Europe’s Squandered Minority

BUDAPEST – Today, millions of Europeans are afraid and frustrated as they face unemployment, loss of savings and pensions, radically reduced social benefits, and other economic hardships. Their fears are warranted, because the current financial crisis is undermining the very union that was established to heal Europe’s wounds at the end of World War II.

But, in the midst of the general suffering, one group – the Roma – has been ignored. Europe’s largest and most disadvantaged ethnic minority, with a population equal to that of Greece, millions of Roma are trapped in extreme poverty and ignorance, compounded by widespread discrimination. Indeed, the 2009 European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey found that Roma experience more severe discrimination than any other ethnic-minority group in Europe.

Hard times provoke aggressive, vindictive, and intolerant attitudes, and Roma have become scapegoats in this economic crisis. In fact, Roma-bashing is helping far-right political parties to mobilize and nationalist leaders to win votes. Even some mainstream political parties have resorted to using anti-Roma rhetoric that would have been inconceivable a decade ago. But the Roma have refrained from reciprocating the sometimes lethal violence inflicted on them.

Six years ago, the Open Society Foundation, the World Bank, and nine national governments addressed the issue by elaborating a step-by-step plan to integrate the Roma into European society. Known as the “Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-15,” the program prioritized four areas: health, housing, education, and employment. This year, the European Commission has requested that all EU member states develop and implement strategies to promote Roma social inclusion in these areas.