14th Aug 2022


Twenty years on, the Roma still languish behind a wall

In the space of just a few days, the Lisbon Treaty for Europe has been ratified by all EU member states, and we're marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The bringing down of the Berlin Wall signaled the beginning of an economic and social transformation in Europe that raised the hopes of a better future and a unified Europe. Now the workings of the European Union are set to change. So now is the time to remember, there is a group of people who remain excluded.

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The Roma community still languishes at the margins of society behind a wall of discrimination and social exclusion, and their living conditions and social indicators are on average as bad as those in some of the least developed countries in the world.

This week, donor countries meeting in Brussels will have a chance to change that when they gather to support the success of the Roma Education Fund, which has been supporting the schooling of Roma youth for the past five years in European countries.

The Roma community is easily one of the most vulnerable groups in Europe, excluded from opportunities available to most citizens. In general they lack access to good quality education or other social services, holding low quality and low-paying jobs.

A recent survey conducted in Bulgaria with support from the World Bank showed that only about 60 percent of young Roma adults have completed primary school—compared to almost 100 percent for the majority Bulgarian population. At higher levels of education the figure is even more striking, as only 15 percent of individuals in the Roma community have completed at least nine years of schooling, compared to almost 95 percent of the majority Bulgarian population.

This picture changes little from one country to the next: about 15 percent of Roma in Romania have never enrolled in the education system; and no more than 20 to 25 percent of Roma children continue education beyond the compulsory level (with the exception of Hungary).


Early drop-outs and low educational outcomes are not surprising when the learning environment is not welcoming. Recent World Bank studies show that many Roma children in Bulgaria, Romania, and other EU member states still attend schools that are segregated either explicitly or implicitly.

There is a disproportionate share of Roma children enrolled in special schools for children with learning disabilities, a covert way to segregate them. In Bulgaria, 51 percent of pupils in special education are Roma and in Hungary it is 40 percent. As a result, children are effectively barred from progression to secondary education and are ill-prepared to find a job after school.

The effort to bring down this wall needs many hands and hammers and may last longer than a generation. In the same way as the roots of the marginalization of the Roma community can be traced to poor education opportunities, a solution to breaking the cycle of exclusion can be found in better and inclusive education. A desegregated education system will reduce the stigma associated with being Roma. It will also lead to better outcomes and job opportunities.

A few days ago, two good friends of mine, George Soros and Jim Wolfensohn, commented in a joint op-ed about the abuse and exclusion faced by the Roma community in some countries in Europe and lamented the recent wave of murders of people from the Roma community. This human tragedy must be brought to an end.

Exclusion is also economically costly. Recent research by the World Bank in the Czech Republic shows that the social exclusion of about 50,000 Roma living in marginalized communities may have resulted in losses of hundreds of millions of euros in 2008. The reason lies in the waste of talent and productivity that young people –Roma in this case—could have offered if they had been educated properly.

The World Bank supports programmes to reduce poverty and improve the lives of the most vulnerable. It has provided loans to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to set up a cash transfer programme for poor families to send their children to school; it is supporting a programme of Roma health mediators in Serbia and a grant scheme to introduce innovative approaches for improving the welfare of underserved populations, including the Roma.

It is also a founding member of the Decade for Roma Inclusion and of the Roma Education Fund, set up in 2003 with the objective of reducing the gap in education outcomes between Roma and non-Roma in Europe.

The solution to the plight of the Roma requires greater political commitment and better public policies promoting inclusion. European governments must work to overcome this last standing wall which keeps Roma out of the center of society by ensuring that public policies and services benefit all citizens, including the Roma. The social and economic argument against inaction is too strong to be overlooked.

The writer is a managing director of the World Bank Group.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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