Athen: A Call for Justice and Dignity

Athen 2014, May 5-7. 
Improving the situation of Roma people in Europe
Hier als pdf-Datei erhältlich

Improving the situation of Roma people in Europe: Challenges and open questions

CEC-CCEE joint meeting 5-7 May 2014, Athens, Greece

Doris Peschke
A Call for Justice and Dignity for Roma People

The churches and the Roma in Europe – General perspective and status questionis – overview of the actual situation

Your Eminence and Excellencies,
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Dear Friends,

Thank you for this opportunity to give an overview of the current situation and debate about inclusion of Roma minorities in European societies. It is a challenging task for several reasons: Roma and Sinti across Europe have been excluded and despised in almost all European countries, but it was in my country, Germany, where the Nazi regime hunted and killed Roma and Sinti in the concentration camps as a consequence of the racist doctrine. Listening to holocaust survivors or their children as last year at the German Kirchentag in Hamburg, brings the cruelty to light: It did not matter how the individual Roma and Sinti behaved in society. Many of the victims had regarded themselves as German, had settled and worked, sent their children to school. This self- identification did not protect them; their citizenship was declared void, they faced persecution and extermination in Germany, a scheme which was extended to other Roma and Sinti minorities in occupied territories.

It has taken Germany 60 years to open a memorial for the Jewish holocaust victims, and another 7 years, to have a memorial for the Roma and Sinti victims of the holocaust.

An other reason is of course the fact that throughout Europe, Roma minorities are the least liked group of persons. It is both surprising and shocking to see, that the anti-Roma sentiments are widely shared by people across Europe. While on many issues, Europeans have diverse opinions, they seem to be of the same mind when it comes to Roma.1

Recognising the errors and crimes of the past centuries and decades is however an essential step towards “healing of memories” – badly needed when it comes to relationships between Roma and Gadje, non-Roma, in Europe. Therefore, allow me to briefly touch on the history before coming to the current situation and developments.

Roma in Europe – a historic overview

All European countries have Roma minorities. It is estimated that 10-12 million Roma live within Europe, with at least 6 million of those in the EU. They represent Europe’s largest ethnic minority. 2 Historically, Roma moved from India around 1000 years ago, and Roma minorities exist almost everywhere on the globe. Romani people arrived in Europe between the 12th and 14th century. The Romani language has developed more than 150 dialects, and over the centuries in different regions, Roma minorities have developed distinct characteristics. 3 Some have settled, others developed Nomadic lives. Thus, it will never be correct to speak about “the Roma people” – but many Roma have accepted the use of the term for common advocacy purposes. Roma, Sinti, Gypsies and Travellers are commonly used, the term gypsy, tsigane, Zigeuner has been used both, as a negative ascriptions, and also as a self-identification.

1 Attitudes towards neighbours, European Value survey 2001
3 See: András Bíro, in: András Bíro, Nicolae Ghoerghe, Martin Kovats e al, ed. Will Guy, From Victimhood to Citizenship – The Path for Roma Integration, 2013

In Wikipedia, a brief historic description on the encounters with Romani people can be found4:

“Their early history shows a mixed reception. Although 1385 marks the first recorded transaction for a Romani slave in Wallachia, they were issued safe conduct by Sigismund of the Holy Roman Empire in 1417. Romanies were ordered expelled from the Meissen region of Germany in 1416, Lucerne in 1471, Milan in 1493, France in 1504, Catalonia in 1512, Sweden in 1525, England in 1530 (see Egyptians Act 1530), and Denmark in 1536. In 1510, any Romani found in Switzerland were ordered to be put to death, with similar rules established in England in 1554, and Denmark in 1589, whereas Portugal began deportations of Romanies to its colonies in 1538.

Later, a 1596 English statute, however, gave Romanies special privileges that other wanderers lacked; France passed a similar law in 1683. Catherine the Great of Russia declared the Romanies "crown slaves" (a status superior to serfs), but also kept them out of certain parts of the capital. In 1595, Ştefan Răzvan overcame his birth into slavery, and became the Voivode (Prince) of Moldavia.

Romani could be kept as slaves in Wallachia and Moldavia, until abolition in 1856. Elsewhere in Europe, they were subject to ethnic cleansing, abduction of their children, and forced labor. In England, Romani were sometimes expelled from small communities or hanged; in France, they were branded and their heads were shaved; in Moravia and Bohemia, the women were marked by their ears being severed. As a result, large groups of the Romani moved to the East, toward Poland, which was more tolerant, and Russia, where the Romani were treated more fairly as long as they paid the annual taxes.”

