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Roma inclusion is mission possible

International Human Rights Day
Strasbourg 10/12/2014
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Roma inclusion is mission possible

“In my two-and-a-half years in office, I have encountered one serious human rights problem in practically every member state - the prolonged exclusion and discrimination of the Roma population. This holds true whether the country is rich or poor, lies within or outside the European Union, and whether its Roma are indigenous or of migrant origin. This shameful situation cannot be further tolerated and could be reversed with a little political will” said today Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, on occasion of the international human rights day.

“In 21st century Europe – home to the wealthiest societies on the planet - millions of Roma live in abject poverty and have little access to mainstream education, health, employment, decent housing and political participation. Moreover, they are frequently made scapegoats for society’s problems, targeted by hate crimes and persecuted or abused by law enforcement officials.

Repressive policies against the Roma include frequent evictions of Roma families from their housing in many European states. Such evictions, without adequate alternative solutions and support, result in entire families being made homeless, even during the winter period. Evictions often involve violence. Moreover, they prevent any form of integration, sustainable access to health and social care and deprive children of their right to education.

Interesting initiatives promoting Roma inclusion exist all over Europe: we should build on them and promote them to turn the page on decades of Roma rights violations on the part of public authorities.

In many of my country visits I see the two facets of Roma reality - on the one hand, the exclusion, on the other hand, the encouraging initiatives undertaken to promote Roma empowerment and inclusion. Just yesterday, I visited two Roma settlements in Strasbourg. Strasbourg hosts about 450 migrant Roma, primarily from Romania and Hungary. The Roma population has stabilized in number in Strasbourg, as it has in France overall. In Strasbourg, no forced evictions have taken place in recent months and Roma have not been faced with expulsions to their countries of origin.

The first site I visited was an unofficial or “illicit” encampment called “la petite forêt” with harsh conditions, no electricity or running water, next to a highway. This encampment resembles so many I have seen throughout Europe. The second was a formal, municipal-run “transitional centre” called “Espace 16” considered by many a good practice. This initiative deserves more detailed description.

Espace 16 is a joint government, local authority and NGO initiative aimed at assisting Roma in their transition to social inclusion. It hosts about 135 Roma in campers bought by the authorities with free electricity, waste collection, washing machines, toilets and showers. While some see the provision of campers as reflecting a misunderstanding of the largely sedentary lifestyle of the Roma, the staff explained that zoning laws prohibit building permanent structures at the site, which is near the central train station next to the historical fortifications of the city.

The facility has a host of social workers trying to assist the residents develop life plans, including French language lessons, vocational training, the organization of internships at employers, and other interventions. All of the children at this facility are attending school and 14 persons found a job in the official economy. That is progress.

However, inclusion is a slow and difficult process. Only four families have moved on to mainstream social housing over three years. Many of the residents are elderly or with disabilities, which further complicates their integration path. Though the overall numbers of Roma in Strasbourg are small, inclusion is painfully slow. But this initiative shows that inclusion is mission possible.

National and local authorities should foster a more positive image of the Roma and develop constructive, long-term and Roma-led initiatives to end their exclusion.”