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UN Reinventing the Approach to European Roma Poverty-TBP
The Roma people are a large ethnic minority living in Europe whose population totals to 10 to 12 million people. Despite the existence of laws aimed at protecting this group of people from discrimination, the Romas experience harsh prejudices. The lack of opportunities to available to them often keeps them below the poverty line. They have low literacy rates, little access to healthcare centers and high rates of hunger.

The countries with the highest percentage of Roma communities are Macedonia, Slovakia, Romania, Serbia, Hungary and Bulgaria. They make up between 7 and 10 percent of the populations of these countries.

Roma people suffer from many health issues, but their access to health insurance is limited. Their cause is further hurt by the high price of healthcare. More than half of Roma households cannot afford prescriptions and about 20 percent say that they have had overnight stays in health centers. (Non-Roma people ranked at 1/3 and about 12 percent, respectively.) Vaccination rates are also low among the Roma, while births outside the hospital are high.

Education is another area where there is a significant lack of support and progress. Because of child marriages, many young girls are taken out of school before they are able to finish. In most of Central and Eastern Europe, about 50 percent of the Roma have, at the very least, a lower secondary education than their non-Roma counterparts. Schools are often ethnically segregated.

The United Nations had a mission to help lower Roma poverty and improve their living conditions. In 2007, the UN opened centers to help the Roma people receive affordable and accessible healthcare and proper education. However, the programs were highly inefficient and slow moving and accomplished little. That is why the UN is out to reinvent the Roma outreach.

After experimenting with three prospective methods in Macedonia to engage the Roma people and to improve their situation, the UN settled on the Roma Centre of the Future.

Using Roma and non-Roma peoples, the centers work to help the Roma people access education, healthcare and other public services. This time, the centers have the skills, knowledge, tools and technology needed to run such an idea efficiently and effectively, with the goal being to reach as many Roma people as possible. The workers help people through complicated paperwork, direct them to opportunities like job trainings and provide useful community programs. There is also a special focus on the elderly, a concentration that did not exist in the earlier programs.

The program is already seeing success. Within the first five months the center reached 820 people, which was more than the old centers used to help in a year! This new, dedicated focus on reaching the needs of the people appears to be working, as the Roma people are seeing the positive effects the centers have on the community and are thus going to these centers for help.

Katherine Hewitt

Sources: EC Europa, UNDP 1, UNDP 2, New Int
Photo: UNDP

circassians in sochi
With the Winter Olympics now over, many are lamenting the failure of civil society and LGBT advocacy to impact the games, due in large part to the IOC’s unwavering apolitical stance. Yet what is more shocking is how little of Sochi coverage went to the Circassians, a North Caucasian ethnic group indigenous to the region.

In the 19th century, Circassians were the subject of a bizarre European and American fixation which arose in part from anthropologist Johan Friedrich Blumenbach’s claim that they were the origin of the white race. The image of the “Circassian Beauty” was extolled by authors from Pushkin to Dumas—all while the Arab-African slave trade imported Circassian women into Ottoman harems through the 18th and 19th centuries. Then in the early 1800’s, the Russian conquest into the Caucasus led to what many are calling the ethnic cleansing and genocide of Circassians.

During the years before the Winter Olympics, the Circassian Cultural Institute, among other organizations, united Circassians worldwide to raise awareness about the tragic history of the region and get recognition from the Russian government that the Russo-Circassian War was in fact a genocide—an allegation that Russian leaders, from Tsar Nicholas II to Vladimir Putin, have downplayed and denied. Roughly 700,000 Circassians live in Russia, with significant numbers in Turkey, Jordan, Syria and New Jersey in the U.S., where the Institute is based.

