Equality bodies across Europe work to advance equality for and combat discrimination against diverse groups in society. They accord a high priority in their work to seeking improvement in the situation and experience of Roma and Travellers. They share a particular concern at the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Roma and Travellers and how inequality and disadvantage have left these communities ill-equipped to protect themselves from the pandemic.
Equality bodies promote an ambition for substantive equality for Roma and Travellers. This encompasses: the elimination of all forms of discrimination they experience, including in particular systemic discrimination; recognition and standing for the culture and identity of Roma and Travellers and the importance of accommodating the practical implications of this diversity; and the achievement of full equality in practice, evident in new outcomes for Roma and Travellers on a par with the general population.
The EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) found that some 80 % of Roma people surveyed live below their country’s at-risk-of-poverty threshold; every third Roma person lives in housing without tap water; every third Roma child lives in a household where someone went to bed hungry at least once in the previous month; and 50 % of Roma people between the ages of six and 24 do not attend school. This means that European countries have consistently failed to provide the Roma with adequate living conditions and calls into question the effectiveness and fairness of our social welfare systems.
This, however, is not only a social welfare question. Discrimination against Roma is an everyday reality of European societies, characterised by systemic racism and anti-Gypsyism. The widespread negative and dehumanising portrayal of Roma, including by politicians and by the media, and the use of stereotypical images of Roma in educating children provide vivid confirmation that despite claims to the contrary, racism is not a problem of the past in Europe and anti-Gypsyism remains one of its most visible, large-scale expressions. Alongside individual discrimination, equality bodies also report high levels of institutional discrimination, reflecting that public institutions not only fail to protect Roma from discrimination, they are sometimes the cause of the problem.
Roma are among the groups that are most likely to be discriminated against or harassed simply for who they are. The above-mentioned FRA survey found that four out of 10 Roma surveyed felt discriminated against at least once in the past five years. Discrimination against Roma is widespread in all areas of life, including when looking for a job and at work, in the access to goods and services, in social security matters, in housing, and in healthcare.
In education many Roma pupils face school segregation leading to lower quality education and ultimately lower chances to secure decent employment and living conditions. Of significant concern, despite National Roma Integration Strategies in place for the past 10 years, segregation has become even worse over recent years.
Roma are often subject to forced evictions by municipalities and other public authorities, sometimes in a highly politicised context and often involving Roma families who have been living in the same place for a long time. The European Court of Human Rights has addressed numerous cases of Roma women being subjected to forced sterilisation. Hate speech and hate crimes against Roma are widespread and often inadequately investigated, and all too easily accepted and excused.
Despite the high levels of discrimination and anti-Gypsyism, significant levels of under-reporting prevail, with only 12% of the respondents in FRA’s survey reporting their most recent discrimination experience to an authority. This can partly be explained by a lack of awareness of rights and support structures, themselves products of social exclusion, but, perhaps even more, it reflects the reality of distrust in state institutions, accepting discrimination incidents as the norm, and a lack of hope that this can be changed among Roma communities.
The current pandemic has shone a harsh light on inequalities in our societies, leaving some groups at substantially higher risk. In particular, equality bodies have been calling attention to the specific vulnerabilities and difficulties Roma communities are facing in the context of COVID-19. Equality bodies have been responding to this by monitoring the situation on the ground, taking own initiative cases, publishing statements of their concerns, and making recommendations to those responsible.
Roma people living in segregated settlements, are found to be at particular risk due to their already poor health status, high levels of poverty, a lack of access to basic public services such as running water or sewage, and the often overcrowded and poor living conditions. More generally, information about the pandemic and safety measures have sometimes been communicated in ways, and through channels, that risk leaving Roma without access to such vital guidance. At the worst extremes, it is not uncommon to see even high-level public figures engage in blaming the Roma for the pandemic, creating an atmosphere that inevitably intensifies the hate speech and hate crimes that they experience.
In enforcing equal treatment legislation, equality bodies have been concerned to secure the rights of the Roma and Travellers to non-discrimination in all fields. They have provided advice and assistance to bring forward discrimination cases; received and heard complaints of discrimination; acted as amicus curiae in cases; and pursued own-initiative or ex-officio cases of discrimination.
Equality bodies have been active in responding to the situation of under-reporting of discrimination. In Poland, the Commissioner for Human Rights Office has acted ex-officio on Roma issues, cooperated with various non-governmental organisations to learn about the situation of Roma communities and visits Roma settlements to meet directly with Roma residents. The Council for the Elimination of Racial or Ethnic Discrimination in Spain supports an Assistance Service to Victims of Racial or Ethnic Discrimination, that is managed by the Fundación Secretariado Gitano, in collaboration with seven other non-governmental organisations specialised in immigration issues and combating racism and intolerance.
