Eugen Crai

A world apart: The isolation of Roma children

In 2005, governments in Central and Eastern Europe proclaimed the Roma Decade of Inclusion and committed themselves to “eliminating discrimination and closing the unacceptable gaps between Roma [people] and the rest of society.” With the clock running down to the Decade’s conclusion in 2015, this effort to right historical inequalities in such key areas as education, gender and health has brought modest results. Roma children continue to have substantially lower vaccination coverage, with appalling consequences. When Bulgaria experienced an outbreak of measles in 2009, 90 per cent of all cases occurred among the ethnic Roma community.

Romania, home to more than half a million Roma according to the latest official data (other estimates run as high as 2.8 million), illustrates the difficulties and opportunities involved in efforts to eliminate disparities and promote inclusion. In 2001, the Government adopted a national strategy to improve the situation of Roma throughout the country. Ten years on, only 13 per cent of local governments have implemented specific measures for Roma communities. Progress towards social inclusion has been slow from the outset and was further hampered by the global economic crisis, which hit the region in 2008. Many municipalities have cut social spending amid rising unemployment.

Poverty affects Roma communities in both urban and rural Romania; the poorest are clustered mainly in mid-size towns and larger villages. What sets the situation in urban settings apart, here as in the wider region, is the separation of Roma from the rest of the municipal population, with the Roma population living in de facto ‘ghettos’. The problem of ‘ghettoization’ is a clear physical manifestation of exclusion. Its roots date back to the mid-1800s, when laws were passed freeing Roma from centuries of slavery. Without any policies to promote and ease integration, freed Roma settled at the margins of urban areas – essentially, on no man’s land. Through my work I have seen that Roma communities continue to be excluded from the development plans of cities that have expanded and encircled their neighbourhoods. Roma communities remain isolated – many are not connected to public utilities. The absence of permanent housing, combined with a lack of birth or identity documents, can significantly limit access to health care, education and employment. Evictions frequently occur without warning, reinforcing this segregation.

What is life like for a child in a Bucharest ghetto? Consider the case of Laurentiu, a 16-year-old in the Ferentari district, known for its large Roma population, its derelict buildings, its poverty and large numbers of children out of school. After Laurentiu’s father died, his mother abandoned him, and he was placed in a state institution. He now lives with his 70-year-old grandmother and his five brothers in an apartment that has been disconnected from water and gas because the family struggled to pay the bills. Growing up in a damp space, with•out gas to cook food or water to wash, just a few blocks away from the glossy commercial boulevards of Bucharest – this is the brutal reality of two neighbouring worlds.

Urban poverty is especially difficult for children, who have little control over their surroundings or level of affluence. Many find it impossible to attend school, and those who do attend struggle to do well with limited support. Roma children in Romania have much lower enrolment rates at all levels of education, starting with preschool; many are unnecessarily placed in special education. In 2005, only 46 per cent of the Roma population aged 12 and above had spent more than four years in school (compared with 83 per cent of the general population), and of those only 13 per cent acquired at least some secondary education (63 per cent among the general population).

The lucky ones find non-governmental organizations that provide counselling, tutoring, homework help and a space in which children can discuss problems, gain confidence and improve their marks, often in preparation for the crucial 8th grade final exam, a stepping stone to high school or vocational studies. The Roma Education Fund is one organization working to make a difference in the lives of some 5,000 Roma children and youth in Romania. But there are so many more like Laurentiu. So much remains to be done.

Eugen Crai is the country director of the Roma Education Fund in Bucharest, Romania. He holds a master’s degree in law from McGill University, Canada, and specializes in human rights law and anti-discrimination legislation, as well as minority rights advocacy and education policy. His professional career centres on Roma communities – over the past 14 years he has worked on the first European Union Phare Project for the Improvement of the Roma Situation in Romania and has also served as education officer and social policy specialist at UNICEF Romania.

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