Written by Júlia Rovira Munté
The Roma people are the biggest ethnic minority in Europe and have lived on the continent for centuries. However, they continue to be invisible to society, policymakers, and stakeholders. The data on their education levels and employment figures is inadequate, and the blame should be put on a discriminative, prejudiced, system that continues to marginalise and exclude this community from the same opportunities others have.
This policy brief aims to highlight the lack of available data for Roma education and employment, as well as highlight the struggles of Roma youth. It will also offer some short-term and long-term recommendations to shed more light on this issue.
The Roma population is an ethnic group formed by different subgroups, believed to have originated in India. Right now, most Roma live in Europe (approximately 10 to 12 million), yet figures vary according to the source, as no official census has been kept due to Roma’s historic nomadism (Fundación Secretariado Gitano, n.d.).
This ethnic community continues to face discrimination and persecution. They were the invisible victims of the Holocaust, as hundreds of thousands of Roma were murdered during the Third Reich, and they continue to face prejudice, almost one hundred years later. As Monika Flašíková-Beňová, Hannes Swoboda, and Jan Marinus Wiersma point out, Roma face what is known as anti-Gypsyism, a systemic and long-established type of racism that does not only come from non-Roma members of the public, but also from authorities, political parties, and institutions. They are politically underrepresented and excluded from the electoral process due to a lack of documentation and education which alienates them and impedes their inclusion (2011, p.10).
This policy brief aims to highlight the struggles of Roma youth, as the lack of opportunities follow them for the rest of their lives, impeding them from pursuing their aspirations. It will do so by highlighting the Roma education and employment figures in Europe and then offering short-term and long-term recommendations to help mitigate and tackle this issue.
Early Inequalities in Education
Inequalities start early for Roma children: in Europe, they are still half as likely to attend preschool as non-Roma (Rutigliano, 2020, p. 22). Some reasons for this data are the lack of access to schools, as well as a sense of mistrust from parents towards the Euro-centric education system. The problem subsides a bit in primary school, but the numbers are still low compared to non-Roma students. Early dropouts and low educational attainment are defining factors in secondary education, mainly due to discrimination and a lack of inclusivity. In 2016, only 18% of Roma had achieved upper secondary education, as the highest achieved education levels were lower secondary (38%) and primary (29%) (European Commission, 2019, p.5).
Moreover, more cleavages are found when looking at the gender gap between men and women, as the latter are more likely to leave school at an early age than Roma men in the European Union Member States where they reside, except for France (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 2014, p. 36).
The Pattern Continues in the Labour Market
Employment prospects for Roma are minimal, as a lack of proper and complete education hinders the already limited pool of opportunities for young Roma. Other reasons identified for the low figures are economic crises (as low-skilled workers are the most vulnerable), the racial discrimination faced by Roma, and the cost of officially employing workers, amongst others (Messing, 2014, p. 4-5). However, the public perception of Roma’s employment situation continues to be full of prejudice: Roma are not against working, they do not prefer unstable and unsafe jobs, and they do not exploit the welfare systems (Messing, 2014, p. 5).
Roma youth are particularly vulnerable to unemployment. As Niall O’Higgins and Andrey Ivanov point out, they run the risk of being permanently excluded from mainstream society, and long-term unemployment has disastrous effects on Roma communities (2006, p. 18). Moreover, this vulnerability affects the connection of Roma youth with their origins and identity: the social exclusion derived from being Roma, or living in a Roma neighbourhood, discourages the youngsters from participating in employment (Egi, 2020, p. 112).
Some short-run measures to improve the data on Roma unemployment are Active Labour Market Programmes (ALMPs), such as Spain’s ACCEDER programme, which can be successful if implemented correctly. These ALMPs should exclusively target Roma, including tailored training, mentoring, and efficient job-matching, and not be regarded as a “definite solution”. Another measure identified by experts is the need to improve the service of Employment Offices, which should not be limited to registering the applications for unemployment benefits, but also have an active involvement in helping Roma pursue education and employment (Messing, 2014, p. 13-14).
However, the most important measures are the ones not being currently tackled: long-term changes in how Roma lives and are perceived by the rest of the population. Anti-discrimination is key to achieving an integrated society, therefore, education should be at the centre of any Roma-related policies. There should be campaigns to educate non-Roma about the community and start a process of deconstruction at a societal and institutional level. Moreover, improving the regional development of the areas inhabited by Roma, not only in rural territories but also inside the cities, could help mitigate the exclusion Roma people face.
Focusing on youth and the role of the European Union, the European Youth Guarantee and the Youth Employment Initiative should emphasise the most vulnerable communities, for example partnering with Non-Governmental Organisations that connect with Roma, as well as securing different employment conditions for young Roma who oftentimes face discrimination in the labour market due to their ethnicity. Moreover, the European Union should encourage national governments to develop first-experience programmes or on-the-job training using the new integrated European Social Fund Plus (ESF+), which will run until 2027 (Naydenova & Matarazzo, 2019, p. 31).
This policy brief aimed to draw attention to one of the most disadvantaged ethnicities in many European countries: Roma. From their early days up until adulthood, they continuously face discrimination in school, when entering the labour market, and often after attaining a secure job. Although efforts have been made in countries where the presence of Roma is higher, such as Hungary or Spain, it seems as if they are temporary. At the same time, root causes stay the same for generations.
In recent years, two issues have worsened Roma’s situation. The European Roma Rights Centre has warned that Roma have been severy impacted both by the coronavirus itself and by repressive responses from governments, while the Roma population is believed to be the most vulnerable minority group in Ukraine, due to the lack of civil documentation and border discrimination (Lecerf, 2022, p. 9-10). These crises only exacerbate the struggles faced by Roma, the largest ethnic minority in Europe, yet arguably the most forgotten.
Image credits: “Romani family in Saint-Étienne, Loire, France.” Touam (Hervé Agnoux) / CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en