European-wide Roma integration has remained largely unsuccessful for generations and they are increasingly the target of violence. Yet there remains strong grassroots support on a local level. E&M asks whether their projects can form a new model for pan-European activity.

The political climate of Central-Eastern Europe has witnessed rising nationalist tendencies and faltering economic conditions in recent years. The growing strength of-right movements has driven a political discourse of social exclusion and marginalisation into the mainstream. This has been especially evident for the eight million Roma living across the region.

Violent attacks on Roma have led to the death of six people in Hungary and in the Czech Republic, Jan Dufek has called for a genocide against Gypsies. An off-duty police officer killed three Romani in Slovakia and Italian government personnel have been involved in the vilification of the country’s Roma minority for a number of years. The ever increasing number of cases reported across Europe make it clear that the problem now requires the immediate development and implementation of an supranational political agenda.

Two Romani children | Photo: Giusi Barbini; CC BY-NC 2.0 (Flickr)

There have been a number of attempts to draft policy dealing with the Roma population of Central-Eastern Europe but these have a long and uneasy history. Many centuries of cohabitation without repetitive successful attempts at assimilating Roma into broader society have all failed to change this group’s position on the fringe of society.

Nor has there been improvement in their relationship with the majority population from mere coexistence to a meaningful symbiosis. Although the deepening social gap over the region is beyond doubt, there is a parallel counter-movement aiming to find new ways of inclusion with the Romani people

Large-scale action and interaction

The opening of the borders after the EU’s expansion over the last decade has often even preceded by alarmist media statements expecting large numbers of Romani people migrating to Western European countries in the hope of better job opportunities or more protective social welfare systems. These predictions were not fulfilled partly because those making them highly overestimate the attraction of the current living conditions and the horizon of the majority of the Gypsy population. For many Romani groups even a smaller migration to nearby big cities is impossible.

The Roma ‘problem’ was reborn as an internal EU problem after the 2004 enlargement.

Instead, the Roma ‘problem’ was reborn as an internal EU problem after the 2004 enlargement. Humanitarian organisations and NGOs working in this field needed to direct focus on the so called ‘Gypsy problem’ on these new terms. Most organisations involved in this work operate in line with the European Commission’s Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies (NRIS). Larger organisations like Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International and above all the European Roma Rights Centre regularly monitor the Romas’ economical, social and legal status.

The World Bank and the Open Society Institute initiated the Decade of Roma Inclusion in 2005 with a meeting of several prime ministers of the region aiming to synchronise main policy guidelines and designed the Roma Education Fund (REF) supporting the development of Roma self-empowerment through helping to train Roma leaders.

Despite the €26.5 billion EU funding available in 2012, many NGOs have continued to struggle with funding as the EU usually supports the projects only up to 80% and national governments are usually reluctant to pay the rest. There is a vivid sense of stagnation throughout the region despite the considerable amount of money involved. Grassroots organisations pop up in local contexts experimenting with new strategies. But could those small-scale strategies be the key starting point towards a less abstract integration process?

Bagázs, multi-level mentoring of a community

One of the most inspiring examples of a small-scale project focuses on a single colony of 500 people living on the border of Bag village in Hungary. The organisation was established by a probation officer, Emőke Both, who was working for the social readjustment of ex-prisoners in the village. She realised that her work was unable to bring a real change on its own, so decided to establish a non-profit association. The strategy she employed was to develop strong personal bonds and then promote broad change by utilising them. 

The organisation has now trained around 10 ‘local peer mentors’ from among the youth of the colony, who live there themselves and can provide help from within the community. There are several supporting mentors, usually university students who work together in pairs, with two volunteering secondary school students giving support weekly to four local children. The main goal is to help with schoolwork and through this to form an informal bond which can be used for crime and drug prevention work with the children and general inspirational work to make the kids aspire and realise their goals.

A Romani slum in Medgidia, South-East Romania | Photo: Giusi Barbiani; CC BY-NC 2.0 (Flickr)

In an interview, Sanyi (18), a local peer mentor said that the community gradually opened up to the Bagázs volunteers and the hostility decreased from widespread resentment to a small fraction. Through their children, the parents, and especially mothers started to seek support from them. This led to a development of a women’s mentor program, where they receive support in dealing with household financial issues and learn how to help their children themselves. They receive help with primary education, as the majority of them are practically illiterate. Sanyi also explained the use of the mentor groups: ‘In the beginning the kids opened up much more to the Budapest guys, everybody has a dark past here and we all know each other, they didn’t trust me. But this gradually got better and I’m the one who can control them if they go wild.’

‘Everyone has a dark past here and we all know each other, [initally] they didn’t trust me.’

Réka (16), a high school volunteer told me that the main guideline for positive intervention in the Roma community is to break the dependency circle, and promote a proactive attitude. With this in mind, all the children’s work and the gifts they can give are strictly regulated so that the children can form their own motivation. The organisation felt that a big success of the project was when the older generation proposed to teach Romani language to the volunteers and the younger generation as an exchange for their tutoring work. 

There are still difficulties with the project, and there remains a hostile faction in the community. The children are sometimes forced into segregated schools or need to go to schools for children with special needs. These settings are outside the control of the NGO and can lead young people into a negative circle of drug use or truancy. Overall though, the locals themselves and both the local and non-local volunteers agree that Bagázs has made a fundamental impact on their world-view and life goals.

Romano Cher, supporting traditional Roma craftsmanship

he Romanian Impreuna Agency for Community Development runs several parallel projects. The Romano Cher project is trying to intervene in the recent abandonment of Roma traditional craftsmanship, preserving these cultural skills, suffering from the challenges of failing to compete with modern industrial production. The project is similar to Bagázs in that it works through establishing an interface between the majority population and the Romani, trying to reduce communication barriers and prejudices through its work.

The project was realised through a communication campaign promoting direct contact between the Romani craftsmen and the customers from wider community. the craftsmen were trained in management skills in order to help them adapt their products to the new market. The core of the project is the establishment of a centre where exhibitions can be held and that can serve as a scene for professionalisation. The overall aim of the project is to promote the protection of cultural identity through channelling the products to a changed world’s conditions whilst integrating their makers into broader society. The result, economic self-empowerment though a fragile one balancing traditionalism and modern conditions.

Local action, global conclusion?

Though the two examples do not represent the majority of international action plans, together, they demonstrate that when channelling down significant EU funds, the key to efficiency lies in civic action and support combined with deeply localised knowledge. It is clear that projects like Bagázs are tremendously time and (human) resource consuming. 

The experience of these two projects can and should be translated to other local contexts, just as the Romano Cher project has built up of 30 sub-communities centred around five big cities, each tailoring the general structure to the demands of the local specificities.

There remains two questions though – will there be, or can there be – enough active citizenship to sustain these highly labour-intensive agendas to have serious European-wide impact on Roman integration, or will these need to be isolated examples of hope in otherwise segregated societies? And if they can, how can these small-scale models be efficiently transferred elsewhere and help to bridge the gap between large scale of policy making and the reality of grassroots organisation? The first steps may be to take note of these excellent examples, to support them with political momentum and encourage their proliferation with a new pan-European strategy for fostering Roma integration with European society.


Cover photo: Giusi Barbiani; CC BY-NC 2.0 (FLICKR)


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    Diána Vonnák is an anthropology PhD candidate at the Max Planck Institute and lives in Leipzig. She is originally from Budapest. She is currently working on cultural heritage in Lviv, Ukraine. When not obsessing about the built environment and Eastern Europe she is a managing editor at E&M and tries to be on the road as much as she can. She also reviews translated Hungarian literature regularly.

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