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Western Balkans countries road to EU with Roma community on board

For many years the focus of EU action in the field of non-discrimination was on preventing discrimination on the grounds of nationality and gender. A few years ago, however, the EU countries approved unanimously new powers to combat discrimination on the grounds of racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation.

The Roma people are Europe’s largest ethnic minority.  Of an estimated 10-12 million in the whole of Europe, some six million live in the EU, most of them EU citizens. Many Roma in the EU are victims of prejudice and social exclusion, despite the fact that EU countries have banned discrimination.

Roma integration is more than a social inclusion issue. It also has a positive economic impact, in particular in those Member States with a large Roma minority. Roma represent a significant and growing proportion of the school age population and the future workforce in many countries. Efficient labour activation policies and individualised and accessible support services for Roma job seekers are crucial to allow Roma people to realise their human capital and to actively and equally participate in the economy and society. The social inclusion and integration of Roma communities is a joint responsibility of Member States and the European Union.

Except primary law where EU guarantees the equality of all citizens of EU regardless their nationality or ethnicity, several other steps were taken in EU level and by Member States to ensure equality and non-discrimination of Roma community.

Each country produced a Roma strategy or a set of integrated policy measures that were assessed by the European Commission in a Communication adopted in 2012 (National Roma Integration Strategies: a first step in the implementation of the EU Framework). The European Council adopted a recommendation on effective Roma integration measures in the Member States on 9 December 2013. This was the first ever EU-level legal instrument for Roma inclusion. With the adoption of the Recommendation Member States commit to taking targeted action to bridge the gaps between the Roma and the rest of the population.

The 2013 assessment report (Steps forward in implementing National Roma Integration Strategies ) focused specifically on the structural preconditions needed in each country. These yearly reports (until 2020) use information provided by each country, NGOs, international organisations and the EU Fundamental Rights agency (FRA).

Within the framework of the Europe 2020 dialogue, the European Commission stresses that further efforts must be made to achieve Roma inclusion.

According to European Commission, it is believed that around one million of Roma community citizens live in Western Balkans countries, all of them on their way to the EU membership. It is already well known that a country aiming to join EU needs to fulfil specific preconditions (known as Copenhagen criteria) in order to become a member. Chapter 23 of the aquis consist on Judiciary and Fundamental Rights, where the condition of taking care for the rights of minorities fall under. Therefore, EU sent a clear message to the Balkan countries with regard to Roma community, requiring that their rights cannot be at stake.

In the period 2007-2013, over €100 million pre-accession assistance has been provided under the Instrument on Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA) to support social inclusion and integration of Roma in the enlargement countries, including housing. To improve coordination, efficiency and visibility of financial support to Roma inclusion under the new IPA II, tailormade actions will continue to be financed under the relevant national programmes through a sectorial approach and as part of a global IPA envelope (“Roma inclusion facility”). This will be accompanied by rigorous monitoring involving governments and all stakeholders including civil society.

The issue of Roma community and their treatment in candidate and potential candidate countries from Balkans is continuously addressed by European Commission, not only in their annual reports regarding integration of Roma community, but also in the Progress Reports for each country.  In the last Progress Report (2014), the Commission measured the progress that Western Balkan countries have made from the previous Report of 2013 with regard to minorities in general, and especially for the Roma community.

In Albania’s Report of 2014, the Commission acknowledges that inter-ethnic relations remained good. However, the Report states that the implementation of policies on Roma inclusion remains inadequate overall, including implementation of the operational conclusions from the December 2011 seminar on the inclusion of Roma and Egyptian communities. The Report points out as well that Roma and Egyptian people continue to face very difficult living conditions and frequent social exclusion and discrimination, particularly regarding access to health care, social protection, education, employment and housing.

Regarding Bosnia and Herzegovina, the legal framework for the protection of minorities is largely in place, but implementation needs to improve. There are two action plans under the Roma strategy — an action plan on educational needs of Roma and an action plan on employment, housing and healthcare 2013-16. The latter has been revised to reflect recommendations from the Roma Inclusion Seminar held in July 2011. The defined objectives are now more realistic, with deadlines and clearer division of responsibility among stakeholders.

Commission acknowledges that very good progress was made in addressing the housing needs of Roma through building new housing units and upgrading existing Roma settlements. Still, the percentage of Roma children vaccinated against preventable diseases remains very low, and the mortality rate under one year of age is three times higher for Roma children than for the overall population. Poverty, change of residence and lack of support from families continue to be barriers to access to education for Roma children.

In Kosovo’s Progress Report of 2014, it is stated that Kosovo has a good legal framework for safeguarding and protecting its minorities but implementation needs to improve. In general, Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities continue to face major challenges, notably difficult socio-economic circumstances, a lack of education, weak health care and discrimination. Regarding equal access to quality education, students from the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities have lower registration rates, higher dropout rates, and poor levels of academic performance. Statistics on the dropout rates need to become more reliable. The Report states that realistic policy commitments on Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities beyond 2015 need to be developed.

The general minorities’ situation in Macedonia according to the 2014’s Report is that progress in relation to the protection of minorities and cultural rights has been hampered by insufficient financial and human resources, and inadequate cooperation between the authorities concerned. Prejudice and discrimination against Roma persist, particularly in the area of employment. Curricula on Roma language and culture for elementary education were developed during the last year and textbooks were printed, however separation of Roma in schools continues and the number of Roma children in special schools is disproportionally high. Stereotyping occurs on social networks. Little progress has been made since, to implement the meeting’s operational conclusions, notably in the area of the legalisation and provision of social housing. Legislative changes are also needed to address issues relating to civil registration and obtaining personal identity documents for those rejected in the past.

In Montenegro, as for the inclusion of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians, within the framework of its presidency of the Decade of Roma Inclusion, Montenegro hosted in January an international conference on combating discrimination against Roma. In April a new action plan to implement the Strategy for improvement of position of Roma and Egyptians in Montenegro was adopted. In education, the number of Roma students attending primary school has increased markedly compared to previous years, and the desegregation process continued; however, drop-out rates and the low proportion of female Roma students among the total population of Roma students is a cause for concern. Discrimination remains prevalent in access to employment and to social care and healthcare. Domestic violence and child begging largely affect the Roma community.

Finally, in Serbia, the Report states that the legal framework for the protection of minorities and cultural rights is in place and generally upheld, in line with the Framework Convention on National Minorities to which Serbia is party. The action plan for the national strategy to improve the status of the Roma in Serbia to 2015, adopted in June 2013, has started to be implemented. Cooperation with EU-funded initiatives has improved: the multi-sectoral EU programme for Roma inclusion received full support from various relevant institutions, while cooperation with local authorities on providing housing and other forms of assistance has shown some progress.

However, the Roma continued to face difficult living conditions. Compliance with international standards on forced evictions and relocations still needs to be ensured. The school drop-out rate for Roma children remains high. Despite some improvements, the Roma population, and especially Roma women, remain the most discriminated against in the labour market. Roma women and children are still frequently subject to family violence, which often goes unreported. Governmental coordination, together with operational cooperation between the various ministries and bodies relevant for Roma inclusion, remain to be further improved. Adequate financial and human resources, together with better involvement by local authorities in implementing the Roma strategy, are needed.

As a conclusion, position of Roma community in countries that aim to join EU remains difficult.  Even though there is little progress made from the previous Progress Report of 2013, integration of Roma community remain a big challenge for the governments of Western Balkans countries. As the Report confirms, these countries need to act quick with regard to Roma community, otherwise the integration process to the EU can last even longer, since equality and good living conditions for everyone is one of the key preconditions to become part of the big European family.

Author: Artan Murati

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