Roma Integration: Whose Responsibility? (event archive)

October 19, 2011 by  

Social inclusion of the Roma is and will be one of the greatest challenges of Hungarian society in this decade, an issue that we cannot and should not ignore. But how do we go about Roma integration and who is ultimately responsible for ensuring their social inclusion? The majority of the society or the minority group itself? Dr. Rita Izsák, the new  CEO of the Budapest-based Tom Lantos Institute who was recently appointed to the prestigious post of UN minority rights special rapporteur shared her wealth of experience in the field and her inspiring personal story about identity, self-perception and the rise to leadership within the Roma community.

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Roma integration has been a hot topic for several years not only in Hungary but also in the wider Central-Eastern Europe region (e.g. Czech Republic, Bulgaria). Recently there have also been reported incidents of anti-Roma violence, which have exposed the gravity of the issue of social  integration (or rather the lack of thereof).

There is a universal moral aspect to building truly equal societies, however, it is an economic and political necessity as well. Common sense dictates that integrating large chunks of “missing” workforce would boost the regional economies. According to some studies it could mean a significant 3-5 per cent growth in terms of GDP. The political need for integration is borne out by negative examples of internecine, ethnic violence such as the genocide in Rwanda or the Yugoslavian Wars. These bad memories all point to the fact that the unity of the body politic depends on the recognition and representation of minorities on a state level. In theory, there is no universally accepted detailed definition of minorities under international law, which makes this process increasingly difficult. In practice, minorities are usually understood as non-dominant elements in the societal power structure and dealt with accordingly.

There are different dimensions of integration from local and national to intergovernmental and supranational levels. An example of the latter is the newly adopted EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies (henceforth: European Roma Strategy). The document stipulates that all 27 member states are to devise their own national frameworks for Roma integration by 2012, when it will be evaluated and later monitored by the European Commission and the European Council. The member states are also obligated to name their policy representatives. The European Roma Strategy, however, is more of a tool than a solution in itself. It encourages countries to act but the EU has no means to sanction the lack of political will, not even by threatening to withdraw certain funds.

On the national level, the focus should move beyond the discussion of rights to real opportunities for self-realization. Take the issue of schooling. Roma children are often discouraged to attend school because of ongoing verbal and physical harassment, from which their parents try to protect them. They may even grow up in an environment where education is not linked to upward social mobility and there are no positive role models who have managed to break the cycle of poverty. Empowerment and the idea of “giving back to the community” are the best recipes for lasting solutions. Even in the case of top-down policy initiatives, Roma people must identify with the strategies as a prerequisite for success.

Ultimately, the responsibility for integration lies more with the majority since they hold the overwhelming political, financial and media power that can be exercised. Yet integration is still a two-way street and Roma people are also responsible for fostering greater community cohesion and the ethic of self-help. The majority society has a moral obligation to mingle with minority groups and not to form strong opinions without first-hand experience. Political correctness can be a useful tool to keep debates respectful and to check hateful language with the added caveat that it should not threaten freedom of speech.

Whether there is real potential for change, has yet to be seen. The fate of the European Roma Strategy will not be decided until 2012 and even then it can take years for programs to exert a visible effect. Political will is a precarious construct and only the future will tell the true intentions of the governments in Central-Eastern Europe.

Summary by Zsófia Göde

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