In modern history, in Communist Eastern Europe, Roma people were subject to assimilation schemes, the language and music was banned from the public. An other, sensitive and shameful part of the history is that in many countries, Roma women were forcibly sterilised. This was a policy in Chechoslovakia from 1973- 1991, but until 2004, cases were revealed also from both, the Czech Republic and

4, this includes further sources and references.

Slovakia, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland.5 By policy decrees, too, children were taken from Roma parents and brought up in orphanages, an issue which was unveiled in the Norwegian process of reconciliation with the Roma minorities, but has by no means been unique to Norway.

Unlike other national minorities, Roma do neither claim, nor are they linked to certain territories. On the contrary, they developed a flexibility and adaptability to circumstances where they found themselves. Roma minorities did not live from the land, but provided services to farmers and citizens. According to András Bíro, “With few exceptions…: nowhere have significant numbers of Roma turned into peasants or farmers, so that their roots and livelihood have become based on the land. In this distinctive trait I see the fundamental reason for Roma being perceived by local people as the other”6. Among Roma livelihoods, service activities comprise what (he) would call the showbiz sector: music, dance and circus performances, fortune telling, etc., while the commercial sector consists of animal trading, specifically horse dealing, and petty trade. In the crafts sector, skills in iron working and weapon making were once the most valued but adobe brick production and working in wood were also important, as well as several trades like rubbish collecting – often despised by the locals…. This model of economic activities pursued by the Roma was characteristically unconnected to a specific locus and thus appropriate to the wandering lifestyle.”

As an other characteristic trait of Roma András Bíro describes their relationship to religion: “In the course of their stay in different countries the original, probably animistic religion of the multiple groups that arrived in Europe has been formally abandoned in favour of the dominant, monotheistic religion of the host country – essentially Catholicism, Greek Orthodoxy and Islam. In modern times Protestant churches have also gained adherents and more recently the Pentecostal church…”
– I would speak of churches – “had recruited large numbers of Roma.” Bíro regards this as an “exceptional capacity” to adapt to the new circumstances, to diminish friction and enhance conditions of survival in times when religion constituted the dominant element of identity.

5 Thomas, Jeffrey (2006-08-16). "Coercive Sterilization of Romani Women Examined at Hearing: New report focuses on Czech Republic and Slovakia". Washington File. Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.
6 A. Bíro, p. 29-30

The history of the churches with the Roma in Europe has yet to be written, it is as diverse as the churches in Europe are. Therefore I draw on a few examples available to me: Some churches have been relatively open to Roma and the Reformed Church in Hungary already in the 17th century ordained a Roma minister. As many churches were closely linked to the state, they have followed the exclusion of Roma from church life. In the process of reconciliation in Sweden, the Church of Sweden recognised its own involvement in exclusionary practice as by decree the Church did not allow Roma to be married in the church, at that time the only official wedding existing. Thus the Church excluded very family oriented Roma people from public recognition of their families. In Spain, the Pentecostal Roma Church is bigger than the other Protestant Churches, and I tend to believe this is due to the fact that Roma were not welcomed by the other churches in Spain. Today, some of the exclusionary practices of the past would be regarded in and by the churches as rather embarrassing. On the other hand, the fact that many Roma are members of the dominant denomination in the country they live in, could be an indicator that churches have accepted Roma in their communities.

Current situation and European policy responses

The history of exclusion has been systematic in many European countries, and as exclusion has been state policy in many European countries, it is not surprising – nevertheless appalling – that Roma settlements have been segregated and not connected to infrastructures providing education, employment, housing, health and other social services. Many settlements were not connected to electricity, sewage networks, or public transport – an other reason why Roma persons found it difficult to connect to developments in other places. Discrimination and violence against Roma minorities is still salient across Europe, as is the perception of Roma generally being beggars and criminals - this perception can even be found in settled and somewhat recognised Roma communities vis-à-vis itinerant Roma people, as I was told in Finland and Greece.

The situation of the Roma minorities in Europe has reached the European political agenda in the past 10-15 years, partly due to the fact that members of the Roma minorities from Central and Eastern European countries moved to Western countries. In the debates around the EU enlargements 2004 and 2007, the issue of Roma migration was contentious and dominated by the fear of Roma migrants from “new” EU member states. The debate on potential Roma immigration was parallel to efforts by Western European countries to return refugees from Serbia, Bosnia and Kosovo, who had fled the war and persecution in the 1990s, to “their” countries; such return efforts are still pursued, although some of the “returnees” were born and grew up in the country of asylum.

