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16th Aug 2018

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From Slovakia to Belgium: a story of failing Roma policy

  • Roma settlement in Slovakia - Ghent has long been a favoured destination for Roma from Kosice (Photo: Blue Delliquanti)

A few weeks ago city authorities in Ghent, a vibrant city in the north of Belgium, were given a blunt warning.

Social NGO Caritas Catholica told the municipality that hundreds or even thousands of Roma were about to move to the city.

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The reason: The Slovak city of Kosice, over a thousand kilometres away, was preparing to tear down some seven apartment blocks where Roma lived, without providing them with alternative accommodation.

Ghent has long been a favoured destination for Roma from Kosice. Of the Belgian city's population of 250,000, up to 8,000 are thought to be Roma. Many arrived after 2004 when Slovakia became an EU member.

The Mayor of Ghent, social-democrat Daniel Termont, says his city is hospitable and that migration is "an enrichment, not a threat".

But he adds: "Since the entrance of ten new member states, the migration from East to West is too much. I’m 100 percent in favour of freedom of movement, but that's for working or studying, or visiting a country. It is not to escape a poor country, where you are sent away or mistreated."

Termont, a popular politician in his second term, says Ghent can no longer cope.

Ghent authorities, he says, put a lot of effort into trying to help the migrants. "But with no training, no knowledge of the language, it's very difficult. Their children don't go to school. They think they can rely on our social system, but this is simply impossible for thousands of people."

The city's Roma issue illustrates how Europe has no answer to the challenge posed by Europe's largest and poorest minority.

The EU has recently stepped up its political commitment to helping the estimated 12 million Roma, yet little of substance has been achieved, say NGOs working in the area.

The Kosice situation underlines the complexity of the situation. The flats were built for the Roma people but are being pulled down because they are now considered too dangerous to live in.

This is partly due to the inhabitants themselves; they ripped out parts of the buildings – such as iron from the balconies and copper wiring – and sold them off.

This in turn breeds resentment among the non-Roma population in Slovakia who argue public money is being wasted, says Radovan Gumulak, secretary general of the Slovak Catholic Charity, a sister organisation of Belgium’s Caritas Catholica.

"We have now reached the situation where people get angry when they hear about EU funds being spent on housing for Roma," he says.

"They think it is unfair that the Roma get these new houses for free and then destroy them and request new ones again."

Critics counter that it is not enough to simply provide housing; a multi-faceted and long-term approach to root-level integration of the Roma is required. But a lack of political will to tackle the issue means short-termism continues to win out.

The upshot is that ambitious local politicians from towns with Roma communities avoid investing in projects such as housing.

And that is one reason why Peter Pollak, the Slovak government's chief representative for the Roma community, argues against "giving out anything for free" as part of his policy-making.

Himself of Roma ethnicity, Pollak says Roma citizens need to be involved in paying for their land and housing in order to deserve their local benefits.

However, this approach does not help local authorities in the cities that Roma head to.

Vicious circle

Ghent’s Termont says the biggest problem in his city is lack of affordable housing. It is already an issue for local Belgians but a particular problem for Roma, who tend to have larger families.

He notes that Roma people tell him that even when they live in overcrowded houses, it is still a big "improvement" on housing back home.

"The fundamental problem is these people are stuck in a vicious circle: their children don’t go to school, their administrative situation is not ok, they don’t have a job, they don’t speak the language. It’s impossible to make progress."

Referring to some new initiatives to help Roma integrate into Belgian life, the mayor says that they are "not motivated to work or to integrate in our society".

During six years of study at Ghent University, Elias Hemelsoet, from the Roma organisation Opre Roma, researched how the minority integrates.

"My main conclusion was that the Roma want to integrate, but that it is very difficult. Often they have had very limited schooling, which reduces their capabilities in finding a job. And it isn't easy to learn a new language when you're illiterate."

Termont, for his part, says he has written to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso about the issue. He says there is an understanding of the problem at EU level but nobody takes action.

"We contribute money to the EU, which itself redistributes that money over different member states. Part of the money is for schools and houses for Roma in eastern member states – but those countries don't build those schools and houses," says Termont.

"And then, the Roma come to live here. So we have to pay again. This is not right. There should be some fund to correct this. If the Roma move from Slovakia or Bulgaria to Belgium, we should get the European aid."

The European Commission puts emphasis on member states tackling the issue. In 2011 EU governments adopted the EU framework for national Roma integration strategies.

Catch 22

In the end few Roma from Kosice came to Ghent following the tearing down of their flats although both the Slovak and Belgian authorities admit that it is difficult to keep track of exact numbers.

"Some of them go back to their home villages, some may travel abroad but we have no chance of preventing them," says Martina Urik Viktorinova, a spokesperson for Kosice's magistrate.

The situation has led to a catch-22 situation. Ghent authorities have offered help to Roma people but not so much as to attract more Roma, says Hemelsoet.

"A major mistake was made when the eastern countries became member states. Better treatment of minorities was an explicit condition for accession, but the countries didn't change, and were accepted anyway. The result is that in the eastern member states, racism against Roma became very explicit," he adds.

The Kosice-Ghent Roma link – or indeed any route along which Roma travel west – is not a new phenomenon. Back in 2000, four years before Slovakia joined the EU, Belgium introduced a visa requirement for Slovak citizens in a bid to stop Roma coming to the country.

Dirk De Wilde reported from Belgium and Lucia Virostkova reported from Slovakia

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