Roma are among the most politically, economically and socially neglected communities in the Albania. In addition to widespread societal discrimination, Roma generally face high illiteracy rates, particularly among children, poor health outcomes, lack of access to education, and marked economic disadvantages. Official figures from the 2011 population census suggest that the Roma community in Albania consists of 8,301 persons. The accuracy of these figures is highly contested, and estimates of the community’s actual size range from 80,000 to 150,000. The census that was conducted in 2023 will hopefully provide a more accurate picture.
The 2017 Law on Protection of National Minorities modified the status of Roma in the context of Albanian law from an ethno-linguistic to a national minority.
According to some historical accounts, Roma arrived in Albania around the fifteenth century – coming originally from India. During the Ottoman era, many Roma converted to Islam. With the establishment of an Albanian independent republic in 1912, Roma received better treatment than Egyptians – but still faced discrimination and deeper poverty than the rest of the population.
During the Second World War, Albania was largely under Italian rule; Nazi Germany only occupied Albania for a brief period in 1943-44. This meant that, unlike countries that remained under German occupation, Albanian Roma were not deported to death camps. Nevertheless, there are reports that Roma faced institutional racism and expressions of antigypsyism during those years. Archival records show municipalities evicting Roma, including upon the request of their non-Roma neighbours. Under the Stalinist regime of Enver Hoxha, cultural differences were suppressed, and religious practices banned under a state-wide assimilation policy applying to all minorities; while draconian, this meant that for Roma citizenship, social security and employment were guaranteed. Even under this policy of homogenization, the Roma were not treated equally and faced deep prejudice.
According to a 2003 World Bank report, the end of communism in Albania marked the beginning of the Roma minority’s steep decline into extreme poverty. The collapse of state-run industries and agricultural enterprises impacted harshly on Roma and Egyptians. Since then, these communities have had fewer opportunities for formal employment, and this has had severe consequences for their access to health care and education, as families struggle to make ends meet. A survey of Albanian households in 2000 found that only 25 per cent of Roma had enough money to buy medicine. According to academic research published in 2014, as much as 67.7 per cent of Roma in Albania lacked health insurance coverage. More recent research underscores that not only the costs of healthcare and medication can be prohibitive, the paperwork and other bureaucratic obstacles can also hamper Roma access to healthcare.
The Albanian government signed up to the Decade of Roma Improvement – a World Bank-sponsored initiative which ran from 2005 to 2015. It had four priority areas: education, employment, health and housing, and two cross-cutting areas, gender and non-discrimination. Ten-year action plans have since followed. For instance, the first action plan for the years 2005-15 included initiatives such as a tuition fee waiver, free textbooks and salary support.
The current National Action Plan for the Equality, Inclusion and Participation of Roma and Egyptians was renewed from 2021-25. It has seven priority sectors including access to education, employment, housing, health and social services. The 2019 monitoring report of the preceding Action Plan noted some improvements; however, the report stated that there remained several serious gaps, notably in access to employment, funding for housing and education.
Despite these initiatives, the record has not been encouraging. The European Commission in November 2006 noted that the disparity between the social and economic situation of Roma and that of the rest of the Albanian population was increasing, with 78 per cent of the Roma living in poverty and 39 per cent in extreme poverty. More recent research reconfirms these statistics. The situation of the Roma community in Tirana notably worsened in 2006 with some 40,000 Roma in need of social and economic support by November 2006.
Conditions for Roma alongside the rest of the population worsened further in November 2019 when a 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit Albania. According to UNDP, the worst earthquake in over 30 years struck 11 municipalities, including the major urban centres of Tirana and Durres. Fifty-one people died, over 200,000 people were directly or indirectly affected, and around 17,000 people had to evacuate their homes. Minority communities, especially Roma, were particularly badly affected, as they were more likely to be living in informal housing prone to earthquake damage. Since then, many have described being stuck in a bureaucratic ‘Catch-22’ situation where they could not access the rental bonus they should have received in order to afford alternative accommodation, because they needed a lease, identity documents and the bank account of their landlords. Given widespread discrimination in the property sector, just obtaining a lease could be a difficult obstacle. Roma caught in this situation noted that even if they received the bonus, it would only cover rent for a year.
