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Rallying the Roma, Europe’s most neglected minority

EU’s next legislature should make the political and economic inclusion of underrepresented groups a priority

May 25, 2014 1:00AM ET

As the European Union's 400 million eligible voters go to the polls across 28 countries, widespread apathy for mainstream parties is predicted to give the far right a significant boost. What would this mean for the Roma, Europe's most discriminated against yet resilient minority?

If organized as a nation-state, the EU’s Roma community of 6 million would qualify for 13 seats in the European Parliament, as many as Denmark, Finland or Slovakia. But over the past 25 years, since the fall of communism, representatives elected by Roma at the local and national levels in Europe have failed to deliver better housing, health care, schools, or safety from discrimination and violence for the group.

Officials are rarely held accountable for these failures, and Roma have little trust in their political system. Many low-income Roma, who live in dire poverty, invest most of their time and energy trying to meet immediate basic needs — a struggle that is made all the more difficult by discrimination and violations of human rights, including police brutality and insufficient recourse to the judicial system. Massive debt — incurred through loan sharks, since Roma are usually shut out from banks and normal lending — has reduced the community to destitution and a dependency resembling slavery. Too many suffer from the effects of illiteracy spanning generations, depriving Roma of any ability to get a decent job.

Each election season, politicians across Eastern Europe manipulate, bribe, extort and threaten the Roma community into selling their vote to local gangsters in the pocket of political parties. Some voters select multiple candidates so as not to show any favoritism, thus spoiling their ballots. But most Roma voters are pressed to sell their ballots for a sack of flour or surrender them in the face of intimidation from creditors, or mafiosi who endanger their families. This leads to voter apathy, disillusionment and a sense of political powerlessness.

Good evidence comes from the Institute of Public Environment Development (IPED), a nonprofit that promotes political and social change in Bulgaria. IPED maintains an online platform where citizens can anonymously report incidents of electoral fraud, intimidation or extremism. Those claims are then verified and stored in a database, invaluably mapping Bulgaria's political crime. According to IPED, the exploitation of impoverished Roma populations by local mafias leads many to consider whether the money or goods they receive in exchange for their vote will do more good than using the ballot box to effect change. Some are threatened with dismissal from work if they don’t vote a certain way. Buoyed by these kinds of manipulation, politicians elected in this way sit in national parliaments with little regard for the plight of the Roma who elected them. 

The poverty of the Roma community is longstanding. After the horrors of World War II, when approximately half a million Roma were killed in the Holocaust (a fact also largely underexamined in Europe), the community slowly began to assimilate into the labor market by gaining employment in the communist-era factories that dominated the landscape. However, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the region’s exposure to the forces of globalization, most of these factories were closed and the markets where Roma sold their traditional handicrafts swept away by competing cheaper imports from China and elsewhere in East Asia.

This compounded the poverty of the Roma — driving many into unsafe, dilapidated housing and a life of unemployment with no access to public services. Many Roma children do not attend school, and those who do attend find themselves in segregated classes receiving substandard education. Despite these glaring inequalities, Roma communities are increasingly becoming aware of the underlying causes of their own predicament and taking action.

A political power free from fear or manipulation will create fairer and more inclusive societies for Roma and other Europeans minority communities.

Political emancipation

The Roma community in Greece’s Aghia Varvara, a municipality in Athens, has seen some success from participating in local politics. According to local leaders, the Roma, who make up 10 percent of the town’s population, do not face the same kind of problems as those in other municipalities. Manolis Rantis, a Roma activist and former vice mayor of the municipality, credits decades of community organizing for the improvements. Rantis’ Roma Association, founded in 1939, is one of the ways by which the local Roma leadership protects its community’s economic and political interests. The Roma had two representatives on the 27-member municipal council for the past 40 years. The matriculation of the first Romani doctor in 1960 encouraged the community to send their children to schools. Today, there are 40 students in their final year of secondary school, with at least 10 expected to go on to university.

These positive trends should be shared among all European Roma. Initiatives geared toward educating and promoting democratic participation in underserved areas must be supported. One such initiative is the E-Romnja in Romania, a nonprofit association working with small towns to increase women’s participation in the voting process. The E-Romnja has been organizing town hall discussions, partnering with influential women in the community and collecting information about their needs and expectations from the political class. This has awakened a previously dormant constituency. 

Several Roma-run nongovernmental organizations are campaigning for the respect of Roma human rights and the group’s integration into the mainstream of European society. However, results have been mixed, as these organizations face immense challenges in their efforts to improve Roma’s access to housing, health, education and employment. For example, in 2007 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Roma children in the Czech Republic face systematic discrimination from a policy that channels them into special schools for those with mental disabilities. The Czech government has yet to take steps to remedy continuing school segregation. Illegal Roma housing evictions are rampant around Europe. In one instance in 2010, the mayor of Cluj-Napoca, Romania, forcibly evicted around 300 Roma in the depths of a bitterly cold winter, moving them to a site near a waste dump. Similarly, last year a Hungarian court sentenced three neo-Nazis to life in prison for a murder spree against Roma; in one attack, where a father and son were shot to death as they fled their burning home, the police originally classified the attack and murders as the result of a domestic fire.

Political and economic empowerment is key to ending the Roma community’s continued marginalization. A political power free from fear or manipulation, corresponding with the size of the Roma population, will create fairer and more inclusive societies for Roma and other Europeans minority communities.

The Roma must also move beyond the focus on social welfare programs dominated by gadje (meaning outsiders) and tap into their political and economic potential. As seen in Greece, an organized vote can bring about positive changes in the community. This could take many forms including self-organization; rooting out structural obstacles such as debt, evictions or generational illiteracy, which entrench dependency among new generations of Roma; overcoming harassment by loan sharks and vote brokers; enhancing accurate counts of the Roma population; and improving voter education, registration, turnout and keeping the elected accountable.

Success stories from communities such as Aghia Varvara deserve more attention from experts, researchers and the media. A meaningful representation of Roma and other underrepresented groups in public and political life can only enhance democracy in Europe. The EU’s next legislature and its member states should make the political empowerment and economic inclusion of these groups a priority. Voting alone cannot solve the problems Roma face, but making sure they have real access to the ballot box will go a long way toward the lasting change Europe’s Roma so desperately need. 

Zeljko Jovanovic is director of the Open Society Foundations’ Roma Initiatives Office.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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