Equality bodies have sought institutional change and a new inclusion for Roma and Travellers in their work of supporting good practice by employers and services providers. They have provided equality and diversity training; published good practice guides; created platforms for peer support and good practice exchange among employers and among service providers; and supported a positive engagement between service providers and Roma and Travellers.
Segregation in education has been a particular focus. The Public Defender of Rights in the Czech Republic issued a recommendation for inclusive education of Roma and non-Roma children to provide guidance on how to address segregation. This has been accompanied by litigation on complaints of discrimination, research on inclusive education, and information leaflets for Roma parents on enrolment to elementary schools and prevention of discrimination. In the Slovak Republic, the Slovak National Centre for Human Rights has established cooperation with the State School Inspection so that the inspection includes a focus on identifying and addressing any practices of segregation.
In providing policy advice, equality bodies have sought to secure a Roma and Traveller focus in policy-making. They have made policy recommendations and published policy opinions; made policy recommendations in their annual reports; prepared shadow reports on international human rights instruments; and engaged in the processes relating to national Roma integration strategies.
The Defender of Rights in France contributed to the repeal and replacement of legislation that laid down provisions relating to travel documents and commune of residence, which constituted an obstacle to free movement and led to discrimination against Travellers. In Belgium, Unia, jointly with an organisation representing minorities, organised a meeting on the right to housing for Travellers, in the Flemish parliament to inform and influence Flemish regional policy on this issue. The Office of the Ombudswoman in Croatia includes a dedicated section on Roma in its annual report which serves to secure a high media visibility, is subject to debate in the national parliament, and includes policy recommendations.
Equality bodies have engaged in research work to develop the knowledge base about and understanding of the situation and experience of Roma and Travellers. The Commissioner for Protection of Equality in Serbia, for example, has published research reports on, “Discrimination in the labour market”, “Attitudes of citizens toward discrimination”, and “Attitudes of Roma persons toward discrimination”. In Lithuania, the Office of the Equal Opportunities Ombudsperson conducted a study that established the low numbers of Roma children attending pre-school and pre-primary education institutions in different municipalities.
Equality bodies address a range of audiences in their communication work on Roma and Traveller issues. They have informed Roma and Traveller communities in relation to their rights and how to exercise these; the general public in order to promote a recognition of cultural diversity and an understanding of Roma and Traveller aspirations and situations; and public and private sector institutions on good practice and on the implications of equal treatment legislation for their work.
The post 2020 EU Framework on Roma Equality and Inclusion Strategies, being prepared by the European Commission, should contribute to the step-change required in the situation and experience of Roma and Traveller communities. Equinet, drawing from the experience of and learning from the work of equality bodies, has put forward proposals for this new Framework.
The goal of substantive equality for Roma and Travellers should underpin all headline targets. This goal needs to be reflected in the mainstreaming of a Roma and Traveller perspective in all policies and programmes, and in positive action measures specifically targeting these communities.
A comprehensive anti-discrimination focus should be included. Access to justice under equal treatment legislation needs to be strengthened to ensure a critical mass of cases are brought forward by Roma and Travellers. Equal treatment legislation needs to be strengthened with the introduction of positive duties on public bodies to be proactive in promoting equality for Roma and Travellers and combating systemic discrimination against them.
The new Framework has to continue and strengthen priorities for national level action in the fields of education, health, housing, and employment. It should include new fields of: income, social protection, and elimination of poverty; issues of personal documentation; and environmental justice. The need for cultural change at a societal level should be addressed with measures to stimulate a positive values-based public and political discourse on Roma and Traveller issues.
Cultural action within Roma and Traveller communities should be supported, alongside an appreciation of Roma and Traveller culture and identity among the majority population. Roma and Traveller empowerment needs to be a concern, with, in particular, support and resources provided for Roma and Traveller community organisations.
The implementation of national Roma Integration Strategies needs strengthening, with: standard setting for and monitoring of initiatives; a horizontal equality principle to ensure intersectionality is addressed across grounds of gender, disability, age, sexual orientation, and socio-economic status in all initiatives, alongside a targeting of specific groups as required; inclusion of Roma and Traveller civil society organisations as partners; and securing the role of equality bodies in relation to national Roma integration strategies.
For a more detailed analysis of actions and recommendations by equality bodies, please refer to Equinet’s new perspective on ‘Roma and Traveller inclusion: towards a new EU framework learning from the work of equality bodies’.
The views on this blog are always the authors’ and they do not necessarily reflect Equinet’s position.