Sunday

20th Aug 2017

Focus

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.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now and get 40% off for an annual subscription. Sale ends soon.

  1. €90 per year. Use discount code EUOBS40%
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

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

Record number of Roma running in Czech EU election

Despite rising animosity towards the country's minority Roma population – or perhaps precisely because of it – there is now a record number of Roma running in the Czech EU elections.

Belgium's biggest party has no allies in the EP

With one month to go until the EU vote, it is clear that Belgium's biggest political party will have several MEPs but unclear whether it will wield any real influence in the next European Parliament.

Slovakia's eurosceptics end EU honeymoon

The EU honeymoon is over for Slovakia, say analysts, as eurosceptic voices for the first time make themselves clearly heard in the run-up to European elections later this month.

EU parliament approves Juncker commission

MEPs have approved Juncker's new EU commission, with a slightly smaller majority than in 2010, and following a number of concessions on portfolios.

News in Brief

  1. Macedonia sacks top prosecutor over wiretap scandal
  2. ECB concerned stronger euro could derail economic recovery
  3. Mixed Irish reactions to post-Brexit border proposal
  4. European Union returns to 2 percent growth
  5. Russian power most feared in Europe
  6. Ireland continues to refuse €13 billion in back taxes from Apple
  7. UK unemployment lowest since 1975
  8. Europe facing 'explosive cocktail' in its backyard, report warns

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceDoes Genetics Explain Why So Few of Us Have an Ideal Cardiovascular Health?
  2. EU2017EEFuture-Themed Digital Painting Competition Welcomes Artists - Deadline 31 Aug
  3. ACCABusinesses Must Grip Ethics and Trust in the Digital Age
  4. European Jewish CongressEJC Welcomes European Court of Justice's Decision to Keep Hamas on Terror List
  5. UNICEFReport: Children on the Move From Africa Do Not First Aim to Go to Europe
  6. Centre Maurits CoppietersWe Need Democratic and Transparent Free Trade Agreements Says MEP Jordi Solé
  7. Counter BalanceOut for Summer, Ep. 2: EIB Promoting Development in Egypt - At What Cost?
  8. EU2017EELocal Leaders Push for Local and Regional Targets to Address Climate Change
  9. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceMore Women Than Men Have Died From Heart Disease in Past 30 Years
  10. European Jewish CongressJean-Marie Le Pen Faces Trial for Oven Comments About Jewish Singer
  11. ACCAAnnounces Belt & Road Research at Shanghai Conference
  12. ECPAFood Waste in the Field Can Double Without Crop Protection. #WithOrWithout #Pesticides

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EU2017EEEstonia Allocates €1 Million to Alleviate Migratory Pressure From Libya in Italy
  2. Dialogue PlatformFethullah Gulen's Message on the Anniversary of the Coup Attempt in Turkey
  3. Martens CentreWeeding Out Fake News: An Approach to Social Media Regulation
  4. European Jewish CongressEJC Concerned by Normalisation of Antisemitic Tropes in Hungary
  5. Counter BalanceOut for Summer Ep. 1: How the EIB Sweeps a Development Fiasco Under the Rug
  6. CESICESI to Participate in Sectoral Social Dialogue Committee on Postal Services
  7. ILGA-EuropeMalta Keeps on Rocking: Marriage Equality on Its Way
  8. European Friends of ArmeniaEuFoA Director and MEPs Comment on the Recent Conflict Escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh
  9. EU2017EEEstonian Presidency Kicks off Youth Programme With Coding Summer School
  10. EPSUEP Support for Corporate Tax Transparency Principle Unlikely to Pass Reality Check
  11. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament Improves the External Investment Plan but Significant Challenges Ahead
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersCloser Energy Co-Operation Keeps Nordic Region on Top in Green Energy