Let me give two examples which were quite much in the media:

Italy: in Naples in 2008, a Roma woman was accused of a crime. Instead of criminal investigations and court proceedings, a group of incited Naples inhabitants went looting the Roma settlement. These persons were not prosecuted; the media portrayed understanding for them as the situation with the criminal Roma immigrants was “not tenable”. That the looting also targeted Italian Roma living in the settlement was conveniently overlooked.
Since summer 2010, France has targeted Roma travellers, particularly from Romania and Bulgaria, for deportation to their home country. This has led to controversy in Romania, where Romanian Roma were held responsible for a negative image of Romanians abroad and putting at risk the visa free movement in the EU. The case of France has led to extensive discussions on the right to freedom of movement for EU citizens, particularly Roma, shifting the responsibility to national integration policies. In 2013 there were an estimated 21.000 Romani evictions from France. In response to the questions over the severity of these actions the Interior Minister Manuel Valls unapologetically stated that the majority of Roma should be ‘delivered back to the borders. We are not here to welcome these people’.7 We may have more time to discuss this issue during our meeting. 8

7Estimates from the European Roma Rights Centre,
roma-double-in-france-as-authorities-pursue-failed-expensive-policy/4242, 14 Jan 2014,
8 Sergio Carrera: Shifting Responsibilities for EU Roma Citizens – The 2010 French affair on Roma
evictions and expulsions continued, CEPS Paper in Liberty and Security No. 55, June 2013

In essence, both examples depict “the Roma” – all Roma - as the problem, rather than looking at the problems Roma and non-Roma are facing, and addressing them appropriately. When Roma are involved, in a crime or a problem, the policy response often is quickly targeting the whole ethnic group rather than the person who may have committed a crime. Here again, the Roma are “the others”, not belonging to us, not regarded as European citizens with rights and obligations. Of course, any citizen committing a crime ought to be sentenced to the penalty foreseen in the law irrespective of ethnic origin. But the ethnic group ought not to be held responsible for the crimes of individuals.

European institutions addressing the challenges

The Council of Europe as the pan-European governmental institution has done extensive work on minority and Roma rights over the past decades based on the European Convention on Human Rights. It has facilitated the European Roma and Traveller Forum, which includes representatives of Roma minorities from all over Europe. Empowerment of Roma representatives to address their situation has been key in these undertakings. The recommendations to Council of Europe member states by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, the Commissioner for Human Rights and Committees of the Council of Europe are detailed and helpful – not always taken as serious as they ought to be taken, though.

The European Commission, particularly the Directorates General for Justice and for Social Affairs and Employment, have stepped up efforts for Roma inclusion over the past 5 years. In 2011 under the Hungarian EU Presidency, the Council of the EU adopted the “Framework for national Roma integration strategies”. All EU Member States thus agreed to formulate a national Roma integration strategy, to nominate a Roma integration focal point and to evaluate progress. In 2012, the European Commission tabled a first report and assessment of the integration strategies, taking into consideration also comments and reports by non- governmental and Roma organisations. Annually, a Roma inclusion platform met and exchanged on priorities, achievements and challenges.

The Roma integration strategy has identified 4 priority areas:


Only 1 in 2 Roma children attend pre-school but during compulsory school age (7-
15) 9 out of 10 are reported in school. This drops off later with only 15% completing their upper secondary or vocational education.

Despite being declared illegal in 2006 by the ECHR, Roma children continue to be unfairly segregated into special schools and classes in several EU countries. In a survey by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency, segregation in mainstream schools has been found to be as following SK: 58%, GR: 35% CZ: 33%, BG: 29%, RO: 26%, ES: 10%, IT: 8%, PT: 7%, PL: 3%.


On average less than 1 in 3 Roma are employed and Roma are four times more likely to perform informal work than average workers.

Half of UNDP surveyed Roma said they had faced ethnic discrimination in the past 12 months. Their group reports higher levels of perceived discrimination than other such group, such as North or Sub-Saharan Africans.

Over the past 5 years high percentages of employment-seeking Roma have experienced discrimination: CZ: 74%, GR: 68%, IT: 66%, FR: 65%, PL: 56%, HU:
51%, SK: 51%, BG: 41%, RO 39%, ES: 38%.9


A third of UNDP Roma respondents, aged 35-52, report having health problems limiting their daily activities. On average Roma experience 10 years shorter life expectancy than the EU average, often the result of exclusion from local health care services.

