International Romani Day: Time to take off the blinkers

Despite some positive steps towards the inclusion of Roma in the EU, the Coronavirus crisis has laid bare the stark reality of life for Roma people and this must be urgently addressed, writes Peter Pollák.
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By Peter Pollák

Peter Pollák (EPP, SL) is co-president of Parliament’s Anti-Racism and Diversity Intergroup

08 Apr 2021

A few months after I began my mandate in the European Parliament, The Parliament Magazine interviewed me, describing me as “A man on a mission, determined to use his European platform to raise awareness of the plight of Roma people and strengthen their rights across the EU.”

Indeed, this is my mission, my duty, and there is still a long way to go. However, there are already some positive elements that are supporting me on my mission. One of them is the adoption of the position paper on the EU Roma inclusion process in June 2020 by my political group, the European People’s Party.

I was pleased to see this paper reflected by the European Commission when preparing a new, post-2020 strategic framework for the equality, inclusion and participation of Roma, something recently also endorsed by the Council of the European Union.

Against the backdrop of the COVID- 19 pandemic, it is clear that the EU Roma inclusion process could not carry on with ‘business as usual’, and that we all need to step up our commitments to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of all Roma-related interventions. We are living in unprecedented times and this pandemic has highlighted many failures in the Roma inclusion process that can no longer be ignored, as public health is at stake.

“This pandemic has highlighted many failures in the Roma inclusion process that can no longer be ignored, as public health is at stake”

It is hard to believe, after the previous EU multiannual financial period, 2014-2020, which saw many millions of euros disbursed to Member States to improve the living conditions of marginalised Roma communities, there are still millions living without access to fresh water and basic sanitary services.

One can imagine that under such circumstances - in the times of COVID or indeed any other pandemic - it is virtually impossible to ask these people to comply with strict hygiene measures needed to minimise the spread of viruses.

It is also completely unrealistic to think that these people will be able to participate actively in the societies in which they live. Their rights are continuously denied and the public institutions in which they should have trust actively discriminate against them and their children.

Since 2015, the European Commission has launched infringement proceedings against three Member States relating to discrimination and segregation of Roma children in education systems; my country is one of them. Yet six years later, very little has changed.

The COVID pandemic has served to deepen the existing inequalities in education for Roma children due to poverty, lockdowns and the subsequent closure of schools which have excluded them from distance learning. On 8 April, we will celebrate International Roma Day.

This year is special as we will also mark the 50th anniversary of the first Romani Congress, held near London. This is considered a milestone in the Romani movement, as the Roma nation was officially declared and symbols such as the Roma flag and anthem were adopted.

My compatriot, Ján Cibula, to whom I would like to pay tribute, played an essential role in this movement. Together with other Roma intellectuals, he dreamt of a better world in which Roma are treated equally. Unfortunately, racism against Roma continues, and is even on the increase due to deepening social disparities in society.

The injustice often goes unnoticed or unpunished, such as the March 2009 case of six 11-14 year-old Roma boys in Slovakia. They were detained and brought to a police station where police officers forced them to strip, slap each other and carry out other police orders that violated their human dignity and integrity. They also threatened the boys with a loaded weapon and goaded police dogs.

“Millions are still living without access to fresh water and basic sanitary services. One can imagine, that under such circumstances … it is virtually impossible to ask these people to comply with strict hygiene measures needed to minimise the spread of viruses”

One of the police officers even recorded a video that was subsequently published online. What is even more striking is that after almost 12 years of criminal proceedings, just a few months ago, the Slovak Regional Court took a final judgment stating that the evidence, including audiovisual recordings, was insufficient to condemn the police officers.

They were acquitted and went unpunished. The impartiality of the judiciary and the functioning of the rule of law in my country – what a disappointment. Yet there are plenty of similar cases across the EU, which leave Roma victims without legal redress. The boys in the March 2009 case, who in the meantime, have grown to adulthood, with the help of an NGO have brought their case before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The European project stands for tolerance, diversity, solidarity and justice. EU Member States have a special responsibility to work towards these values on behalf of all their citizens, including Roma. It is high time we shifted the paradigm about Roma by unblocking their potential. I believe this can be done through stronger Roma engagement in shaping their own future. They are, after all, part of Europe’s future too.

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