Could you please give us some background on the Roma and the principal issues facing this population in Europe?
Let me begin by sharing a few facts about us with your readers. Our origins are in Northern India, and scholars estimate that the migration happend more than one thousand years ago. We have a common language, known as Romani, and our communities are spread all over the world. “Roma” or the “Romani people” are umbrella terms for groups in Europe identified, amongst others, as Roma, Gitanos, Kale, Sinti, Manush, and Travelers. Oftentimes, they are pejoratively called “Gypsies.” There are more than 14 million Roma in the world, and the largest population—up to 12 million—is in Europe, forming the biggest European minority. There are Roma or Roma-related groups residing in the United States, Australia, Latin America, and the Middle East. Roma are citizens of the countries they live in, unless institutional barriers impede it.
The migration from Northern India to European territories was followed by enslavement for 500 years in Romania, mass killings during the Holocaust, and forced assimilation up to the 1990s in Central and Eastern Europe. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, in most European countries with a significant Roma population, policies aiming for social inclusion were put in place. However, the past as well as the inefficiency of the new policies continues to fuel ethnic biases. As the recent report by the UN Special Rapporteur for Minority Rights underlines, the global Romani minority continues to share not only cultural similarities, but also experiences of discrimination and marginalization.
Recently, there have been increasing concerns about intolerance in Europe, directed at both the Roma and other groups. Much of this has deep historical roots, as you mentioned, but how have you seen the situation evolve over the past few years?
There are many different struggles Romani people have in Europe today. As I mentioned before, anti-Roma prejudice is a recurrent problem for the Roma populations worldwide. Roma are oftentimes portrayed as an inferior nation, with a genetic tendency for crime and begging. Surveys confirm the existence and the persistence of anti-Roma sentiments and actions. Every second Roma interviewed for the EU Minorities and Discrimination Survey (EU-MIDIS) in 2011 reported that he or she was discriminated against in the previous 12 months. According to Pew Research Center, in 2015, 86 percent of Italians, 60 percent of French people, and more than a third of the Spanish, British, and German populations hold negative sentiments about Roma.
Waves of anti-Roma violence have increasingly been reported by civil society in several countries in Europe. This is a worrying phenomenon for me. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) reported violent attacks in Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Bulgaria. The anti-Roma discourse has increased, including within European institutions, such as the European Parliament.
Today, millions of Roma live in isolated slums, often without electricity or running water, and they are exposed to dangerous health problems as a result. Roma suffer extreme marginalization in both rural and urban areas and in both high- and low-income countries. Some of them succeed to break the cycle of poverty by migrating and ensuring better and less-biased education for their children. But those who end up living in informal camps get exposed to even more dangerous and risky circumstances. In the past 10 years, there have been cases of hate crime attacks against Roma living in informal camps, incidents in which children were burned to death, police violence, and trafficking of Romani children and women. Policies and measures taken were usually meant to stop the waves of migration to the west rather than to create opportunities for integration and safety for Roma.
Given your position as a member of the European Parliament, what are your views on the role that politics can play in changing perceptions of ethnic minorities?
When the former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, started evicting and deporting Roma people, I felt that I had to take a stand and fight for my own people. So, after 30 years of an artistic career, I gave up music to devote myself to the Roma cause and fight for their rights within civil society. I started a foundation and worked with over 1,000 children from the poorest communities, helping them enroll in school, getting them clothing—so they would not be ashamed to go to school—paying for scholarships, and providing instruments and teachers. My concept was inventive and the program developed into what is called now social inclusion through music education.
And indeed, the situation of Romani children and women is particularly worrying due to a range of factors that make them especially vulnerable and exposed to poor health, multiple forms of discrimination, racism, and violence. Romani children in particular encounter segregation in schools and receive a lower standard of education. According to a recent Harvard report on the segregation practices in EU countries, segregation in education has not diminished in spite of all policy, punitive, and legislative measures. At the level of EU institutions, we took a necessary step to fight against segregation when the European Commission started infringement proceedings against two EU states—the Czech Republic and Slovakia—in 2014 and 2015 respectively. And this is one of the reasons why I decided to join politics: to be able to take political action and work on policymaking to support the integration of the Roma people through social inclusion and social justice actions.
In a recent speech at Harvard, you mentioned the need for a holistic approach to create meaningful changes for the Roma community, combining both preventative and supportive measures to address issues such as education. What are the greatest obstacles facing a project such as this one?
