Decade of Roma Inclusion hopes to bring real change to Europe's Roma minority


Leaders of eight Central and Eastern European countries met in the Bulgarian capital Sofia recently to launch an initiative called the "Decade of Roma Inclusion". Founded by Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, the initiative hopes to bring about real change for Europe's millions of Roma, who often live in appalling squalor and poverty. But can such initiatives really work?

It's a grand initiative, possibly the most ambitious international programme ever launched to fight the social ills plaguing Europe's Roma, who number anywhere between eight and twelve million. Sponsored by the World Bank and the Open Society Institute, the Decade of Roma Inclusion hopes to tackle head on such problems as rampant discrimination, illiteracy and social exclusion. We've heard such promises before, so can this latest initiative work? Claude Cahn, from the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Centre.

"Well that really depends entirely on the players. The hopes are that it will provide a very important forum for the governments participating to begin seriously to address the kind of issues that Roma face. But time will tell whether it proves to be a powerful and dynamic initiative, or if there is a lack of political will."

Claude Cahn says one problem is that while the political will might exist at a national government level, filtering that down to local authorities is often difficult.

"The kinds of pressures that a local government can come under are often more direct and very often the situation of Romani communities and the situation of interracial hostility or harmony depends crucially on the local situation."

EU legislation is already quite clear on compelling member governments to ensure ethnic minorities do not face discrimination in such areas as education and work. John Kellog, from the EU's European Monitoring centre for Racism and Xenophobia.

"Yes we've got directives in place. There's what's called the Racial Equality Directive. It something that's got a European level but which has to be implemented at a national level by each member state of the EU, where governments should introduce legislation and also introduce equal mechanisms which will ensure that, say, within the education system, discrimination is eradicated and equal treatment is promoted for all peoples whatever their backgrounds are."

The situation in real life is very different of course. Romanies across the continent are on average far poorer, less educated and have a lower life expectancy than the rest of European society. Indeed many Romanies themselves are highly sceptical that such grand governmental initiatives as the Decade for Roma Inclusion have the power to change anything. Among them is Gipsy, an outspoken young rapper from the Czech Republic.

"I'll tell you what I think about government you know. There's government, and there's a community, and these two things will never be together. If you want to change the community, don't try and change the politicians. If you want to change it, you gotta go out onto the streets to that community. Gypsies don't have any government. We have ourselves, we have families, we have streets. That's where things can change."

Claude Cahn, from the European Roma Rights Centre, says that while much progress has been made in the last decade, the general pace of change is far too slow. Increasing the speed of inclusion of Europe's large Roma minority is a key priority facing governments across the region.

"If you take the point at which we started ten years ago, it's somewhat miraculous. On the other hand, given how serious the issues are and the degradation in which Romanies live, many people feel - ourselves included - that things aren't going fast enough. They are moving, and thankfully they're moving quickly, but nothing is too quickly in this area."