The Roma people originated from Northern India and migrated toward Europe in the ninth century. Romany is the predominant language that the Roma people speak, derived from Sanskrit, an ancient classical language from India. The Roma are often referred to derogatorily as “gypsies” and have faced persecution in Europe for centuries, including during World War II. The Roma people in Europe also endure discrimination and marginalization that puts them at higher risk of poverty.
Poverty Among the Roma
According to UNICEF, the Roma are “one of Europe’s largest and most disadvantaged minority groups.” About 12 million Roma people reside in Europe but many live in slums and do not have access to basic services and resources. Discrimination has resulted in their exclusion and impoverishment.
A 2016 report by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) highlights that the Roma people face barriers to employment, education, housing and health services. The report is based on a survey of thousands of Romani people across nine EU states.
The report found that almost 80% of Roma people in Europe are at risk of poverty or social exclusion compared to around 23.5% of the EU population in general in 2016. The same report found that one in three Roma people have no access to running tap water in their homes. Statistics also indicate that just about 50% of the Roma have indoor flushing toilets or shower facilities.
The Roma people in Europe have higher health risks than non-Roma people. They are also far less likely to be employed due to discrimination so they often struggle to find adequate housing and have access to food and other necessary support. In 2015, only 30% of Roma people could work to earn an income, which is low compared to Europe’s 70% employment rate at that time. During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Roma had unequal access to a variety of essential services, including health care.
In addition, one in three Roma children comes from a home where a family member “went to bed hungry at least once in the previous month.” About half of Roma in the age group of 6 and 24 are out of school. Furthermore, 40% of Roma people have experienced an act of discrimination against them “at least once in the past five years.” Romani children face health risks that begin early in life. Roma infants are four times more likely to be underweight at birth in comparison to other infants and are also less likely to have a valid birth certificate, which limits their rights to access essential services. Child marriage is also common among the Roma as marrying off a daughter will lessen the financial burden of the family with one less mouth to feed.
COVID-19 and Roma Exclusion
During the pandemic, the Roma faced hate speech and prejudices from communities who blamed them for the spread of the virus. “Hate speech is especially present in times of crisis,” said Csaba Ferenc Asztalos, president of Romania’s National Council for Combating Discrimination in April 2022. “Resources are less, society is more tense, competition is higher, and then, people resort to prejudices, false news, to gain or to maintain economic or political power. In this context, the Roma are the target of prejudice,” Asztalos explained.
According to the Human Rights Journal, countries in Eastern Europe specifically targeted the Roma population during the pandemic, labeling them as a health and safety threat. Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia took strong military measures to police and oppress the Roma people. The Bulgarian government-imposed roadblocks and police checkpoints among Roma communities. These actions are reminiscent of older anti-Romani sentiments.
Action to Uphold the Rights of the Roma
In 2021, Romania passed legislation to combat the discrimination against Romani by punishing hate speech and holding those contributing to the continuous social discrimination of the group accountable. The law is the “first of its kind in Europe.”
UNICEF focuses on upholding the rights of Roma children so that they may reach their full potential. UNICEF runs home visit programs to educate families on how to access services in relation to childhood development, health, education and social protection.
In Montenegro, UNICEF has supported social workers to establish a strategy to address discrimination against the Roma and “increase access to social benefits among Roma communities,” the UNICEF website highlights.
Furthermore, in Bulgaria, UNICEF is supporting the operation of programs in three family centers to reduce the prevalence of child marriage among the Roma and strengthen access to high school education for young Roma girls. The programs, which also aim to change societal mindsets about gender, have managed to provide “hundreds of Roma adolescents to date with health and education advice and support,” UNICEF says.
The Roma people in Europe are a highly marginalized group that faces a higher risk of poverty. Comprehensive solutions and strategies to address marginalization and discrimination will help the Roma rise out of poverty.
– Anna Richardson