NEW YORK – Continued discrimination against Roma in Europe not only violates human dignity, but is a major social problem crippling the development of Eastern European countries with large Roma populations. Spain, which has been more successful in dealing with its Roma problem than other countries, can take the lead this month as it assumes the European Union presidency.
Up to 12 million Roma live in Europe today, primarily in the East. Despite the region’s overall economic growth over the past two decades, life for many Roma is worse now than ever. During the communist era, Roma received jobs and housing. But the heavy industries in which many were employed have now closed, and unemployment is widespread. Many Roma live in deplorable conditions unworthy of modern Europe.
These economic hardships are deepened by social tension. The majority population is very hostile towards Roma, and discrimination against them occurs at every level. For example, Roma children are often automatically put into classes for the mentally disabled, simply because they are Roma. Despite court rulings ordering reform, Roma are regularly denied equal access to housing, education, and healthcare, creating a vicious cycle of poverty and marginalization. Reality and stereotype reinforce each other in a reflexive fashion.
The EU is slowly realizing that it has a major social problem on its hands. Denied opportunities in the East, many Roma have moved to Western Europe, fueling a new wave of hostility. In Italy, the Berlusconi government’s treatment of Roma settlements – destroying homes and fingerprinting Roma based solely on their ethnicity – blatantly violated human rights. This prompted the EU to create the new position of Fundamental Rights Commissioner, with confirmation hearings set to begin in January; In the meantime, violations continue.