Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
While the 2011 Census recorded 621,573 Roma (3.3 per cent of the total population), other sources suggest the true figure could be much higher: the Council of Europe, for example, estimates that there are around 1.85 million Roma (8.3 per cent of the population) living in the country. Approximately sixty per cent of Roma speak Romani and/or Romanian, the remainder Hungarian, German, Turkish or Bulgarian. Most Roma in Romania are Orthodox Christians, but some are Catholic or Protestant.
Shortly after their arrival in the territory of today’s Romania during the Middle Ages, most Roma were enslaved, and the institution of Roma slavery was abolished only in the nineteenth century. Throughout the twentieth century, Roma continued to be targeted for discrimination. In the interwar years, however, the General Association of Roma in Romania published several journals, and in 1933, hosted the Gypsy World Congress. During World War II about 25,000 Roma were deported to Transnistria by the pro-fascist authorities. Altogether, an estimated 40,000 Romanian Roma were killed in the Holocaust during the period 1940-1944.
Following the war, Roma continued to suffer strong disadvantages and discrimination. The Communist regime pursued aggressive policies of assimilation. Roma were forcibly settled, made to abandon such traditional trades as metalworking, jewellery making and carpentry, and largely put to work on agricultural collectives. As the regime was in its final years and decay gripped the country, policies of assimilation gradually gave way to simple neglect. Many Roma lost their jobs, housing and state benefits.
In the 1990s, around half of the active adult Roma population was unemployed; 27 per cent of children below the age of 14 were illiterate; and as many as 40 per cent failed to attend the first years of school. Roma sources indicated continued violence against Roma and alleged more than one hundred attacks on settlements, including arson, in the period 1990-94. According to one opinion poll commissioned in 1991, almost 70 per cent of Romanians registered strong antipathy towards Roma. There was reliable evidence that some police harassed Roma and failed to respond promptly to Roma calls for assistance.
Few facilities were available for Roma mother-tongue instruction and in 1994 only 55 children were reported as attending Roma-language classes. Government sources claimed, however, that interest among Roma for mother-tongue education was negligible.
Although serious problems persisted, under the new political system, a large number of Roma political organizations were established, including the Democratic and Free Union of Roma of Romania, the Fiddlers’ and Woodcarvers’ Party, the Christian Democratic Party of Roma and the Tinsmith Roma Progressive Party. Leadership of the Roma community was contested between self-appointed emperors and kings. The numerous divisions within the community as a whole severely hampered the formulation of a clear programme of action, as well as being able to translate their population numbers into effective political and social action to improve the general situation of Roma.
Increasingly motivated by the prospect of accession to the European Union (EU), in 2001 the government of Romania adopted a Strategy for the Improvement of the Situation of the Roma Population, which sets out a ten–year plan to tackle the problem of Roma marginalization in cooperation with Roma organizations. The Strategy, supported by the government, the EU, the UN, and the World Bank, includes programs in the areas of healthcare and education. Around 200 Roma women were recruited to implement a community education initiative to raise awareness about access to healthcare. With implementation of the 2001 Strategy, Roma children’s access to Romani language education and adequate textbooks subsequently increased. To address the ongoing problem of Roma children being shunted into inferior classrooms separate from other children, in 2004 the government issued a notice on the banning of school segregation. Despite some progress following adoption of the 2001 Strategy, Roma organizations criticized the approach for its sluggishness and lack of sufficient resources; this prompted the government to create a National Agency for Roma in 2005, which theoretically had greater executive powers.
Further progress occurred around Romania’s accession to the EU in 2007, with the government taking a number of steps to bring the country in line with European rights standards. This included the country’s participation in EU’s Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015.
Roma remain under-represented at national and local levels, but EU integration and the engagement of domestic and international civil society organizations have kept their problems on the Romanian agenda. Nevertheless, the achievements to date have been mixed. One positive development is the Romanian government’s Strategy for the Inclusion of Romanian Citizens belonging to Roma Minority for 2012-2020; among other areas, the Strategy highlights the need to strengthen Roma involvement in decision-making. In 2014, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) highlighted the slow progress to date of Roma inclusion and integration strategies, and called on the Romanian government to allocate sufficient funds for implementation of the Strategy. The Advisory Committee of the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities has echoed this sentiment while also pointing out that the Strategy lacks mechanisms for monitoring at the local level.
According to the European Commission, the threat of poverty among Roma in Romania is up to three times higher than the rest of the population. Overall living conditions for the community are still inadequate: unemployment remains high, police abuses against Roma are a persistent problem and many Roma children face de facto segregation at school. Forced evictions of Roma settlements also continue to impact on many Roma who often struggle to access basic services, employment and others needs as a result. In one instance, over 300 Roma individuals were forcibly evicted from the town of Cluj Napoca in 2010, with some re-housed near a waste dump in the Pata Rât area, where the toxic conditions and inadequate housing have affected the health of the families relocated there. A legal case brought by the community against authorities remains ongoing: however, a number of families were provided with new housing in 2017 as part of a desegregation programme. Forced evictions have also affected other Roma communities across the country, including families in the municipality of Eforie Sud who after being evicted from their settlement in October 2013 have faced repeated threats of further evictions by authorities from the building where they now reside.