Europe's Roma - stuck in a “vicious circle” of despair

Published: 19 March 2009 y., Thursday

Europe's estimated 10-12 million Roma are its largest minority and most of them live in abject poverty. They are on the margins of education, healthcare and the labour market. A report presented to MEPs by Hungarian member Magda Kósáné Kovács on Monday says they are locked in a “vicious circle” especially in Central and Eastern Europe. We spoke to the former teacher about her report on getting Roma access to the labour market and ask what steps can be taken to improve the Roma's plight.
Q. What are the measures in your report that could improve the economic situation of the Roma and their access to the labour market?

MK: The Roma’s situation in the labour market is like a vicious circle. They can not enter the labour market because they have lost their jobs since they live in a depressed region.
Despite the European funds that EU member states receive for retraining purposes, the Roma can not make use of them as they lack basic qualifications, or perhaps the nearest job is 80 kilometres away from where they live, or there is no means of transport to get there.
Also, they often have no proper clothes or shoes. If a Roma woman wanted to go a nearby village to work as a cook in a school canteen, it does matter how she looks; if she looks shabby, she will not be taken.
For those living at the edge of society in Central and Eastern Europe the first option of earning a living is out of the land, i.e. an agricultural livelihood. There is no other option. There is no industry, handicraft still exists, but there is no market demand for it.
Europe has a difficulty in fitting this subsistence based agricultural activity into its system of subsidies, which works on the basis of a very different logic: that of efficiency, competitiveness and market benefits.

Social cooperatives should be created; the land should be leased and the EU should subsidize these activities on the basis of a different type of logic. In addition, it is very important the children have access to a high-quality, not segregated school education.
Q. In your report you suggest that the EP should focus on the Roma in Central and Eastern Europe. How is their situation different from those living in the West? How has it changed since the EU enlargement in 2004?

MK: Of course, the situation in Central and Eastern Europe is different from that of other EU states. We come from elsewhere not only geographically, but also historically. We have decades spent under the Soviet influence behind us.

In addition, the social and economic system experienced a trauma at the end of the 80s that shook the entire region. This economic transformation split the societies of the region into two, to a majority that adapted pretty well, and to a group without any chances, of variable size in each member state, but which group can make up a third of the population in some countries.
This was followed by a second shock of the EU enlargement where those who had already previously been at the bottom of society stood the least chance. They were not able to adapt, did not have a knowledge to be converted, and they lived in terrible places where the industry collapsed and was not replaced by new jobs created.

And then came a third shock, the economic crisis, which was the first trauma in all other Member States since the Second World War, but the third one in Central and Eastern Europe.
Q. A year ago the EU presented its Roma strategy. How would you describe this?

MK: What we have is more a memorandum of understanding than a strategy. We need to know the tools and resources that can be mobilised to achieve the objectives. These have not been determined yet.
Tragedies seem to need to happen so that we face problems: it’s enough to think of the issue of immigrants, or terrorism. Since the London and Madrid tragedies have been in our souls, there is no need to argue why we should deal with the integration of immigrants, and their situation in the labour market. I would definitely not want to see the elaboration of a Roma strategy being accelerated by such events.


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