10 million Roma, the population of a medium-sized EU country, are badly underrepresented at a time when populist forces are trying to vilify communities.
“The panic about refugees and migrants has subsided a bit and the Roma have become a scapegoat again,” said Bernard Rorke, of the European Roma Rights Centre.
Populists are stepping up a campaign to demonise them in many countries. In France earlier this year, vigilante groups attacked Roma people in Paris after fake news reports alleged they were kidnapping children. In Italy, one of the first acts of the far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, last year was to call for the creation of a register for Roma people. In Hungary, a newly founded extreme-right party called on its followers this week to fight “gypsy crime”. In central and eastern European countries such as Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, many Roma live in ghetto-like conditions, confined to ramshackle settlements on the edge of towns and often excluded from education and the jobs market. In Romania, where there are around 1 million or more Roma people, there is the self-perpetuating cycle of segregation and discrimination has long been part of society. The Hungarian government promotes itself as a model for Roma empowerment, but critics say the government has merely shunted many people into low-paid public works programmes, entrenching segregation.
Rorke characterised the Hungarian attitude to the Roma community as “keep them in poverty, keep them in public works schemes, and make sure they’re not doing crystal meth and not getting pregnant”. This reinforced segregation and discrimination rather than combatting it, he said.
There have been numerous national and European schemes and funding projects aimed at Roma people, but without proper consultations they often fail to make significant change.
“So far, quite a lot of money has been spent, but with little effect. We need to rely on public consultations and identify specific needs, rather than find them in the imagination of politicians,” said the Romanian EU official Ciprian Necula.