On the occasion of marking the International Day of Human Rights on 10 December, we spoke with Mr. Orhan Usein, Head of Office of the Regional Cooperation Council’s Roma Integration Project.
The Roma Integration Project was launched by the Regional Cooperation Council, with the financial support of the European Union and the Open Society Foundations, in early 2016, as a continuation of the Decade of Roma Inclusion, which ended in 2015. The aim of the project is to combat discrimination against Roma in the region, and their inclusion in all social flows.
Euronews Albania: Today, people and organisations all over the world mark the International Day of Human Rights. Human rights are the topic that gets more and more attention, especially within the European Union institutions, but also in the region. Do you think that, when it comes to human rights, Roma do not get the deserved attention, and are somehow forgotten?
Orhan Usein: 72 years ago, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was the first legal document in this area that clearly states that human rights are universal and inalienable. It means that we are all equally entitled to our human rights, and they should not be taken away from us in any form. But are we?
We still witness violations of human rights of the Roma population – police brutality, segregated schools and housing, discrimination within different public institutions, including health care providers, which is especially concerning at this time when the world is facing a pandemic. Are we talking about Roma inclusion if we build homes for them and put them all in one area? When talking about Roma, we need to start with ourselves, and what makes us feel like human beings. Just like everyone else, Roma also care about their children, think about how they are going to pay their bills, fight to survive, are worried about the current pandemic. Although having a distinct culture, Roma are in no way different from anybody else. And why do we treat them differently, put them in segregated areas, deny their human rights?
When it comes to respecting their human rights, I wouldn’t say that Roma are forgotten within the European Union institutions. In fact, the EU has recently put antigypsyism, a special form of racism directed towards the Roma community, very high on its agenda, but there is for sure a lot of space for improvement. A few weeks ago, the European Commission presented the new EU Roma strategic framework for equality, inclusion and participation for 2020-2030. The new initiative sets out a comprehensive three-pillar approach: equality with all other members of society, social and economic inclusion, and participation in political, social, economic and cultural life, and I am especially glad that the Western Balkan economies agreed to join this effort.
But, there is obviously a lot yet to be done. We are not talking about the subjective feeling that I, as a Roma, have. We are talking about clear data that shows that xenophobia and antigypsyism exist very much around us.
Euronews Albania: What do you think are the main challenges in the fight against antigypsyism today?
Orhan Usein: Antigypsyism is specific form of racism towards Roma, that includes hate speech and hate crime, institutional discrimination, such as segregation of Roma children in education, spatial segregation of Roma communities and forced evictions, public and media hate speech that targets Roma directly and explicitly, police brutality and violence.
According to the Balkan Barometer, an annual survey of public opinion in the Western Balkan economies, commissioned by the Regional Cooperation Council, the attitude to social inclusion of vulnerable groups is not very favorable for Roma. Less than half of the population would consider renting a house to Roma, more than half of the surveyed population would not be comfortable with marrying or having their children marry a Roma, or even have children going in the same class with Roma.
The Roma genocide during World War II, the Roma slavery in Romania, the racist attacks around Europe, all have produced severe trauma that passes from generation to generation. Historical segregation policies have similarly isolated Roma communities from economic opportunities in many places and continue to affect the socio-economic status and integration of Roma.
The new EU framework on Roma equality, inclusion and participation, mentioned before, requires all EU institutions, governments and EU agencies, equality bodies and other human rights institutions to team up and take action in partnership with the civil society, international organisations, and of course with full involvement of Roma themselves.
The main challenges for us will be to recommend an institutional set-up in each economy that will deal with prevention of systematic and structured institutional discrimination; education and training of public servants in contact with Roma communities, including law enforcement officials; setting legal and justice remedies, mechanisms for victims’ protection; etc.
To avoid further exclusion of Roma and limited implementation of the commitments decision-makers should translate the recognition of antigypsyism into effective action across the crosscutting priority areas of education, employment, housing and health but also in other areas of everyday life as a norm to overcoming it.
Therefore, we continuously give our maximum effort to provide the necessary support for development of the new national strategic frameworks in line with the EU framework, including providing support and expertise to define the goals and measures of fighting antigypsyism as a key objective. The Western Balkan Governments are expected to develop strong national Roma strategic frameworks, make long-term commitments, monitor the progress and work hand in hand with the EU institutions on Roma equality, inclusion and participation.
Euronews Albania: You mentioned you work closely with the governments in the region. In 2019 Western Balkans leaders adopted the Declaration of Western Balkans Partners on Roma Integration within the EU Enlargement Process in Poznan.
Orhan Usein: Yes, more than a year ago, the governments in the region committed to work, with us as partners, to meet the goals of the Declaration, which starts from the essential assumption that all human beings must be free and equal, which is not the case in practice, especially with Roma. And let’s not forget that Roma are the biggest minority in the region. We unfortunately do not have the exact data, but it is reported that there are around 3.5 million Roma in the region.
The Declaration you mentioned represents a set of basic questions that many take for granted, but for the Roma, these are often unattainable categories: employment opportunities, access to education, health care, housing in decent conditions and legal settlements, possession of identity documents.
Only 16.5% of Roma in the region are employed. When it comes to Roma women, the number drops to 7.33%. As much as 78.5% of young Roma are not in education, employment or training, compared to 43.33% of non-Roma population. 46.83% had at least one hungry household member in the past month, and let’s not forget that we are talking about data gathered before the pandemic. So obviously, the commitments that the Prime Ministers from the region took in 2019 by adopting the Poznan Declaration were highly necessary.