Delegations in Israel and Turkey have lobbied and protested both the IOC and the Russian embassies in their respective countries, with little response from either. Moreover, Circassian advocates and local community leaders were detained in the months prior to the Olympics. Many have also accused Putin of downplaying the ethnic heterogeneity in the region, and misleadingly portraying Sochi as an ethnically Russian region. While the struggle has been reported on by several reputable news outlets, discussions on Circassians in Sochi have failed to launch from the blogosphere into mainstream media.

Martin W. Lewis at Stanford University attributes the lack of reporting to confusion, uncertainty and overwhelming lack of awareness by Western audiences of the history and demographics of the Caucasus region.  Lewis suspects that the story, in the minds of reporters, may be too complicated for observers to bear, and furthermore distracts audiences from the “tunnel vision” of the Caucasian narrative—which has predominantly focused on Chechnya, not Circassia.

The disproportionate focus on LGBT rights and allegations of corruption in funding—not to mention the anecdotal and overdone coverage on Sochi hotel rooms and bathrooms—may have very well swayed attention away from the plight of Circassians in Sochi. And now that the Olympics are over, Ukraine and Crimea take center stage in Eastern European affairs. Looking back, Sochi seems like a lost opportunity for garnering the global awareness that only the Olympics can bring, especially for a region that has, until now, kept out of the spotlight.

– Dmitriy Synkov

Sources: Buzzfeed, The New YorkerGeoCurrents, The Asahi Shimbun, Mirror of Race
Photo: The Nation

mongolia
It is no secret that the concerns and rights of ethnic minorities in China fall to the wayside in favor of the Han, the ethnicity with the majority in the country. Inner Mongolia serves as an example of the cultural and economic strife caused by marginalizing one group over another. The result is what the Mongol minority believes is outright economic exclusion and the watering down of their culture.

One of the key issues within the region is the migration of the indigenous nomads from their native grasslands to the cities. The Chinese government waves off the migration as a move into modernity for the nomads. A removal from what Chinese authorities refer to as a “backward” culture, but as Nick Holdstock of the U.K. Independent points out, the natives have no say whatsoever when it comes to moving to the cities. This outflow of ethnic Mongolians to urban centers has raised fears among Mongolians that their culture, language and lifestyle are being threatened.

Another point of tension lies in the regional mining of rare-earth metals. Various mining companies have entered the region to take advantage of the lucrative prospects, especially since the value of these metals is demonstrated in their ubiquity among high-tech electronics. However, the mining has been accompanied by a degradation of the surrounding environment as well as the health of the nomads.

For example, the town of Baotou, a major mining hub, has seen its groundwater polluted to toxic levels, their crops ruined and much of their livestock destroyed. Moreover, the use of underground water sources, essential to the removal of impurities from the coal, has lessened the water available to crops and livestock. Many farmers, unable to deal with destruction of their livelihood, have moved away. The Guardian points out that the population within the surrounding villages of the Baotou plants has decreased dramatically. Those that have remained in the area are plagued by severe illness.

All of these factors have coalesced, creating serious economic problems for the ethnic minority. Environmental devastation of their grasslands has degraded some of the main forms of their economic livelihood; the mining industry in the region tends to hire workers from other provinces, excluding the nomads from many of the economic benefits the industry might bring.  Furthermore, those who have migrated to urban areas have discovered cultural barriers to finding gainful employment, namely an inability to speak passable Mandarin.

Tensions have, moreover, reached the point of violence in some instances. In 2011, a herder was killed by a passing coal truck when he attempted to prevent coal trucks from crossing into his land during his protest against the mining industry. Several days later another protester was killed by a forklift driver. Tensions finally boiled over and several thousand Mongolians went out to voice their opposition toward the mining activities.

Unfortunately, the case of Inner Mongolia is a harsh reminder among ethnic minorities in China of their second-class citizen status. Perhaps in time, the Chinese government will listen to the voices of protest among the disenfranchised minority groups that populate many rural areas throughout China. Until then, Mongolians and other ethnicities face major economic and cultural challenges.

Zack Lindberg

Sources: The Independent, The Guardian
Fabio Ghioni