One year since the Prime Ministers of the Western Balkans economies adopted the Declaration on Roma Integration in the Western Balkans has been marked recently. The Declaration represents a set of goals these economies are to achieve prior to becoming EU members. The economies are actively working on attaining these goals, but there is still much to do, said Mr. Orhan Usein, Team Leader of the Regional Cooperation Council’s Roma Integration Project, on the occasion.
The Roma Integration Project was launched by the Regional Cooperation Council, with the financial support of the European Union and the Open Society Foundations. The aim of the project is to combat discrimination against Roma in the region, and their inclusion in all social flows.
As mentioned, it has been a year since the adoption of the Declaration on Roma Integration. How do you comment the outcomes of the first year since its adoption?
Unfortunately, we cannot speak of a full year of implementation and working exclusively on achieving Declaration goals since the coronavirus pandemic we faced in March this year shifted the focus from achieving Declaration goals to mitigating the damage and providing assistance to already vulnerable population. Thus, we refer to quite a shorter period of time in which we achieved much progress. Our objective is to actively work with governments in the region so they would achieve the goals of integration of Roma into the society as soon as possible and thus be a step closer to EU accession. Looking back at this period, I am proud of how much we managed to do in such a short time. After a brief shift in focus, when we focused all our resources on helping vulnerable Roma during the coronavirus pandemic, we resumed to actively work on helping the governments of the region achieve the set goals.
First and foremost, in cooperation with the region’s governments, we have started to map illegal settlements populated by Roma. In order to help those living in inhumane conditions, one must first know where they live. We are absolutely supportive of illegal settlements getting all necessary infrastructure – roads, sanitation, drinking water – and being legalised. It is much cheaper to legalise than to demolish them and build new ones. We have also developed guidelines for proper allocation of budgetary funds to ensure the right amount of funds is secured for Roma integration measures. We have organised workshops to facilitate those working on these issues in practice to acquire the necessary knowledge. We are also working on adjusting the current legislation so that no Roma is left without any identity documents. Around 4,500 Roma in the Western Balkans have no status, meaning they do not exist for the authorities. Finally, we are working on piloting a specific Roma survey that will measure the progress towards the Declaration commitments. Clear statistical data are necessary so that we can define the next steps. Though our area of intervention is human rights, and here we often come face to face with cruel destinies, making us very emotional, in decision-making and activity implementation we are always guided by concrete data and statistics. It is only in this way that we can help governments so that the assistance reaches as many people as possible and so that measures are as efficient as possible.
The Declaration addresses a number of issues which are for majority of Roma unattainable. In addition to already mentioned decent housing and civil registration for all, the Declaration sets goals in employment and equal access to education for all. The Prime Ministers have also committed to strengthen government structures to fight discrimination against Roma and to provide adequate legal support to all victims of discrimination.
Could you draw parallels between economies regarding the implementation of Declaration goals? Which economy can boast quality implementation and progress, and in which areas, and what makes other economies specific in the process of Roma integration?
We could have an entire interview dedicated to this topic alone. The differences are huge, but not because one economy is not doing enough, and another one is, but simply because they are starting from different priorities. In this sense, Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, has achieved visible results in the area of housing, given that more than 1,000 housing units have been provided for vulnerable Roma, thus thousands of Roma finally have decent living conditions. Republic of North Macedonia is working with us on piloting a specific Roma survey, which is very important to us. After testing and adoption, the methodology will be made available to other economies in the region, which is a huge benefit and an excellent example of regional cooperation. The Declaration sets the goal of health insurance coverage among Roma of at least 95%. Republic of Serbia is practically one step away from achieving this goal, with 93 per cent. This year Montenegro is for the first time marking the International Roma Genocide Remembrance Day at the level of institutions. This shows us they are truly determined to fight discrimination. Kosovo* launched an online platform which helps young Roma create their CV and find a job, and professional training sessions should be provided soon. Albania adopted an official document committing to include specific Roma related guidelines and budget lines in local government’s budgets.
*This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSCR 1244 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.