According to the World Bank, 43 per cent of Roma have completed compulsory education compared with 98 per cent of non-Roma. Only 15 per cent have completed secondary education, while 75 per cent of non-Roma have done so. Roma girls are less likely to complete compulsory education than Roma boys, as traditional gender roles mean that they often assume family responsibilities at an early age. Other social factors, including school segregation, and the mobility of certain groups make lack of access to education and health services, especially vaccination, a particular problem.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) judgment in the case of X and others v. Albania (applications nos. 73548/17 and 45521/19) announced on 31 May 2022 will hopefully lead to better access to education for Albania’s Roma. It concerned the Naim Frasheri School situated on the outskirts of the city of Korça. The school was colloquially labelled the ‘Roma and Egyptian school’, because virtually all its students belong to either of these two communities. Segregation at the school appeared to increase in 2012 following an outflow of ethnic Albanian students from a formerly ethnically mixed institution. The ECtHR found a violation of Article 1, Protocol no.12 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Court noted that the government had taken steps to desegregate the school but had failed to implement sufficient measures aimed at desegregation of ethnic groups within a reasonable period of time. Albania is also obliged to remove discriminatory school segregation and ensure effective desegregation of the education process.
According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, over 1,500 people were at risk of statelessness in Albania in 2021. Roma and Egyptians are especially vulnerable; in a separate 2018 study by UNHCR, they comprised half of all recorded stateless cases in the country. This is largely due to the challenges faced in proving citizenship. The numbers could be much higher given the invisibility faced by many stateless persons. The 2018 study emphasized that the vast majority are children. A key issue is birth registration, where the costly and complicated procedure can prevent Roma and Egyptian parents from completing the process. Less prevalent or non-existent birth registration of Roma and Egyptian children in Albania, as well as lack of personal documents, also makes them particularly vulnerable to human trafficking.
Migration, usually to neighbouring Greece and Italy, has become a crucial source of income for many Roma families’ survival. However, undocumented migration has also facilitated human trafficking, and Roma women and children are among those most affected. International organizations are concerned about the rates of child trafficking from Albania, noting that a disproportionate number come from Roma and Egyptian communities. Albanian Roma who migrated to Greece in the hope of finding jobs and better lives say their living conditions were better in Albania. The income Roma earn as casual workers is insufficient, especially in more expensive Greece. Roma women are rarely able to obtain work.
Set against this fairly bleak picture, there has been greater mobilization of Roma communities through the work of NGOs. Community-based projects to improve access to, among other things, better sanitation and schools have had some successes. However, discrimination is still widespread. In January 2005, the Tirana municipality demolished the homes of 18 Roma families comprising 150 persons, reportedly without warning, leaving them homeless in the middle of winter. The municipality demolished homes located in a settlement close to the Lana River, because they blocked its territory regulation plan and were built without permits. A similar case resulted in the eviction of 51 Roma families in June 2004. In 2015, Roma houses were demolished to make way for a highway in the Selita district of Tirana. The Ombudsman’s office complained that the demolitions had not followed established procedures, as the affected families had not received proper warning. According to Albanian legislation, the families would be eligible for compensation if their homes had been built before the fall of the communist government. The community stated that they had been living there for that long but were unable to provide documentary evidence. Although the municipality offered a lump sum to pay for 2 years’ rent, the evicted families pointed out that most landlords refused to rent homes to them.
Despite community mobilization, poor quality housing remains an issue. According to the 2016 report by the Albanian Helsinki Committee, almost 11 percent of complaints on the issue of property originated from the Roma community. A survey conducted in 2017 showed that only 48 per cent of Roma had piped drinking water inside their homes compared with a figure of 90 per cent for non-Roma. Only 62 per cent had access to sewerage compared with 76 per cent for the rest of the population. The 2019 earthquake and its impacts would have made these disparities even worse.
Updated February 2024
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