In CEE countries Roma experience between 2-6 times higher levels of infant mortality compared to the national average.

9 UNDP, FRA ‘The situation of Roma in 11 EU Member States: Survey results at a glance’, (Luxemburg, 2012), surveyed Bulgaria (10%), the Czech Republic(1.9%), France(0.6%), Greece(1.5%), Italy(0.25%), Hungary(7.5%), Poland(0.1%), Portugal(0.5%), Romania(8.6%), Slovakia(9%), and Spain(1.6%), list of countries surveyed and average estimates of the percentage of Roma in their national populations


45% of Roma live in households lacking at least one basic domestic amenity, namely; indoor kitchens or toilets, showers or baths, or electricity. It is estimated that a vast majority of the Roma population lives below the poverty lines.

While there have been some notable successes there are still large gaps between these strategies’ aims and their actual implementation.

One of the chief reasons for this gap is the fact that many of the funds available for the integration strategies are not being fully accessed. This is mainly the result of the administrative complexity surrounding the access to these funds, along with difficulties in finding national co-financing and combining funds. But also poor cooperation between authorities and the Roma communities and organisations remains a concern leading to implementation gaps. An indicator for this gap is the finding of the survey undertaken by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency and the UN Development Programme that 62 % of the Roma are not aware of specialised organisations to assist them.10

In April 2014, the European Commission has issued its second report on the national integration strategies, and for every one of the 28 EU Member States progress and gaps are indicated in the priority areas. As we are meeting in Greece11, I just highlight this example, but it is worthwhile to look at others, too:


Key steps taken since 2011:
Policy incentives implemented to increase school attendance via two programmes
– ‘Education of Roma Children’ and ‘Roma Children in Macedonia and Thrace’.
Identified Gaps:
Need to develop systematic measures to reinforce inclusion in compulsory education, Ensure access to high quality and inclusive early childhood education and childcare, as well as pre-school education. Need to ensure proper monitoring of enrolment and attendance. Reinforce desegregation measures.

11 The European Union and Roma – Factsheet Greece, April 2014


Key steps taken since 2011:
Implementation of Local Integrated Programmes for Vulnerable Social Groups (TOPEKO). Continuation of 29 Support Centres for vulnerable groups, including Roma.

Identified gaps:
Complement active inclusion policies with targeted measures focusing on effective integration in the open labour market. Secure the proper functioning of the 29 Support Centres for vulnerable groups, including Roma through adequate and sustainable funding.


Key steps taken since 2011:
Focus on preventive healthcare, mainly on vaccination

Identified gaps:
Improve access of Roma to healthcare through more systematic measures.
Reinforce training of healthcare professionals.


Key steps taken since 2011:
Three regional integrated pilot programmes with an infrastructure component.

Identified gaps:
Support the implementation of well-designed regional programmes with adequate and sustainable funding.

The Third European Roma Summit beginning of April 2014 has taken note of some of the findings across Europe, and policy makers promised to take action to the local level, local authorities, and to ensure that funding will be more targeted and accessible.

These findings would of course deserve more detailed attention, and certainly follow-up. Successful integration measures and systematic, but most of all durable results, will depend on the participation of the population, Roma and non-Roma alike, and it will require dedication and perseverance, two virtues not so often found in policy statements.

Churches in Europe and the Roma:

While we are gathered here from the constituencies of the Conference of European Churches and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Europe, I will focus here on the CEC constituency and work. We cherish the close cooperation with the Roman Catholic colleagues at various levels in Europe, particularly on migration and refugee issues and I trust that José Luis Bazan from COMECE as well as others later on in the programme will complement this part.

The Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe and the Conference of European Churches, particularly its Church and Society Commission, have worked together on the issue of Roma inclusion since 15 years. The conference in Bratislava in 2001 “Living in community – Towards equal opportunities and overcoming discrimination - The situation of Roma in Central and Eastern Europe” adopted recommendations for churches’ contributions to living in community, equal opportunities and overcoming discrimination.” These recommendations have inspired the work of churches in a number of countries. At the CEC Assembly in Trondheim 2002, CCME organised a hearing with Roma from the Nordic countries, highlighting the processes of reconciliation with the Roma communities in Finland, Norway and Sweden as examples for recognising - and apologizing for - the wrongs of the past and building new relationships of respect and trust. Contrary to public discourse, CCME and the member churches have sought to address concerns of Roma minorities in the West as well as the East, and not focusing merely on the problems of the East. Therefore, Italy, France and Finland have been as much of concern over the years as the situation in Romania, Hungary, or Serbia and Kosovo. The CEC Assembly in Lyon 2009 called on governments and churches to do their bit for the inclusion of Roma, to overcome racism and violence and undertake more efforts. Following up on this, CCME has jointly with Eurodiaconia and the Reformed Church in Hungary contributed to the development of the framework for national Roma integration strategies in 2011, and we were pleased that some of our common proposals have been considered by the EU institutions. The Church and Society Commission of CEC, together with CCME, and COMECE held a dialogue seminar with the Bureau of European Policy Advisors on this topic, bringing practical experiences of churches working with Roma to the attention of policy makers.

