Today, millions of Europeans are afraid and frustrated as they face unemployment, the loss of savings and pensions, radically reduced social benefits and other economic hardships. Their fears are warranted, because the current financial crisis is undermining the very union that was established to heal Europe’s wounds at the end of World War II.
However, in the midst of the general suffering, one group — the Roma — has been ignored. Europe’s largest and most disadvantaged ethnic minority, millions of Roma are trapped in extreme poverty and ignorance, a situation compounded by widespread discrimination. Indeed, the 2009 EU Minorities and Discrimination Survey found that Roma experience more severe discrimination than any other ethnic-minority group in Europe.
Hard times provoke aggressive, vindictive and intolerant attitudes, and Roma have become scapegoats in this economic crisis. In fact, Roma-bashing is helping far-right political parties to mobilize and nationalist leaders to win votes. Even some mainstream political parties have resorted to using anti-Roma rhetoric that would have been inconceivable a decade ago. However, the Roma have refrained from reciprocating the sometimes lethal violence inflicted on them.
Six years ago, the Open Society Foundation, the World Bank and nine national governments addressed the issue by elaborating a step-by-step plan to integrate the Roma into European society. Known as the “Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015,” the program prioritized four areas: health, housing, education and employment. This year, the European Commission has requested that all EU member states develop and implement strategies to promote Roma social inclusion in these areas.
The Decade of Roma Inclusion provides a blueprint for how to achieve integration and equality, and to eliminate unlawful discrimination. However, these goals can be achieved only if the EU resolves its financial crisis, embarks on a sustainable recovery and becomes an inclusive economy. Otherwise, Roma will inevitably serve as the EU’s convenient scapegoats.
Social exclusion is not only morally and legally repugnant; it also defies economic sense. Roma are Europe’s youngest and fastest-growing population with an average age of 25, in contrast to the European average of 40. According to recent World Bank research, Roma comprise about 23 percent of new entrants into Bulgaria’s labor market. In Romania, the figure is 21 percent. However, the vast majority of working-age Roma lack the requisite education to compete successfully in the labor market.
By continuing to shunt Roma children into “special” schools, where expectations are low and results still lower, EU member states are squandering hundreds of millions of euros annually in productivity and tax revenues. The message is simple: Improving opportunities for Roma is morally right and economically smart.
Integration is possible. I grew up in a small, impoverished town in central Serbia, where my parents lifted themselves out of extreme poverty and deprivation. My father obtained a high-school diploma and became a taxi driver, while my mother attended university and worked in a state office. We were proud of the two-room house my parents managed to build before we moved into a larger home in an ethnically mixed area.
Having grown up in a family that struggled to rise from poverty to the middle class, I studied law and completed an non-governmental organization management training program at Harvard University. Thousands of Roma have made similar journeys. And many more are capable of doing the same.