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Regional Overview

Roma in Europe

"We don't want to be given preferential treatment - we just want the same opportunities as everyone else"
by Gordon Alexander - Senior Policy Advisor in UNICEF'S Regional Office for the CEE/CIS

The Roma, with an estimated population of between eight and twelve million spread across the whole continent, are one of Europe's largest and most vulnerable minorities.(1) Since their first arrival in Europe during the fourteenth century, the Roma have faced persecution and discrimination. Anti-gypsy sentiment and xenophobia remain widespread and today the Roma are the ethnic group suffering the highest levels of poverty and social exclusion in Europe. Among the countries with UNICEF programmes, eleven countries in East and South East Europe have large Roma minorities (Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, Croatia, Turkey and Moldova). Ukraine and Russia also have a substantial share of Roma among their populations, though little is currently known of their situation.

In South East Europe,(2) there are an estimated 3.7 million Roma, about 1.7 million (46 per cent) of whom are children. World Bank estimates of the Roma population are almost five times higher than census data. While majority populations are declining in the countries surveyed, the Roma populations are rapidly increasing. In Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania and Serbia the percentage of citizens below 19 is between 22 and 29 per cent for the population as a whole, but 41 to 47 per cent for the Roma.

Roma populations are much younger than the respective majority populations because of the combined effect of higher birth rates and lower life expectancy. With children accounting for between 40 and 50 percent of the Roma population, special attention to the conditions in which they are brought up is needed so as to ensure their right to develop to their full potential.

Women and a girl, dressed in costumes, dance at a Romany wedding held outdoors in Skopje, capital of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Roma people have not had the same educational opportunities as their peers. This limits their chances of actively participating in mainstream social, economic and political life and leaves them vulnerable to exploitation, unemployment, poverty and abuse. The literacy levels of Roma women are consistently lower than those of Roma men, indicating that there is also an issue of gender inequality in access to education. This is of particular concern, since the wellbeing of the family and the children is closely related to the level of education of the mother.(3) 
International human rights bodies like the CRC committee and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) have repeatedly highlighted human rights violations against Roma in their Concluding Observations to European countries. At the same time, the EU enlargement process has focused attention on the Roma's situation, both in terms of human rights violations and the recognition that a socially inclusive Europe is impossible without the inclusion of Roma and other vulnerable groups in society. The European Council in its December 2007 conclusions specifically mentioned the Roma for the first time and asked member states and the European Union to use all means to improve their situation. It also asked the European Commission to examine existing policies and instruments and to report to the Council on the progress achieved.(4)

UNICEF Honorary Envoy for Music. Maxim Vengerov smiles as he stands with a group of internally displaced persons (IDPs) watching a girl play violin in front of a tent at a UNICEF-assisted collective centre for IDPs from the Roma ethnic group outside Pristina, capital of Kosovo.

In 2005, nine countries in Central and South East Europe, in partnership with the World Bank, UNDP, OSI and Roma NGOs, launched the Decade of Roma Inclusion, committing themselves to improving the living conditions of the Roma and combating discrimination against them. Since then, three more countries have joined the Decade, including Spain as the first “old” EU member state. UNICEF became an official member in 2007. Activities during the Roma Decade have centred on National Action Plans that focus on four priority areas: housing, employment, health and education. These are all important areas for the Roma community, but such a categorical approach does not sufficiently address underlying problems such as discrimination and the unclear citizenship status of many Roma families. Children and young people, while representing the largest age group among the Roma, come under the education umbrella and to some extent health but they need to be the subject of comprehensive strategies and made a priority if they are to break out of the cycle of disadvantage many Roma communities face. The Roma Decade shows signs of growing momentum. Decade countries and Roma activists are lobbying for a European Roma Policy, and Roma representatives are becoming more vocal in their criticism of governmental failure to make progress. Peer support processes, with governments drawing on the experiences of other countries, are also increasingly active.

At European level, with Romania and Bulgaria  two countries with large Roma minorities  as member states, the EU can no longer downplay or treat Roma concerns as primarily an external issue. The European Union needs a coherent, long-term strategy. This was the theme of the first EU Roma Summit, which took place in September 2008 in Brussels. It marked the recognition that national policies alone are not bringing change for the Roma; that action is also needed at European level. The failure of states to ensure the rights of Roma women and children was a key topic at the summit.

The summit also underlined the importance of anti-discrimination measures, and the need to engage to a greater extent both civil society and in particular the Roma community itself.

Nevertheless, there remains very little tangible change in the lives of Roma across Europe, and there is a substantial gap between strategies and action plans and their actual implementation. Children feature very little in current policies and strategies beyond the desegregation of education, even though the large proportion of children and young people in the Roma population make them the generation of change. Political will and leadership, particularly at the local level, which are crucial to bringing about the kind of social change needed, is often still missing  Sustainable development needs to build on a generation of children with access to pre-school care, education, healthcare and all the services and opportunities that children from the majority population enjoy.

As part of the Decade partnership framework, UNICEF will be focusing on quality education in an attempt to stop the deprivation being passed down from generation to generation. A crucial niche for UNICEF, working closely with the Roma Education Fund (REF), will be early childhood development, and education with supporting action in other areas, such as child protection and the participation of young people. This needs to be part of an overall strategy promoting good policies for all children, within which Roma children have their rights fully respected and fulfilled, like any other child.

UNICEF is currently developing a Roma strategy at regional level (including countries with large Roma minorities outside the European Union, such as Moldova, Turkey and possibly the Russian Federation). It has a strong emphasis on partnerships, both at the level of the Decade and at country level with governments and the Roma themselves, and is aimed at bringing children to the fore and highlighting their potential as agents of change.

UNICEF's strategic intent is to ensure sustained attention is given to children within the Roma Decade, and to create a space for sharing best practices scale-up to interventions for Roma children as part of a larger system-wide response to the disadvantage that Roma children face, including discrimination. 

UNICEF is committed by its CRC mandate to bringing positive change to the wellbeing and living conditions of Roma children by partnering with governments and the Roma community. If we can equip children and communities with skills and resources in education as a first step, then there is a chance that the cycle of poverty and deprivation will be broken once and for all.

1 OSI, Equal Accessto Quality Education for Roma, Volume 1, 2007
2 Including: Albania, Bosnia Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Kosovo, FYR Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, and Serbia, Breaking the Cycle of Exclusion Roma Children in South-East Europe, UNICEF Serbia, 2007 
3 UNICEF Serbia, op. cit.
4 European Commission (2008): Community instruments and policies for Roma Inclusion. Commission staff working paper. Brussels: European Commission.






Unite for Children
No 4, 2009

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