Dignity and justice

In November last year, CCME and the Lutheran World Federation organised a conference on Roma migration in Europe in Frankfurt am Main/Germany. Issues of housing and shelter, poverty and social exclusion were addressed and the work of churches in various countries shared. The public discourse on Roma migration focuses on problems around Roma migration – which of course exists. However, the proportionality of the problems needs to be recognised, too: E.g. Roma migrants constitute around 9 % of all Romanian migrants in European cities, comparable to their percentage of the overall Romanian population. Among the Roma migrants in Western European countries, a considerable number pursues employment, formal and informal, while a minority is found among the homeless persons in the cities. As most Roma stay in their group – family or clan – also on the streets, they are however more visible than other persons on the streets, who rather stay as individuals.

The Frankfurt meeting was not the first occasion, but at this meeting it was apparent that Roma organisations meet churches with high expectations. While we have to admit that churches not everywhere are open to Roma, and also inside the churches we face racism, where churches are open and reach out to the Roma communities, they can make a difference. In the church, they are part of the community; they are not “the other”. Stories of Roma youth who participated in youth activities of the church saying “it does not matter whether I am Roma or not, I am one of them”, are encouraging, even more so if they can openly say that they are Roma. The meeting concluded with a “Call for Dignity and Justice” which you find among the preparatory documents. This call has been used – among others – during a special worship on the occasion of international Roma day, 8 April, in the Cathedral of Uppsala. We have received positive reactions from Roma organisations, and hope that we can use this more widely.

For churches reaching out to Roma and seeking to improve their situation is based in the notion that “the other” is God’s creation, in the other we meet Jesus Christ himself. For churches, improving the situation of Roma is not steered by the political aim to prevent migration. Our understanding of migration differs, too: migration may point to problems people, in our case Roma, have and which lead them to migrate, but the solution is not to prevent migration, but to address the problem. This may, or may not, lead to a reduction of migration, this is in our view secondary. The priority is to recognise “the other”, the Roma, as our neighbour, the person we as Christians are taught to love as ourselves. Sharing food, clothes, shelter, visiting the sick and the prisoner, these Christian virtues are the guiding principles based in our common biblical foundation.


As stated above, Roma are minorities across Europe. It is thus appropriate and useful for churches in Europe to exchange difficult and enriching experiences of overcoming ethnic divide and racism, of encounter with the most marginalised ethnic minority in Europe. Not all the programmes and projects will be successful – although we would wish the majority will be blessed with success. Let me in conclusion give two examples, which I hope can be further discussed, supported and expanded:

- The Ecumenical Humanitarian Office in Serbia is running a housing project with a Roma community. They have been awarded prices for the successful work. And yet, it differs to many other projects: EHO invests in a long and thorough planning phase with the Roma people, inquiring what they want, what they need and what they can afford to build and maintain. A lot of the work has to be undertaken by the Roma themselves, which has two effects: it reduces costs, and it creates ownership; this becomes really their own house through their own undertaking. As this is a community project, for specialised work, electricity or sewage systems, some Roma receive training and then work on other houses, too. So the project has training and employment components, too. The actual building usually does not take long, the planning however, does: to match dreams with reality is a process where persons who have not had many chances in their lives to determine their destiny grow and develop pride. The lesson learnt: Invest in participatory planning.

- In the Nordic countries with their processes of reconciliation, the government of Finland set up institutes for Roma language and history. This is an important act of recognition of the Roma culture and tradition. And yet, the majority population still would not know much of the history of the Roma minority. I believe this is true for the majority of European countries, and I am afraid to say, also for the majority of Christians in Europe.

Therefore the question arises: Can we find ways of elaborating together with the Roma minorities in the various countries a shared view of the history and develop teaching tools informing our members in churches and societies in Europe? These could become important contributions to the healing of memories, in addition to the concrete and active work for inclusion through full participation and equality.

Thank you for your attention.

                                                                                                                    5 May 2014
Doris Peschke