Euronews Albania: You recently co-organised a follow-up Ministerial meeting in Tirana with the Government of Albania.
Orhan Usein: Yes, the Government of Albania kindly offered to host the Ministerial meeting this year in October in Tirana. The main topic of the Ministerial meeting was the implementation progress of the Poznan Declaration and future actions.
The Ministers of the Western Balkans responsible for Roma Integration and Heads of Delegations once again recalled the commitments made in Poznan in 2019, and recognised the importance of having a coherent approach towards economic development of the region while taking into consideration the needs of the most vulnerable and deprived.
Namely, we always underline that Roma equality, inclusion and participation do not benefit only Roma, but the whole society. For example, a World Bank research on the total economic losses of social exclusion among Roma in Serbia finds that, if the Roma population were employed at the same level as the general population, the total gains from increased productivity alone could range from €314 million to €1.28 billion a year, or from 0.9 percent to 3.5 percent of Serbian 2017 gross domestic product. Unfortunately, we do not have similar data for all economies in the region, but we can assume they are approximate or even higher than those that were brought forth by the World Bank research. We do hope to do a similar study soon and see concretely how much Roma exclusion costs our economies.
This is why it was very significant that the participants of the meeting welcomed the new Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans which highlights the importance of Roma integration in human capital investments, including in access to education and labour market participation. This gives us hope that people will realise that Roma inclusion is beneficial to the whole society. They have also discussed the progress and further steps in other areas stated in the Poznan Declaration, like housing, statelessness, data collection and budgeting.
Euronews Albania: What about housing, statelessness, data collection, proper budgeting –is there any hope for Roma in the region that some things will soon be changed?
Orhan Usein: We do feel optimistic, particularly because the participants of the aforementioned Ministerial meetring determined the concrete timeline on when they plan to achieve certain goals.
On housing, which is a very important part of the Poznan Declaration, the participants pledged to collect geographic data on all Roma settlements on their territories by the end of 2021 and welcomed the Methodology for geographic mapping of housing in Roma settlements. This date will come in a blink of an eye, and we have great examples in a couple of municipalities in each Western Balkan economy. It has already been proven that it can be done, and we encourage the participants to start this process as soon as possible.
Then, 8.33% of Roma in the region do not possess an ID card, which means they practically do not exist anywhere and are not recognised by the institutions. It gives us a trace of hope that the problem of statelessness among Roma will soon be ended, as the participants welcomed the initiative to develop Roadmaps towards ending Statelessness with a view to put an end to it by 2024.
In order to achieve better results, we need to have accurate data. Because of many obstacles, sometimes it is very hard to gather data only on one particular ethnic group, in this case, Roma, but during the meeting, the participants recognised the importance of a pilot project led by the Government of the Republic of North Macedonia, which entrusted the national statistical office with the design and regular implementation of a national Roma Survey. Similar initiatives should follow in all the Western Balkan economies in the upcoming period.
Lastly, the governments pledged to seek ways to make the Roma responsive budgeting part of the official procedures and budgetary practices in the economies and welcomed the Guidelines for Roma Responsive Budgeting.
For us, it is very important to keep the challenges Roma are facing very high on the political agenda. That is why it was of utmost importance that the conclusions of the Ministerial meeting were adopted at the Summit of the Western Balkans leaders, a high-level event within the Berlin Process, organised in Sofia in November 2020. Because, when you express your commitment at such a high-level political event, you cannot simply forget about it.
Euronews Albania: What is the situation with the Roma and Egyptian community in Albania?
Orhan Usein: When it comes to Albania, the official data shows that there are 11.669 Roma living in Albania, but the estimate is that the number rises to 115.000, which is more than 4% of the total population. We have a very good cooperation with the Government of Albania and the Ministry of Health and Social Protection in charge of Roma integration. I’ve already mentioned the Guidelines for Roma Responsive Budgeting. The Guidelines are intended primarily for the governments in the region, especially the line ministries responsible for different priority areas for Roma integration, and most importantly for the Ministries of Finance. These institutions need to be able to recognise and provide appropriate response to the potential for promoting Roma integration when preparing and adopting policy proposals and concrete measures, whether they are mainstream socio-economic policies or policies specifically targeted at Roma. The Ministry of Finance and Economy of Albania agreed and signed in February 2020 an official document as a commitment towards setting specific focus and objectives in local government budgeting for Roma and Egyptians. With this, Albania made a step forward towards a better future for Roma.
And that is for sure necessary. The percentage of Roma living under the absolute poverty line in Albania is 53.40%, compared to 14.30% of the overall population. We all know that a better future starts with education, and Albania re-evaluated educational programmes in kindergartens and schools. Almost 400 more Roma and Egyptian boys and girls were enrolled in and attended pre-school education and compulsory education in 2019. In the same year, Albanian Parliament approved a new Law on Employment Promotion Programmes which addresses several segments among the Roma and Egyptian population engaged in informal economy or interested in developing a small business. But, Albania still needs to tackle the lack of Roma employed in public administration, where there has not been reported progress.
Health cards are issued for most of the Roma population, which is particularly important at this time when the world is facing the COVID-19 pandemic.
Funds for improving houses have been directed from the Ministry of Finance and Economy to the local governments, aiming to improve the housing conditions for Roma – 341 Roma and Egyptian families benefited from this initiative.
Numbers are saying everything for themselves. There is progress, but still a lot to do. The cost of exclusion of Roma and Egyptian population in Albania is extremely high. So if we are not thinking from the emotional side about human rights, equality and freedom, then at least we can think from the economic side – the more sustainable Roma inclusion, the richer the economy.