BRUSSELS – Hated, alienated, and shunned as thieves and worse, the Roma have for too long been easy and defenseless targets for disgruntled racists in Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and other European countries.
The Roma, as a people, reaped next to nothing from the prosperity that the former East Bloc countries have enjoyed since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Nevertheless, even before the current economic downturn, right-wing political leaders in Eastern Europe resorted to Roma-bashing in order to win support on the cheap. The message of hate continues to appeal to many people, including a few who are ready to resort to violence.
In the past 14 months, nine Roma have been murdered during a killing spree in Hungary. In August, gunmen invaded the home of an impoverished Roma widow, Maria Balogh, shot her to death, and wounded her 13-year-old daughter. In April, killers gunned down a Roma factory worker as he was walking to his job. In February, a Roma father and his five-year-old son were killed in front of their home near Budapest. The house was burned to the ground.
Last November, a Roma couple was killed in northeastern Hungary. To their credit, Hungary’s police mounted an unprecedented manhunt and, in late August, arrested four suspects, including some who wore swastika tattoos. In the same month, two medical students in Romania killed and dismembered a 65-year-old Roma man and left his body in the trunk of a car.
Perhaps the rash of killings will dampen the racist rhetoric. Perhaps people will see that the underlying message being spun is one of criminal hatred, and perhaps the violence will subside. But it is safe to assume, however, that as long as the Roma are mired at the bottom of Europe’s socio-economic pecking order, it is only a matter of time before racist attacks on them begin again.
Roma want to contribute to society. They want to improve the lives of their children and give them a better life than they had. The most important factor that keeps so many Roma trapped in poverty is a lack of education. About 25% of all Roma, and 33% of Roma women, are illiterate. A survey by the United Nations indicated that 66% of the Roma do not complete primary school, and 40% of Roma children do not attend school at all.
Those Roma children who do attend school do so for less than half the time on average than do children from the majority populations of the countries in which they live.
Moreover, the schools most Roma children attend are separate, segregated, and inferior.
Little or no meaningful progress against segregation has been registered in the two years since the European Court of Human Rights delivered a landmark desegregation judgment in a case brought against the Czech Republic by 18 Roma children who had been relegated to schools for the developmentally disabled. Today, many Roma children across Central and Eastern Europe continue to be relegated to such schools, only because they have had no access to preschool or do not speak their country’s majority language.
Six years ago, the organizations we led – the Open Society Institute and the World Bank – joined forces to establish the Roma Education Fund. The Fund is a rare example of public-private cooperation that, despite long odds, is succeeding in its quest to help break the nexus of poverty and educational deprivation that traps too many Roma.
The Fund’s goal is to include Roma in the education process. It works to promote Roma who can be positive role models for Roma children – teachers, community or political leaders, professionals, or other Roma children who have been able to show what they can do in school. Its highly effective programs provide what children – all children – need to succeed in school.
The Fund’s programs include scholarships for Roma students, school meals to overcome the “hunger barrier” to school attendance for children from poor households, academic support to help poor children catch up with their peers, or teacher training to create better schools for all children. Above all, it works with governments to help them do more of what they say they want to do.
The Fund has helped some 156,000 Roma children and young adults. Continued support to the Roma Education Fund will mean that this number can nearly double over the next five years. Donors will convene this November in Brussels at a conference that could have a huge impact on the scope of the Fund.
Integrating the Roma will require long-term efforts that transcend national boundaries. Recent racist violence in Hungary, Romania, and Italy starkly demonstrate the need for national governments and the European Union to devote requisite attention to organizing and implementing such efforts. They should mount additional efforts and scale up existing support aimed at getting Roma children into school and keeping them there long enough to make a difference.