Europe needs educated Roma
If a vicious cycle of poverty and discrimination continues then the EU's eastern economies will suffer
Continued discrimination against Roma in Europe not only violates human dignity, but is a major social problem crippling the development of eastern European countries with large Roma populations. Spain, which has been more successful in dealing with its Roma problem than other countries, can take the lead this month as it assumes the European Union presidency.
Up to 12 million Roma live in Europe today, primarily in the east. Despite the region's overall economic growth over the past two decades, life for many Roma is worse now than ever. During the communist era, Roma received jobs and housing. But the heavy industries in which many were employed have now closed, and unemployment is widespread. Many Roma live in deplorable conditions unworthy of modern Europe.
These economic hardships are deepened by social tension. The majority population is very hostile towards Roma, and discrimination against them occurs at every level. For example, Roma children are often automatically put into classes for the mentally disabled, simply because they are Roma. Despite court rulings ordering reform, Roma are regularly denied equal access to housing, education, and healthcare, creating a vicious cycle of poverty and marginalisation. Reality and stereotype reinforce each other in a reflexive fashion.
The EU is slowly realising that it has a major social problem on its hands. Denied opportunities in the east, many Roma have moved to western Europe, fuelling a new wave of hostility. In Italy, the Berlusconi government's treatment of Roma settlements – destroying homes and fingerprinting Roma based solely on their ethnicity – blatantly violated human rights. This prompted the EU to create the new position of fundamental rights commissioner, with confirmation hearings set to begin in January. In the meantime, violations continue.
On a positive note, the "Decade of Roma Inclusion", established in 2005, is receiving strong support from the structural funds administered by the European commission and is making some inroads. Yet this is not enough to reverse a rising tide of violence and discrimination, compounded by the recent economic recession.
What is needed now is a comprehensive European strategy to address Roma issues across borders. This strategy must address both intolerable living conditions for Roma and the hostile stereotypes that prevail within majority populations, because they mutually reinforce each other.
This is not only a human rights issue, but an economic one. Following current demographic trends, by 2040, Roma will comprise roughly 40% of Hungary's working-age population. Statistics are similar for neighbouring countries. Unless the Roma are well-educated and socially integrated – in stark contrast to the reality today – these countries' economic future is bleak.
The key to success is the education of a new generation of Roma who do not seek to assimilate into the general population, but deliberately retain their identity as Roma. Educated, successful Roma will shatter the prevailing negative stereotypes by their very existence.
I speak with some authority on this subject. My foundation network has made the education of Roma a priority since its inception in Hungary in 1984, and across the rest of eastern Europe since 1989. These efforts have produced a small, well-educated Roma elite who are now making an important contribution to the emancipation of Roma. These leaders have blazed a trail for future advocates, but there are far too few of them.
In conjunction with the launch of the Decade of Roma Inclusion in 2005, my foundation network formed an alliance with the World Bank and transferred its Roma educational programmes to a newly established Roma Education Fund. Last year, the fund directly assisted 30,000 Roma children and 800 university students. It also provided invaluable support to member countries' public education systems to strengthen Roma inclusion. The fund plans to double its activities in the next five years, but, again, this is not enough. Given the need, it ought to grow tenfold.
The scale of this challenge demands a comprehensive, institutional response from the EU that goes well beyond the "decade" and the capacity of my foundations. While the European Roma Platform launched last year paid lip service to Roma issues, it did not go far enough. Europe must develop a long-term strategy tied to programmes and monitoring mechanisms that will deliver real change on the ground.
Spain can be justly proud of the way it has dealt with its own Roma minority. I hope that the Spanish EU presidency will build on this experience to champion the launch of a comprehensive European Roma strategy. If Spain leads the way, all of Europe will ultimately reap the benefits.
• Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009