Thursday, June 6, 2013

Education vs. Discrimination: The Troubles of Roma Communities in Europe

by Brent Rosenstein

It seems that some old spectres just refuse to go away. As much progress as humans may make, and how much better we may claim to be than we once were, some elements of our darker nature persist. Hatred, racism, and discrimination have shown a startling perseverance, and continue to obstruct some groups from receiving basic services, even today. Few groups in contemporary Europe know this better than the Roma. Despite being Europe’s largest minority group, weighing in at around twelve million people, the Roma are looked down upon and discriminated against nearly everywhere they may be found on the continent. Fortunately, there are those who try to help change this, and some can be found closer to home than one might think.

Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope, Professors of Education at the University of Illinois, are involved in an international program to help improve the access that Greek Roma communities have to sources of quality, reliable education. As Kalantzis pointed out in a talk she gave on April 1st, this is no small order, given that many of these communities have little to no access to even basic utilities like water and electricity. There has also historically been significant resistance from local and national governments in this regard, many of which would prefer the Roma to completely assimilate into the “mainstream” society rather than to try to bring said services to them. Fortunately, many NGOs, and even the European Union, have been bringing more attention to the issue and are trying to support reforms.

However, despite the increasing calls for change, and the considerable resources being brought to bear by the EU, many throughout Europe still cling to old stereotypes, and view the Roma as crime-ridden foreigners that don’t belong. The recent resurgence of extremist right-wing political parties across the continent has exasperated the issue, with groups like Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party holding anti-Roma protests, blaming the ethnic group for everything from crime to dirty streets.1 Similarly, Kalantzis pointed out that Greece’s Golden Dawn party has taken up the practice of “mapping” the Roma camps across Greece so that they may “clean up the problem”. This disturbing rhetoric goes a long way in showing why the Roma have faced so much antagonism in trying to provide for their own basic needs.

Perhaps even more unsettlingly, these old prejudices are not restricted to the far-right opposition parties. This past March, Manuel Valls, the French Interior Minister, came under fire for stating in an interview that the Roma living in France had no interest in trying to integrate into French society.2 With perspectives like these being held by those in positions of authority, maybe it’s really not so surprising that governmental support for things like providing educational access to Roma communities has not been entirely forthcoming. However, there is hope that this may be beginning to change. The efforts of the project Kalantzis and Cope participated in, combined with the support of the EU and other organizations, have shown some promise in helping draw more dedication and aid from the Greek government. If this project succeeds, and can be used as a model in other states, then perhaps some of those old ghosts can start to be laid to rest.
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I would like to note that none of the above was intended as a condemnation of Europe in general, or as an over-generalization of the situation. This was merely an attempt to look at some of the long-standing hardships facing the Roma people today, and some of the international efforts being made to help improve their position in society.

Brent Rosenstein is a first year student in the Master of Arts in European Union Studies (MAEUS) program at the University of Illinois. His research interests include international security efforts and human rights issues within the EU.
 

1“Hungarian Far-right Stages anti-Roma Show of Strength,” EurActiv.com, http://www.euractiv.com/central-europe/hungarian-far-right-stages-anti-news-515487.

2“French Minister Accused of Racism Following Roma Comment,” EurActiv.com, http://www.euractiv.com/justice/french-minister-accused-racism-f-news-518579.

Photo source: "Romani population average estimate," Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Romani_population_average_estimate.png

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