Stateless in the EU: Why the Roma Can’t Get a Break

There are always barriers that get in the way and make the development process take considerably more time and resources. In fact, the majority of the job is trying to figure out how to break through these barriers. Roma development is a particularly difficult conundrum. The term “Roma” refers to a large minority (of an estimated 10 to 12 million) spread primarily in Central and Eastern Europe, though they are more commonly known as “gypsies.” Roma people have been historically discriminated and are typically isolated and/or forcibly moved from their homes when deemed a drain on society.

The Roma are a “stateless” people that do not receive citizenship or rights in the country they live in. Only 42 percent of Roma children complete primary school, compared to the EU average of 97.5 percent. This number drops to 10 percent for completion of secondary school. It is not uncommon for Roma students to be moved to segregated schools or special education classes. Without an education, many are unable to find a job and independently support themselves.


In the past few years, Roma discrimination and development has gained increasing attention. In 2005 several institutions (including the World Bank, UN Development Program, the Council of Europe, etc.) launched the 2005-2015 Decade of Roma Inclusion. The program’s aim is to extend socio-economic equality to the Roma people and, through this, promote ethnic tolerance. These goals are ideal but in order for them to have any effect there needs to be improved partnership between the national governments and their Roma communities. The process seems to be more of a forum for discussion and recommendation than one for action. National governments are not interested in putting any plan into action. As the name says, the Decade requires “Roma inclusion.” If this is to be successful, Roma need to be included in the process and be given the opportunity to express their interests and take part in implementing them.

Despite their attempts, there is not much international organizations can do without the support of the national government. Institutions risk impeding on a country’s national sovereignty when they attempt to dictate what its policy should be. Most attempts rather become recommendations than requirements as it is up to the state to decide whether they will comply or not. France and Lithuania have both enacted segregation policies and forced removal of its Roma citizens in adherence to the EU Free Movement Directive. The European Commission has threatened infringement proceedings on both countries (including a frustrated speech by Vice-President Viviane Redding). France deterred the threat by adopting safeguard policies a year later to protect citizens from being forcibly evacuated. However, as illustrate by a recent Human Rights Watch report, these changes have still not been implemented and Roma people continue to be evacuated from their homes. This all begs the question, who is responsible for the Roma?

Wall separating non-Roma homes and Roma shacks in Ostrovany, Slovakia. Source: AFP

If international institutions are unable to hold any decisive influence and national governments remain unwilling to change discriminatory policies, what other options are left? The Roma people are widely dispersed across Europe, living in small villages with little means to connect with other Roma communities. One possibility proposed by former board member of the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), Rudko Kawczynski, is the creation of a European Roma Charter which would grant European Roma “secure special legal status.” This would essentially create a landless nation-state that would take into consideration the nomadic nature of the Roma people and continue to protect their rights as citizens wherever they move. If a group of people is being systematically denied their right to secure housing, education and healthcare, shouldn’t this be grounds for finding a viable solution that bypasses these barriers?  Aid agencies would be able to work directly with the Roma rather than be blocked by the state. In addition, national governments would feel less of a drain as foreign aid would be able to go directly to the Roma. This may help deter Roma “scapegoating” and promote better relations.

As said before, Roma development does not have an easy solution. Creating a Roma nation-state would require better coordination between Roma communities in order to form an adequate and representative governing body. In addition, it would require an advanced tracking system that would allow citizenship rights to follow them as they migrate. The creation of a Roma nation-state would need to be initiated by the Roma rather than a foreign organization. Such a task may not be possible when the complexity of Roma identity and interest is taken into consideration. Perhaps, the best solution is to take a bottom-up approach and determine the interests of the Roma before moving forward with any action. Through this the needs of the Roma could be more accurately identified and an effective solution can be put into practice.


2 thoughts on “Stateless in the EU: Why the Roma Can’t Get a Break

  1. T October 13, 2011 / 6:23 am

    Nice article. However, Its not exactly accurate to say that Roma are a “stateless” people. The majority of Roma possess citizenship of the country that they live in, and only a small minority of Roma are “travelers”- that is, migratory.

    There are of course migrants among the Roma, like with any other group, and a large majority of these are asylum seekers from Kosovo or former Yugoslavia.

    Additionally, there are some Roma that are actually stateless- that is, not possesing citizenship. But this has to do with govt policies, discrimination, and low rates of birth registration, not some nomadic tradition.

    Finally, the characterization of the ERRC’s position is innacurate. I don’t think anyone is suggesting a separate state for Roma, just that they recieve equal rights within the states that they already live in.

    • Elizabeth Eckard October 13, 2011 / 11:39 am

      Thank you for clarifying the concept of statelessness. It’s true that many Roma do have citizenship in the countries they live in; however, I interpreted the concept more as the Roma as a community not having a state or homeland. I was also referring to the fact that many lack the fundamental rights that should come with the citizenship they do have and, in fact, are not treated as typical citizens.

      Thank you also for commenting on the nature of Roma migration. I did not mean to present all Roma as migratory as that only represents a small proportion of the community. I also realize that much of this migration may not be necessarily cultural as it is the result of outside forces, such as government initiatives to close villages and forcibly evacuate Roma people. This is an important point to keep in mind when considering how those with citizenship are treated by their government.

      As for the ERRC, my intent for using of this source was to illustrate the different options available for securing Roma rights rather than pinning the creation of a Roma nation-state as a position of the ERRC. The proposal of a landless Roma nation-state is something that’s been discussed by several sources (including here and here). The primary point I try to make, however, is not that there needs to be a Roma nation, but that any solution needs to include the participation and interest of the Roma community in order to be effective.

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