There are an estimated 10 to 12 million Roma currently living in EU Member States, making them one of Europe’s largest ethnic minorities. The word ‘Roma’ does not denote a homogenous community but is an umbrella term encompassing numerous subs groups all sharing broadly similar cultural characteristics. Such groups include the Roma, Sinti and Travellers. Sadly, like all ethnic minorities, the Roma population are no stranger to discrimination and persecution. For centuries they were forced to flee country after country to escape violence and persecution, leaving them no choice but to adopt a nomadic lifestyle. This persecution reached its peak during World War II. Targeting anyone who was ‘different’, the Nazis set out to exterminate the Roma population in the same way as the Jews. It is estimated that up to 500,000 Roma were killed by the Nazis during World War II. However, to assume that this persecution is now at an end is simply wrong.
Firstly, throughout Europe the Roma population are forced to live in housing which is not only inadequate but is dangerous to health. In a report on the living conditions of the Roma population (Eurofound, 2012) it was found that on average, 62% of Roma do not have access to improved forms of sanitation such as an indoor toilet, bath or shower. Living conditions are further exacerbated by overcrowding. This was found to be most severe in Slovakia and Hungary where, on average, there are two persons per room (Eurofound, 2012). Such living conditions inevitably lead to numerous health problems. However, if ill, it is not simply a case of going to the doctors. Most Roma are forced to live in segregated areas, far from any healthcare facilities or the rest of society. Just buying the daily essentials can entail a day long trek into the city.
To make matters worse most Roma live in continuous fear of forced eviction. For example, in April 2009 Serbian authorities forcibly evicted 250 Roma from a settlement in New Belgrade (Amnesty International). They were offered containers to live in but local residents tried to set these on fire. They look on as their homes and possessions are destroyed. They have nowhere else to go. Under the ICESCR (arts 2, 11) states have a duty to take steps to ensure the progressive realisation of the right to adequate housing. Houses lacking in sufficient sanitation or space are clearly not adequate. This provision also provides protection against forced evictions (CESCR, General Comment 7). Despite this, in many European states, domestic legislation only provides security of tenure to tenants of private property (Eurofound, 2012). This leaves Roma, who often live in illegally constructed dwellings, with no protection whatsoever.
Another area where the Roma face a large amount of discrimination is education. According to a recent study by UNICEF, only one Roma child enrols in primary school for every four non-Roma children (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). The situation is even worse with regards to secondary education, with only 12.9% of Roma children completing secondary education in Hungary (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). Contributing to this lower enrolment and completion of education are costs of transport, materials and clothes (Amnesty International). However, a far bigger barrier is the discrimination against Roma which is ingrained in many education systems throughout Europe. A particular cause for concern is the segregation of Romani children in special schools for those with mental disabilities. Many Romani children find themselves in these schools despite having no such disabilities. In a case against the Czech Republic in 2007 (D.H & Others v Czech Republic, App 57325/00) the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that the difference in treatment between Romani and non-Romani children in relation to education was not objectively and reasonably justified or proportionate to a legitimate aim, violating article 14 ECHR (discrimination). This discrimination in education not only severely limits the job opportunities available to Romani children in the future; it further isolates them from the rest of society.
Finally, the Roma population also face a huge amount of discrimination with regards to employment. One myth which pervades the Roma population is that they are ‘lazy’ and unwilling to work. This couldn’t be further from the truth. It is stereotypes such as these which obstruct access of the Roma to the labour market, or restrict them to casual, short term, and poorly paid work. They are not unwilling to work, employers are unwilling to hire them. Research undertaken by the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC, 2006) found that two of every three working age Roma are currently unemployed. Moreover, out of 402 persons interviewed, 257 Romani individuals of working age have experienced employment discrimination. Almost one in two persons interviewed said that they had been openly told by employers that the reason for the treatment received was their Romani origin.
For centuries the Roma population have been the victims of discrimination and persecution, forced to leave country after country in search of a better life. They should no longer have to flee.
Amnesty International, ‘Human Rights on the Margins: Roma in Europe’
Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment 7
Eurofound, ‘Living conditions of the Roma: Substandard housing and health’ (2012)
European Roma Rights Centre, ‘Systematic Exclusion of Roma from Employment’ (2006)
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, ‘Early Childhood Care and Education Regional Report (Europe and North America, 2010)