Cities show leadership on Roma inclusion
Roma migrants often gravitate towards cities. Like other migrants, they know that metropolitan areas offer greater opportunities for employment and upward social mobility. Cities also offer access to better, more integrated support services.
So when a number of countries with large Roma populations joined the EU in and after 2004, many Roma chose to exercise their right to borderless travel to escape poverty and discrimination and headed to urban centres elsewhere. This has brought a sharp increase in Roma numbers in various cities across Europe. And it has had a fundamental impact in the way these cities now address social cohesion.
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In Ghent, over the last seven years, we have seen 10,000 EU citizens arrive from Bulgaria and Slovakia - among whom we estimate a majority are Roma.
This rapid demographic change has placed a strain on traditional services such as housing, education and employment.
Neighbourhood stewards work with these families when neighbourhood complaints are registered or disputes have taken place. These stewards are responsible for developing effective communication channels and building a consensus between the parties involved. They ensure that city services with the right resources can step in. The city also works with school mediators to improve the relationships between schools, families and neighbourhoods, paying particular attention to Roma migrants.
We are currently implementing a pilot project which brings together over twenty cities from eastern and western Europe. It establishes direct links between the regions of origin and destination of Roma migrants. ‘East-West Cooperation on Cities for Roma Inclusion’ aims to improve living conditions for European Roma by increasing the level of understanding and capacity of local authorities to address Roma needs.
Ghent is collaborating with the cities of Kotel, Razgrad, and Vetovo in northeast Bulgaria from where most of our city’s Bulgarian Roma migrants come. We are helping these cities establish social economy schemes that can be implemented and we receive feedback from them on the effectiveness of our policies.
This project is one of the ways European cities are taking leadership on Roma inclusion: cities are developing pragmatic tools to address the situation on the ground. These activities help to inform the EU where funds and actions are most needed.
As the mayor of a European city, I am conscious of my responsibility to protect the rights of the most vulnerable residents. It is crucial that cities and regions across Europe offer a decent life to all citizens by providing non-discriminatory access to services. The EU framework for Roma Inclusion and the framework on anti-discrimination must become effective across Europe and be applied at local level.
This week’s Council recommendation to member states on Roma integration can help match EU funding more closely to the needs on the ground. Funds must reach the local governments that are grappling with large influxes of EU migrants and developing the services and tools that improve social cohesion.
The commission should also help the new member states make best use of their EU funding to create better living conditions for their populations.
This is an opportunity for the European Commission to mobilise member states to step up their investment in social inclusion and anti-discrimination work. There is still a lot to do if we are going to end the structural discrimination and social exclusion that Roma face.
The writer is Mayor of Ghent and Chair of the EUROCITIES Roma Inclusion Task Force. EUROCITIES is the network of major European cities