Since the fall of socialism in 1991, Albania has made great strides in establishing itself as an economic and political power in Europe. The country has joined the United Nations, NATO, World Trade Organization and the Council of Europe. It is poised to join the European Union.

One of the factors holding the country back has been the exclusion of its minorities, primarily the Roma and Egyptians. This exclusion has left 75 percent of Roma and 70 percent of Egyptians categorized as very poor, compared to the 28.8 percent of Albanians with the same rating.

This socioeconomic status is due largely to of a lack of education, employment and basic infrastructure.  This has led many members of these groups to seek wages in the informal labor market, which includes prostitution, women and child trafficking and drug trafficking.

While the government has claimed to include these minority groups in Albania, Egyptians have not been given minority status. The government claims they have not met the criteria necessary. Egyptians must share the same language (other than Albanian), have documentation to prove its distinct ethnic origin or national identity and have distinct customs and traditions or a link to a kinship state outside of the country.

However, the Roma have met these criteria, and, as of 2005, the Albanian government has signed up for the Decade of Roma, a World Bank initiative designed to help in four key areas: education, employment, health and housing and gender and non-discrimination. To date however, the results are not very encouraging, as the number of Roma still labeled as very poor continues to rise.

Against this very bleak picture, several rays of hope have begun to shine on the Roma and Egyptian communities from several organizations. One of these organizations is the United Nations Development Plan, implemented by the Ministry of Social Welfare and funded by the European Union.

These organizations have constructed a project designed to promote social inclusion of Roma and Egyptians through vocational training to increase their employability and strengthen artisan and entrepreneurship skills, especially for women and girls.

The training entailed learning how to cultivate medicinal plants. It was a week-long program where participants were trained how to cultivate, collect and dry medicinal plants. They also learned how to start a business. Additionally, women who owned pieces of land were given sage seeds to help get them started.

Within six months, several of the women who took the course were entrepreneurs employing up to three other women in their businesses. The UNDP recruited sage specialists to assist farmers throughout the process and help them in timing their sales and marketing their product.

Luan Ahmetaj, Director of the Medicinal Plant Institute in Tirana, Albania said, “What makes this intervention unique is the involvement of women in business dominated and run by men. This contributes in empowering those communities.”

There is a huge potential for Albanian medicinal plants. According to the U.S. Agricultural Department, 57 percent of sage imports into the U.S. come from Albania. There are close to 300 members of Roma and Egyptian communities in the regions of Berat, Korca and Vlora that are now benefiting from the initiative, almost half of them women.

Another aspect of this program has been the support of interventions into infrastructure identified by Roma and Egyptian Community Councils, such as kindergartens, road rehabilitations and other interventions. These programs also support the Government of Albania in its efforts to achieve the objectives set forth in the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005 – 2015. It also promotes respect for human rights and appreciation for cultural diversity, as prerequisites for the country’s EU accession.

Frederick Wood

Sources: Minority Rights 1, Minority Rights 2, UNDP, UN Albania, ERRC
Photo: Flickr

Human Rights
After all the progress we’ve made in terms of human rights over the years, you’d think we’d be living in a world without discrimination by now. Sadly this isn’t the case. Here are just 5 ongoing human rights battles that are still being fought today:

1. Rights of Women

This includes fair pay, participation in decision-making positions and positive portrayal in the media.  Issues such as rape, sex-based elimination, violence against women and access to education are also at the forefront of the campaign for women’s rights.  The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the UN Commission on the Status of Women and other NGOs are actively working to make sure women are protected, empowered and represented.

2. Rights of Minorities

Minority groups include ethnic peoples, those who prefer alternative sexual identities and orientations, various religious groups, citizens from various nations, linguistic minorities and disabled peoples.  In International Law it is illegal for any group to be actively marginalized.  Other protections include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, the European Charter for Regional or Minority languages and the Yogyakarta Principles.

3. Rights of Indigenous Populations

The UN recognized the rights of indigenous people as the preservation of their land, language, religion and cultural heritage.  Colonialism and modern-day imperialism have overlooked the claims indigenous populations have to these rights.

4. Right to Education

The right to primary education is recognized by the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.  Research shows that education lifts people out of poverty by teaching them how to provide for themselves, increase their earning power and become economically stable.

5. Right to Housing

People in impoverished communities often lack adequate housing.  This is a health and safety hazard that can stop a family from rising out of poverty.  The Universal Declaration of Human rights recognizes that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family.”

Stephanie Lamm

Sources: The Nation, FoR, UN

It is often assumed that Asian Americans are one of the minority groups in the United States that is doing well economically. However, this statement too broadly categorizes all Asian subgroups. According to the official poverty rate from the U.S. Census in 2011, the Asian American poverty rate was actually 2.5% higher than that of Caucasians.

In fact, amongst poor Asian Americans, Southeast Asians face some of the highest poverty rates in the whole country. Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles conducted a study on income sources, home foreclosures and housing burden. The study indicated that Southeast Asians in the United States have consistently relied on food stamps for many decades. Moreover, language barriers are still major roadblocks that prevent Southeast Asian Americans from entering new labor markets.

The poverty rate for Asian Americans is highest amongst Hmong, Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese. Hmong Americans have a startlingly high poverty rate at 37.8%, followed closely by Cambodian Americans at 29.3% and Laotian Americans at 18.5%.

According to a study by UCLA scholars on Asian Americans in eight different states, 23% of Hmong Americans in Fresno, California relied on cash public assistance for income. This is comparably higher than the 10% of Asian Americans that also did so. It is also significantly higher than the 3% of Caucasians who used public cash assistance. Hmong Americans were also amongst the least likely to receive social security benefits or retirement income.

Additionally, Southeast Asians have especially high rates of depression and suffer higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder compared to the rest of the general Asian American population. These facts definitely counter the model minority stereotype that all Asian Americans belong to one monolithic group.

A study on social trends by Pew Research has found that with a population exceeding 18.2 million – or 6% of the U.S. population – Asian Americans have become one of the fastest growing minority groups in the U.S. Moreover, Asian Americans have become the nation’s best-educated and highest-paid racial or ethnic group. Yet these findings run the risk of perpetuating the stereotype of Asians as high achieving.

Additionally, such facts tend to hide the growing poverty amongst Southeast Asian Americans.

The National Council of Asian Pacific Americans has stated that the media has narrowed in on “one-dimensional narratives of exceptionalism,” of successful Asian American families, usually eastern Asians such as Chinese or Japanese.

Due to popular perception of Asian Americans in general, poverty amongst sub-groups is not well known. Thus in order to truly fight poverty in the United States a more inclusive examination of poverty trends is vital.

– Grace Zhao

Sources: LA Times, Diverse Education, White House, National Alliance in Mental Illness
Photo: Asia Foundation