How did COVID virus situation affect Declaration implementation?
Just as we started achieving tangible results together with the governments in the region, the entire world, and we too, faced the coronavirus pandemic. We adjusted quickly, almost intuitively. This situation was unknown to the entire modern world, and to us too, so we could not resort to any previous experience. We focused our resources on ensuring measures adopted by the governments in the region do not skip Roma, because at the time of crisis minorities are often forgotten, and we were very much aware of this. Roma community has been far more affected by the coronavirus than the rest of population. A typical Roma family is often numerous and lives in a tiny space and very often without electricity, water, sanitation. In such conditions it is difficult to maintain hygiene and comply with isolation measures. Not to mention that as the entire society went into lockdown a large number of Roma has been left without the opportunity to earn minimum income.
In order to facilitate a common approach in each economy, every day our team was providing advice and technical assistance to Western Balkans governments in implementing effective Roma related policies and we have continued with this practice during the pandemic. Our objective is to ensure Roma needs are taken into consideration when defining government’s strategic priorities for recovery after the coronavirus crisis. The document with proposed measures for intervention, which is quite comprehensive and detailed, has been disseminated to all relevant institutions and persons in charge of Roma issues. It covers a number of areas, from that coronavirus testing and healthcare must be available equally to both Roma and non-Roma population to the need to identify Roma settlements which have no water access in order to provide them with water cisterns. The pandemic caught us all off guard, but we quickly adjusted to the new normal, switched meetings to digital applications and continued working to be available to the governments in this time of pandemic and assist them with all issues related to Roma community.
Youth are particularly affected by the consequences of this pandemic, specifically in terms of employment. Are there any innovative approaches to employing Roma you would suggest?
According to an official survey conducted by UNDP, World Bank and European Commission, as much as 79% of Roma aged 18 to 24 is not in education, employment or training. Regional average for non-Roma youth is 24%. Thus, while one out of four young people in the region is in limbo, this is true for three out of four Roma. If we add to this that Roma have the largest percentage of youth compared to the rest of population, the picture becomes even gloomier. Though we do not have concrete statistical data on the number of Roma who lost their job during the pandemic, the news we get from the field are not good.
To change this and improve Roma situation the first proposal is to establish a register of young Roma according to their qualifications with the National Employment Services and to target filling vacancies in public sector with Roma who have adequate qualifications. Constitutional and legal frameworks in the region prescribe the representation ratio, however it is not implemented in practice, so this proposal could contribute significantly to meeting constitutional and legal standards, in addition to having multiple positive effect on Roma community, and youth in particular. In addition to obvious positive effect on youth employment, such a measure could contribute to building trust between Roma and institutions, and provide positive example to Roma children that education does pay off.
Many young Roma are already engaged in public sector as, for example, mediators in education, healthcare, etc. The first step to be taken by all governments, and the easiest one at the same time, is to employ these Roma and provide them with permanent contract.
The second innovative idea could be to use linguistic potential of Roma youth, as many of them speak a number of local or foreign languages, which we tend to take for granted, but is a big deal indeed. With short training sessions or advance language training, many young Roma could be employed as translators or in different contact centres.
The thing I cannot leave out is digitalisation. More young Roma should be trained for jobs in digital sector, which are well paid and offer possibility of working from home. Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), our umbrella organisation, just recently had a great call for youth from Western Balkans – Balkathon, where they could apply with their innovative ideas in digital doing business and win EUR 10,000 worth subsidy. Unfortunately, this year we had no applications by young people from Roma community, but I do not see why this would not change next year. Then, there is the idea of engaging Roma youth in financial sector, which is constantly growing and looking for new staff. Roma are excluded from all financial flows of the society, and so their employment in this sector would generate multiple benefits for both Roma and the society as a whole.
Finally, we come to the ideas that may not be innovative, but still need to be implemented, including subsidised employment, support to self-employment, training for shortage occupations.
