prefabricated apartment buildings and their replacement with “container housing” was strongly objected to by Roma civil society and their supporters in the Czech Republic.

While Roma are recognized as national minorities by all five countries and racism against Roma is a subject of state policies, the recognition of the term “antigypsyism” is not consistent among the countries, and in none of them is this phenomenon recognized as a determining factor of inequality. While racism and xenophobia are criminalized to different extents, Roma community members are

reportedly not well-informed about organizations supporting hate crime victims and distrust state institutions generally. Police, prosecutors and judges apparently do not often consider crimes to be hate crimes when victims are Roma. Most egregiously, the Hungarian Police have been found wanting in their obligation to serve and protect Roma citizens under siege from right-wing extremists. The  European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found in January 2017 that the Hungarian State had violated Article 8 of the Convention (the right to privacy and family life) in its response to violent incidents in the village of Devecser during an anti-Roma demonstration attended by nine far-right groups and members of the ultranationalist Jobbik party.

There is still no concerted effort in any of the five countries to prevent antigypsyist speech. NGOs monitor antigypsyism in media output, as do some public agencies (although the latter have been criticized for their passivity with regard to such cases). Openly anti-Roma hate speech is not limited to extremist parties but exists across the entire political spectrum. Hostility, prejudice and discrimination specifically directed at Roma, stereotypical portrayals of Roma, and denial of the possibility of coexistence between non-Roma and Roma constitute the dominant narrative in all five countries’ societies. The phenomenon is also still not sufficiently researched by universities, although the Roma Civil Monitor contributions represent an important milestone in the European understanding of these issues.

The publication of the third cycle shadow reports will describe to what extent the situation has developed and where the biggest “blind sports” are ahead of revisions to the EU’s own framework for policy in this area that is of such importance to the Roma of Europe.