According to Council of Europe estimates 6 million Roma live in the European Union. Two thirds of the Roma live in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. 30% of them live in Romania alone.
According to the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights 80% of the Roma are at risk of poverty, a rate far higher than for the general population. Less than one in three Roma has a paid job, which is well below the EU average of more than two in three.
Half of Roma children don't participate in early childhood education while almost all other children do. It is known however that children, who miss out on school, enter late into the school system, or leave too early, will subsequently experience major difficulties in life, ranging from illiteracy and language problems to poverty and exclusion.
Whilst most Roma children attend compulsory education, one in five attends school at a level lower than that corresponding to their age and two thirds of Roma young people leave school at most lower secondary education. In rural areas the costs of transport, meals and other school fees can be unbearable for disadvantaged Roma families and lead children to drop out of school.
Roma children tend to attend segregated schools. Half of Roma children attend schools or classes where most, if not all, children are Roma. Segregation plays a major role in explaining why Roma children perform poorly in school. In some countries, such as Slovakia and the Czech Republic, Roma children are also too often channelled to schools for children with disabilities or behavioural issues.
This is why the European Union made it a priority to ensure affordable access to inclusive quality education for Roma children. Since 2013 the EU repeatedly recommended to the governments of Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic to improve the access of Roma children to quality education. These Recommendations are part of the wider process of coordination of national policies aiming at addressing the challenges facing the EU.
The EU recommends to concerned countries to take measures to increase the participation of Roma children from early childhood in mainstream education, with the objective of improving their educational outcomes. It also recommends increasing the provision of quality education. This may well require an increased investment in the overall education system. Romania, for example, invests only 3.1% of its GDP on education while the EU average is 4.9%, as countries such as Denmark, invest up to 7% of their GDP on education.
Next to these specific recommendations which concern the access to quality education for Roma children in countries, the EU provides also guidance to all Member States for their overall inclusion strategies concerning marginalised Roma. The EU guidance which is called the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies focusses on four areas: education, employment, healthcare and housing. Today all Member States have a strategy for the inclusion of Roma.
Nevertheless, it is crucial to translate national strategies into action at local level. At the end of the day national strategies must turn into concrete measures which involve local authorities and Roma themselves.
The role of local authorities is decisive to transform paper strategies into acts which change the life of people.
Addressing the marginalisation of Roma requires political courage and commitment. In the short term local politicians who take measures that help include the Roma, take an electoral risk as it is easier to win votes by rejecting Roma than by including them.
In the medium term however failure to address marginalisation presents high risks for all citizens of a municipality. When some residents are systematically marginalised the social cohesion of the whole municipality often breakdowns, social tensions increase, and inhabitants no longer identify with the municipality. Reducing poverty and exclusion on the other hand is not just about reducing risks, it is also about new opportunities: public services improve, the value of houses and properties increases, the municipality becomes more attractive for new residents and new investors. In short the quality of life improves for all citizens in municipalities which address marginalisation.
To achieve this objective local authorities need to pursue consistent and lasting efforts that go beyond electoral cycles.
Even when they are committed to act municipalities often lack the administrative and financial capacity to design and implement measures which help the active inclusion of marginalized people. Their social policies too often still rely upon the provision of welfare benefits which make poverty tolerable but do not address its root causes. As the proverb says, "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime." To be effective social policies need to help people break out of the cycle of poverty: helping them get education, get employment, get health, get a roof.
Unfortunately local authorities often fail to consult and involve those whom they are expected to get out of poverty. Assuming that “If we build it, they will come” seldom works. People often know better than authorities what they need, why they need it, etc. Participation of beneficiaries increases also ownership of what is done by the municipality to get people out of exclusion. This is why it is important to consult and involve from the start people targeted by social inclusion measures.
Many Roma however live in municipalities whose financial resources are insufficient to properly implement a Roma inclusion strategy. Fortunately EU funds can co-finance social inclusion measures and significant amounts have been earmarked for that purpose. Regrettably due to the lack of political will and the lack of administrative capacity, EU funds tend to be used neither enough, nor well to support the inclusion of marginalised Roma.
This is why the European Commission together with the Council of Europe launched in 2013 the ROMACT programme. This programme aims at building the commitment and the capacity of local authorities to design, fund and implement inclusive public services for all, including Roma. It is implemented in about 70 municipalities, out of which half are located in Romania.
ROMACT aims at finding with local people local solutions to deal with local needs. It does not substitute to local authorities which are largely responsible for the inclusion of people living on their territory. ROMACT, through training and mentoring, helps municipal staff in designing and implementing effective measures for the inclusion of marginalised people.
The ROMACT process drives change in municipalities. It leads to changes in the way local authorities run municipalities, when they listen to all citizens, including the Roma, and take account of their needs. ROMACT also triggers a variety of immediate concrete actions such as cancelling kindergarten fees so that all children can attend preschool education, adding bus stops so that children can go to school, running awareness campaigns about health issues, hiring mediators and social workers, building or repairing housing, repairing water and sewage systems, rehabilitating roads and street lights, installing litter bins, clearing landfills, etc.
Mayors, municipal staff as well as Roma acknowledge that thanks to ROMACT behaviours change, solutions are found and concrete actions are implemented which improve the living conditions of all, including the Roma.