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A Call for Action and Accountability at "Roma Week"

Imagine a world where an entire community is marginalized, discriminated against, and denied their basic human rights. Now, realize that this is not just a hypothetical scenario; it is the harsh reality faced by the Roma community in Europe today.

Roma Week in Brussels, a supposed beacon of hope and progress for the Roma community, looms ahead. Yet, as we brace ourselves for this annual event, it's crucial to question its motives and effectiveness. Let's be blunt: Roma Week risks becoming nothing more than a smokescreen, masking the harsh realities faced by Roma communities across Europe.

The European Framework for Roma Inclusion, a cornerstone of supposed progress, has proven to be little more than a paper tiger. Declamatory in nature, it relies on member states to implement its lofty goals—a responsibility they have consistently shirked. Member states cite a lack of budget and strategy as excuses, conveniently sweeping the Roma issue under the rug while feigning concern.

Past initiatives, like the Decade of Roma Inclusion, have promised much but delivered little. These programs have lacked teeth, with no real consequences for member states failing to meet their commitments. It's a cycle of empty promises and hollow gestures that do little to uplift the Roma community.

Let's talk facts. About 80% of Romani in Europe reside in overcrowded and densely populated areas, which makes effective social distancing a challenge. Moreover, adequate sanitation and hygiene pose difficulties as two-thirds of households lacked running water, and more than half lacked proper sewage in 2017. These poor living conditions are the products of both widespread poverty among Romani and institutional discrimination. Due to the exclusion and prejudice against Traveller communities throughout Europe, 43% of Romani people have reported discrimination while buying or renting a home.

Poor healthcare plagues the Roma population. Unsanitary and unstable living conditions already put Romani health at risk, resulting in shorter life expectancies and higher rates of contagious diseases such as measles, hepatitis and tuberculosis. Furthermore, they also have inadequate access to necessary treatment. Many are not a part of the formal economy and lack welfare benefits. In fact, as few as half of Romani have access to health insurance in some nations. They are also less likely to access healthcare services such as vaccination services, primary care and preventative care due to institutional mistreatment and language barriers.

Romani face inequality in the education system. In 2019, “68% of Romani left school early” and only 37% of Romani youth are in the education system. In the United Kingdom, merely 38% of Romani have internet access in their households and 20% have never used the internet. This trend of digital exclusion is present throughout Europe. It may force Romani students to leave school at even higher rates.

Roma in Europe have long suffered from police brutality. This is not a matter of unfortunate behavior, or bad apples, but rather goes to the heart of the police’s role as the “guardians” of European societies as they are imagined by the ruling elites. Roma are victims of permanent state terror, yet, there is little discussion around the issue of police brutality as a result of structural racism. Scant attention has been paid to understanding and discussing that police brutality is just the cruelest face of anti-Roma racism — the issue is far more complex.

We were witnessing how Roma ghettos from Tres mil viviendas in Spain to Teplice in Czech Republic have become modern open-air prisons where Roma bodies are controlled, observed, brutally abused and killed. The categorization of those spaces as racialized — and for that reason — “dangerous” neighborhoods that must be under permanent vigilance has provoked an intense police presence, as well as several cases of police brutality.

Roma ghettos are always perceived as synonymous with crime, hence the violence is permanent and exceptional. The ghettos are the places where Roma are denied humanity and dignity, while white lives continue to be secured based on the constant and continual dehumanization of us Roma. For many years, I have been investigating and working on the politics of structural and everyday "antigypsyism", cases of police brutality and its traumatic effects on Roma Europe and no matter where we go, the Roma people tell us one sentence that represents the biggest violence against humanity: “They (white societies) see and treat us as non-humans.”

Victimized by violence, segregated in settlements, deprived of education, healthcare, and jobs, and routinely denied their rights as citizens, Roma are also excluded from the political arena where they could attempt to address these problems. As a result, many Roma no longer seek to participate in politics or civic life at any level, persuaded that it is a losing proposition. This reticence is seen by some in the majority population, as a simple, and false, solution to ―the Roma problem:‖ if they are ignored, eventually they will go away.

Romani citizens are almost entirely disconnected from political parties. Widespread mistrust of political parties, which cuts across all ethnic lines, is amplified among Roma, particularly in segregated communities. One cause is the lack of meaningful outreach to Roma by political parties of all ethnic stripes, who generally visit only during campaigns, with no follow up after elections. The lack of strong platforms, policy proposals or even statements on Roma issues reinforces the notion that political parties, regardless of ideology or ethnicity, are not strong Roma advocates. Although Roma could potentially force their issues onto a party platform, the incentive for them to become active members or even supporters of any political party is extremely low. The lack of strong platforms, policy proposals or even statements on Roma issues reinforces the notion that political parties, regardless of ideology or ethnicity, are not strong Roma advocates. Although Roma could potentially force their issues onto a party platform, the incentive for them to become active members or even supporters of any political party is extremely low.

Last but not least, to conclude our summary of issues, many Roma are literally stateless with no documents – no rights. "Tens of thousands of Roma live in Europe without a nationality. Lacking birth certificates, identity cards, passports and other documents, they are often denied basic rights such as education, healthcare, social assistance and the right to vote" said the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights. "The right to a nationality is a basic human right, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It amounts to a ‘right to have rights' and must be enforced – for everyone - with much more energy and determination than has been the case so far.

Despite these grim statistics, Roma Week seems more focused on optics than outcomes. It's time to shift the narrative and focus on real solutions. Instead of lavish events and grand speeches, let's prioritize concrete actions that benefit Roma people directly.

For example, tackling barriers that prevent access to quality education for Roma individuals, including cost and prejudice, is crucial. By investing in education and skill development programs, we can empower Roma youth to break the cycle of poverty and build a brighter future for themselves and their communities.

Creating job opportunities for the Roma workforce and supporting Roma entrepreneurs with necessary resources can help lift Roma communities out of poverty and promote economic growth. By providing access to employment, we can ensure that Roma individuals are able to provide for themselves and their families.

Ensuring that essential services like healthcare, housing, and other social services are available to Roma communities is essential. By addressing the lack of access to these services, we can improve the overall health and well-being of Roma people and promote social inclusion.

Fostering an environment where interethnic dialogue, cultural exchange, and inclusive policies are encouraged both at national and local levels is key to promoting social cohesion and understanding.

Roma Week should be a wake-up call, not a celebration. It's time to hold member states accountable, demand real change, and ensure that Roma inclusion is more than just a talking point. The time for action is now.

As activists, advocates, and concerned individuals prepare to attend Roma Week in Brussels, it's imperative that we use this platform to demand real change. We must question the European Commission and member state representatives about the glaring issues facing the Roma community.

Let's demand answers as to why member states consistently lack the national budget to implement their strategies for Roma inclusion. Why is poverty among Roma communities allowed to persist, with little to no action taken to address it?

We must also question why the human rights of Roma, including access to adequate housing and healthcare, are not being upheld. These are basic rights that should be afforded to all, yet they continue to be denied to the Roma community.

In closing, let us not allow Roma Week to be just another event on the calendar. Let it be a catalyst for change, a rallying cry for justice, and a beacon of hope for the Roma community. Together, we have the power to demand real solutions, to hold governments accountable, and to ensure that Roma inclusion is not just a dream but a reality. The time for action is now. Will you stand with us?

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