Whenever we have opportunity we are strongly voicing the fact that, according to estimates, 63% of all Roma workers are not registered and are working undeclared, which means that they have no right to health insurance or pension for that matter. Unfortunately, here too we lack clear statistical data and are actively working with governments to establish measuring. If we would change only this – transform illegal to legal work, we would see a massive increase in employment.
The problem is that in employment, as in all other areas, we face antigypsyism. This is a term one could now very often hear as a formal designation for a specific form of racism, which is driven by prejudices and stereotypes about Roma which are, unfortunately, still victims of various forms of discrimination, including segregation in schools, hate speech, workplace discrimination, and even hate crime.
The situation with Roma employment, and other areas too, is a direct result of antigypsyism, a specific form of racism directed at Roma, and this is demonstrated by the latest results of the Balkan Barometer, a public opinion survey conducted annually by the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC). 9 per cent of employers said they would not hire Roma, regardless of their qualifications, and 15 per cent believe that hiring Roma in their company would have a negative impact on working environment. In addition, 33 per cent of the population, according to the same survey, is not ready to work for a Roma employer.
When it comes to Roma pupils and students, do you have feedback about challenges in accessing online classes during the pandemic? If the next academic year is to start online, what do you see as a solution to reduce the gap between Roma and non-Roma population and a solution to Roma children being educationally distanced?
The compulsory education completion rate for Roma in the region was at 51.5% before the pandemic. When in March this year schools closed and all children continued their education from home, Roma children in most cases could not follow. Many of them have no electricity, let alone a computer or Internet. Roma families are large and even those that do have a computer do not have enough equipment for all kids. Imagine you have four kids of different age and they all need to attend online classes and have adequate equipment. This was challenging even for non-Roma population, let alone Roma who are living at risk. How would you, as a parent, decide which child will attend classes that day and which will be deprived of education? Then there is training to use the devices. Even if you manage to provide the necessary equipment, basic training has to be provided for both children and parents to use it. What can be done in this period is to establish a register of Roma children who need technical support to attend online classes, provide them with basic training on how to use and handle the equipment and find technical possibilities for Internet access. Basically, prepare grounds for rapid response in case classes are held online from September.
Lack of access to online schooling has further deepened the gap between Roma and non-Roma population, as if it has not already been pronounced. I have mentioned Balkan Barometer earlier. This survey shows that more than a quarter of respondents, 26 per cent to be exact, do not want their children to share a classroom with students from Roma community. These are people who teach their children that Roma are not their equals, that they are inferior. Imagine how much the situation will deteriorate now, after the pandemic. Because, unfortunately, these people do not think about teaching their children to help their Roma friend they share the school desk with to catch up with the curriculum, but instead teach them that Roma children do not belong with them in the classroom. They teach them hate and discrimination – antigypsyism – from early age. This is reason ghettoization is present even today with the entire class composed of Roma children while other classes have non-Roma children, and this is in no way inclusion or integration.
You mentioned antigypsyism, a specific form of racism against Roma. Soon we will mark International Roma Genocide Remembrance Day.
Exactly. In World War II around half a million Roma was killed and, unfortunately, the final number will never be possible to determine. Roma transported to concentration camps were not registered by their names, but by the number of train car in which they were transported.
In Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp tens of thousands of Roma were killed and one of the most tragic episodes took place in the night of 2 to 3 August 1944 when Nazis killed the last group of 2897 Roma. To commemorate this event Council of Europe declared 2 of August the International Roma Genocide Remembrance Day/Samudaripen, on the initiative of many Roma organisations.
On this day we remember and commemorate the sufferings of Roma across Europe during the World War II through different memorial services. This is a painful topic, but needs to be talked about, especially because of the devastating data I have already mentioned which indicate antigypsyism and discrimination.
I believe that children and young people are drivers of change and that we need to do our utmost through education so that history never repeats itself. We are all the same beneath the skin and I believe that accepting this in the world which divides us by nation, colour of skin, education, wealth, is one of the highest levels of consciousness one can achieve. Integration of Roma into the society is not a reward only for Roma and Roma community, but for the entire society.