According to the latest census, there are approximately 500.000 Roma ethnics in Romania. However, due to the the low literacy level among the minority, which limits its interactions with the authorities, it is estimated that this number accounts for only one third of the actual number of Roma in the country. In this light, the Roma community raises up to 7% of the Romanian population, the second largest minority group of the country.
Although impressive in number, the Roma minority is living in far from impressive conditions. In Romania, there are several hundreds extremely substandard Romani slum settlements. These are characterized by extreme deprivation, as they are constantly and extensively missing either electricity, heating, potable water sources, sewage systems, pavement, street lighting, accessible public transport or all such basic requirements. In addition, they are far away from schools, hospitals and other public authorities’ offices.
However, it is not even the dramatic poverty of many Roma communities that highlights the underpriviledged state of the minority most profoundly. It is the constant, overwhelming level of prejudice directed towards it. The poverty of the Roma minority is combined with exclusion that has social and political roots and that is enhanced by the lack of adequate legal protection.
Romania has ratified many binding international documents that support minority rights and the Constitution firmly forbids discrimination of any kind. However, implementing these treaties has not always proved to be facile and there still is a substantial lack of effective policies that aim to establish de facto equality and truly punish discriminatory acts. A large amount of terribly violent attacks against representatives of the Roma community have been left unpunished since the ’90s.
Furthermore, affirmations of racist significance are constantly being made by proeminent Romanian political figures. The latest such cases were when the president, Traian Basescu, named a journalist that had interrupted his family shopping day a “stinking gipsy” and the vice president, Calin Popescu Tariceanu, named a group of Romanian criminals caught by the Italian police “gipsies”. Being called a gipsy is rated among one of the worst insults you can have to face in Romanian society. Roma-phobia is widely spread at all levels of society and intensively augmented by the press. The stereotype of a Roma being a criminal, dirty, black and dangerous is being perpetuated on a daily basis, mainly through the power of insulting words multiplied and distributed by the media.
I have often wondered what happened to a world of equal citizens, of equal rights and opportunities and of positive action in the case of the Romanian Roma population. It is often the case that the average person of Romanian ethnicity will blame the Roma minority for everything that goes wrong in the country. “It is the gipsies that invade Europe that are responsible for the EU imposing restrictions on the labour market for Romanian citizens” is just one of the monstruous expressions of discriminatory origins that can be easily and largely heard in almost all spheres of the Romanian society. It seems that the Roma minority is the favourite scape goat for all of Romania’s failures. Unfortunately it has had this status for hundreds of years now and things don’t seem to be changing.
It would be unfair to say that there are no initiatives of the Government or of civil society to address the problem of discrimination against the Roma community. The educational system is in theory quite progressive in this sense. Roma children can be taught in Romani in primary and secondary schools, there are Romani sections in several Universities and special places are reserved in highschools and Universities for Roma students. However, in practise all the affirmative action does not seem to be fully implemented. The children are very frequently not even registered by the Romanian authorities, therefore the state cannot summon upon their families to send them to school when extreme poverty leads parents to refuse to let their children follow the compulsory eight years of education. In other cases the children get maginalized and stigmatized when they are enrolled in Romanian schools. Exclusion from a peers group from early ages severely damages the chances of receiving a proper education for the Roma child and of properly integrating into a group of non-Roma origins.
Civil society has had several laudable initiatives aimed at supporting the holistic integration of this minority in Romanian society. However, the lack of coordination of such programmes and the strength of the stereoptypes against Romas have led these to little, if any, success. The pro-Roma battle of the non-governmental sector seems to be a lost one for now.
It is high time for the Romanian authorities, both locally and nationally, to take coordinated positive measures for the Roma population, by applying high scale integration plans, as well as awareness campaigns aimed at ending the deeply rooted prejudices against this community. At the same time, the adequate European bodies need to start monitoring and severely punishing the lack of implementation of anti-discrimination programmes for the Roma minorities in all EU countries. It is time we stop once and for all to talk about tolerance (a term that implies you don’t like the subject, but merely ‘tolerate’ it) and embrace the idea that integration is the only way forward. The way to live peacefully and safely is in a society enriched by the traditions and culture of both its majoritary and minoritary groups. It is time for us to get beyond the climax of ethnical conflict, hatred and misunderstanding and reach a denouement that at least comes close to a Hollywood happy ending; or a happy beginning to be more precise.