In Ever-Richer European Union, Roma Still Live in Abject Poverty

By George Soros

Published August 15, 2003, issue of August 15, 2003.

The newly expanded European Union will stretch from the Atlantic to the Aegean, from the Arctic to the Mediterranean. Europeans will have 23 official languages in which to discuss how to spend their common currency. Borders have been knocked down, and cooperation has increased. The E.U., however, has not been a partnership for all its citizens.

Too often in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, Roma teens and children spend their days at the garbage dump. Unable to afford school, they scavenge for paper and other scraps for recycling, earning just enough to eat. Too often Roma families live in tiny cramped wooden or tin shacks with no power or running water and dim prospects for the future. A similar picture, though on a smaller scale, exists in many E.U. member countries that are home to Roma minorities.

A wide socioeconomic disparity exists between Europe’s majority population and Roma, more commonly known as “Gypsies,” many of whom live in extreme poverty. Left unchanged, this persistent poverty threatens to become a permanent drag on European prosperity, which would be a tragedy for Roma and non-Roma alike.

The situation of the 7 to 9 million Roma living on the continent deserves the urgent attention of government leaders as they shape the policies of an enlarged E.U. Roma are the continent’s fastest growing and most vulnerable minority. Boosting their prospects will be crucial to sustained prosperity on the continent, and will require implementing inclusive policies to ensure that Roma enjoy the post-transition benefits of open, free-market economies.

Indeed, Roma have been among the biggest losers in the transition from communism since 1989. They were often the first to lose their jobs during the early 1990s, and they have been persistently blocked from re-entering the labor force due to their often-inadequate skills and to pervasive discrimination.

Even in the more prosperous countries of Central and Eastern Europe, Roma poverty is strikingly high — sometimes more than 10 times that of non-Roma. While countries such as Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have made impressive progress in economic and political transformation during the 1990s, dealing with the plight of the Roma remains one of the most critical issues on their path to E.U. membership next year and over the next decade.

In 2000, nearly 80% of Roma in Bulgaria and Romania, which are expected to join the E.U. in several years, were living on less than $4.30 per day, in comparison with 37% of the total population of Bulgaria and 30% in Romania. In better-off Hungary, 40% of Roma were living on incomes below this level, compared with 7% of the non-Roma population.

Poverty, combined with higher birth rates, means that the magnitude of Roma hardship will grow in coming years. Roughly 25% to 30% of Roma are under 15 years of age, in contrast with 10% of the majority population.

High unemployment, particularly among young people, locks Roma in a vicious cycle of impoverishment and exclusion, further driving down living standards and leaving many in marginalized settlements without access to electricity, clean water or other basic utilities.

Lack of education keeps Roma out of work and limits their future opportunities. An estimated 600,000 Roma children of primary-school age living in countries set to join the E.U. next year are not attending school at all. Of those that go, most do not complete primary school, and less than 1% across Central and Eastern Europe go on to higher education. Many students who are in class are stuck in inferior segregated schools. Others are wrongly placed in schools for the mentally and physically disabled, merely because they had no access to preschool, or because they do not speak the majority language.

Nonetheless, there is reason for optimism. During the last decade, a range of initiatives have been launched to keep Roma children in school, expand access to jobs and overcome discrimination. While such interventions by governments, nongovernment groups and international agencies have helped, the time has now come to scale up the effort.

During the Holocaust, few spoke up in defense of Jews. Even fewer spoke up on behalf of Roma. With Roma continuing to suffer in an ever-expanding and ever-richer E.U., let us not be silent today.



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