Roma children’s participation and achievement in education is much lower than their non-Roma peers. However, the limited educational achievements do not persist because of the Roma parents and culture, as some politicians and opinion-makers want us to believe. In countries where education is accessible and affordable, Romani children enroll in numbers similar to their non-Roma peers. In Hungary, 92 percent of Romani children have preschool experience and participation in primary education is as high as 94 percent. However, due to segregation, peers’ and teachers’ prejudice, and the low quality of education in Roma-only schools, Romani children drop out in large numbers before entering secondary and tertiary education.
Romani women continue to have lower education and lower job opportunities, but they have higher mortality rates and health problems than the non-Roma women. Policies proposed to date have not succeeded to target and to address the specific problems Romani women and girls face. Gender equality and empowerment has not been implemented as a priority theme in Roma related policies. Part of my mission at the EU Parliament is also to include in the Roma and mainstream EU policies specific measures for Romani women and girls.
Different initiatives have been taken by member states as well as EU institutions to not only change attitudes towards Roma, but also to diminish the socioeconomic disadvantages of the population. An EU-wide political commitment was made in 2011 by all EU member states that agreed to develop and implement national Roma strategies based on the guidance provided by the EU institutions in the EU Roma Framework 2011-2020. Nevertheless, almost half of the implementation period has passed, and there are not many results or good practices to share. I wanted to see what went wrong with the past policies of Roma inclusion, so I visited a couple of hundred Roma community and settlements to see for myself the real needs of the people, talk to them, ask them what they need—not what others think they need—and to see how they feel, what they want, what they dream of, how they live, and above all how they envision their life. The answer to why previous policies failed was obvious: the approach was sectorial. For example, when creating educational activities for Romani children, such projects neglected housing, health, or parents’ employment. Even more, NGOs efforts proved that short-term projects don’t lead to the required social change and there is a need for medium and longterm planning and implementation.
In terms of concrete ideas for policies, what do you believe is the most effective way to change the current situation of the Roma population in Europe?
My mission for the Roma is to fight against discrimination and anti-Roma prejudice and violence. I hope all European institutions and member states will join me in promoting a human rights perspective in all Roma related policies. My agenda at the European Parliament is to propose and pilot a new approach in developing policies and programs for Roma. Such an approach should be two-fold: 1) address the social and economic discrepancies through medium-term holistic interventions and 2) address past inequalities through measures focusing on recognition and memorialization by positive historical measures.
Through this model, which I call 4IPRI (4 Interlinked Pillars of Roma Inclusion in Europe), I propose holistic medium-term interventions, which target a) marginalized Roma communities and families in an integrative project focused jointly on four key areas of social inclusion—education, health, housing, employment—to diminish the socioeconomic discrepancies between Roma and non-Roma; b) Roma and non-Roma populations in educational programs and campains to combat Roma-phobia and prejudice; c) representatives of public institutions dealing with education, health, housing, and employment—teachers, doctors, social workers, and so on—in formal and informal training programs to combat negative attitudes against Roma and promote a culturally sensitive institutional framework.
I want to pilot this model of holistic interventions in different types of Roma communities across Europe, hoping that it can serve as a means for long-term Roma policies to be developed post 2020.
Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?
I want to use my experience as an artist, and build on the milestones of the Romani culture. We cannot ignore any longer that there has been a flowering of Roma culture, especially in the performing arts of music and dance. Music is the most visible marker of Roma cultural identity, with significant Roma influence in folk, classical, jazz, and popular music.
Even though the Roma have undergone a legacy of suffering and exclusion, their music has been widely recognized and valued in the world. People from all around the world have been influenced by Roma culture, from painters to writers to composers. Classical composers, such as Haydn, Liszt, Brahms, Ravel, Bartok, Rachmaninov, and Bizet attained their inspiration from Roma music.
But there is a long way to go until non-Roma people move from loving our culture to respecting us. In 2006, when I decided to move back to Romania from the United States, I started a Roma music band of 18 people called Damian and Brothers. One of my main purposes was to change the perception and the stereotypes of Roma through music. The impact and the huge popularity achieved amongst the non-Roma population was a real confirmation of our effort. Sadly, prejudice and discrimination against Romani people in the communities have persisted. My hope is that in the near future, our culture will not only serve as contribution to the world’s art and culture, but will become a tool, a bond for Roma acceptance, respect, and dignity. Therefore, I want to add to my 4IPRI pilot a distinct component promoting Roma culture and aiming for Roma dignity and pride.
Could you please give us some background on the Roma and the principal issues facing this population in Europe?