The Roma community is the biggest ethnic minority living in Europe. No concrete estimate exists of their exact number due a variety of reasons, including the fact that many Romanies choose not to register their ethnic identity in official censuses. However most organisations, as well as the Council of Europe, have estimated their population to be as high as 14 million, with the vast majority residing in the Balkans and Central Europe. The creation of the European Union promised a new dawn of a freer and more just society for all, but in the very same Union Roma are still discriminated against on the basis of ethnicity. They continue to be marginalised, discriminated against and face exclusion from all aspects of social and economic life on a daily basis. Roma identity is often portrayed stereotypically as that of an exotic human being or an outsider - “gypsy” (a label considered by many to be derogatory), but the reality is much more complex and varied. The muted voices of observers and community activists call for the social and labour market integration of Roma, which is not only a moral obligation in a democratic and supposedly ever more progressive continent, but also an economic imperative 1.
A number of initiatives have been launched on an EU level, which have been largely ineffective because of the lack of a uniform political will, but even more importantly, because EU institutions have insufficient powers to coerce national governments into implementing changes quicker and more effectively on a grassroot level. Before joining the EU candidate states need to comply and adopt specific legal and constitutional provisions that provide for the protection of the civil liberties and human rights of ethnic and religious minorities. However once these changes are adopted there is no established mechanism for monitoring the progress for each member country. Furthermore initiatives such as the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015 are not legally binding on a national level. Thus the integration of Roma remains under the sole responsibility of individual countries. The only influential actors that address and actively seek to establish a fairer environment and a more equitable society, inclusive of the Roma community, are civil society organisations and apolitical activists.
The issue of social inclusion of Roma has gained even more prominence as two new member states – Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU. Combined together they have an estimated 1 million Roma citizens. A long-lasting and deeply entrenched discrimination, segregation and biased of non-Roma against their fellow Roma citizens has created an influx of immigrants to Western European countries, which in turn contributes to an array of local and regional problems in the host states. The right conditions for sustainable social integration and concrete changes on a national level in education, healthcare and employment, are not in place. This has created a vicious circle of poverty, unemployment, and crime that largely influences the decision of many Roma representatives to seek new opportunities for a better economic status away from their birthplace. To break this eternal return receiving countries should also do more to offer an equal treatment to migrants from all ethnic minorities.
The Roma problem has not gone away and the erosion of European borders, with the introduction of the right of free movement for European citizens, is further exacerbating the existing issues, as Romanies find it easier to immigrate. There is a pressing need for EU policy-makers to place more pressure on member states. The Roma integration is not currently high on the national or EU agenda. The European community has been preoccupied for decades with an array of ever increasing challenges that include most recently the Euro crisis, Brexit, regional aggressors, international security, and contemporary peace threats.
Nevertheless if any long-lasting and durable progress is to be achieved a comprehensive, all rounded and concerted approach on a local, national and EU level is imperative, which requires a long-term commitment and forward-thinking initiative-taking from all involved stakeholders.