Slovakia’s forgotten Roma

Romani children

According to the census of 2011, there were 105,738 people identified as Romani in Slovakia, making them the second largest minority after Hungarians with 2% of the population. Other sources claim that over 400,000 inhabitants of Slovakia, or 7.5%, may be Romani.

The first mention of groups of Romani in Slovakia date back to 1322, when the land was a part of the Kingdom of Hungary. Major waves of Romani were recorded from 1417 onwards. In 1423 they received a decree from the Hungarian king Sigismund of Luxemburg, granting them Europe-wide right of passage and the right to settle. They proved to be useful metal workers for the royal armies fighting the Turks. Through the ensuing centuries, whilst in western and central Europe Romani were treated violently and often expelled, the Hungarian Kingdom and Habsburg Monarchy in general provided a tolerant and stable safe-haven for the Romani community. In the 18th century, Joseph II of the house of Habsburg attempted to ‘civilize’ the Romani, for example by prohibiting their dress and customs and educating them. However these efforts generally failed. On the other hand, increasing repression of the Romani in the Czech, Polish and Austrian lands caused them to become concentrated in the more tolerant regions of Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Serbia and Russia.

During the Second World War, a systematic genocide of Roma was being performed across Europe, led by Nazi Germany and Ustaše, a fascist Croaian organisation. Known as Porajmos, it killed from 220,000 to 1,500,000 Romani people across Europe. Approximately 6 to 7 thousand Roma from Bohemia and Moravia died in the concentration camp at Auschwitz. The Slovak State also copied the racist legislation of the German Reich, establishing special labor camps for the Roma, who were forbidden to travel with public transport, were allowed admission to towns and communities only on limited days and hours, had their settlement units separated from public roads, and so on. After the occupation of Slovakia by the German army, mass killings of Roma occurred in many places.

After World War II, the policy of the state was oriented toward one of assimilation of the Roma: in 1958 a law was proposed that forcibly limited the movement of that part of the Roma who still travelled on a regular basis. In the same year, the highest organ of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia passed a resolution, the aim of which was to be “the final assimilation of the Gypsy population”, which in fact just included forced sterilization of Romani women and forced resettlements. In April 1991, the demand for the equalization of the Roma with the other ethnic minorities in Slovakia was accepted by the Government of the Slovak Republic.

But the modern situation for Roma in Slovakia is still looking grim.

Only 19 percent of Roma adults have completed secondary education, compared to 78 percent non-Roma. More than 90 percent of Roma live below the national poverty line, and their unemployment rates are as high as 70 percent – more than twice that of non-Roma. According to monitoring and reports provided by the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), racist violence, evictions, threats, and more subtle forms of discrimination and prejudice have reached a crescendo over the past two years in Slovakia. The ERRC considers the situation in Slovakia to be one of the worst in Europe. In the past two years, 11 Slovak municipalities have erected walls to separate the residents of Roma ghettos from their white neighbors.

Roma in Slovakia are overrepresented among the poor and lead the ‘worse off’ statistics in terms of nearly all basic social indicators, starting with overall low social status, including inadequate levels of education and qualification, high rate of unemployment and increasing unemployability, poor housing conditions lacking basic infrastructure, poor health status degraded by inaccessibility or low accessibility to health services. The vast majority of Roma depend on social welfare, nevertheless, many of them are not registered in regional labour offices and fall below the official basic support level. The Slovak social system is badly harmonized and even though it may sound ridiculous, the unemployment benefits pay more than regular jobs in the low wage sector, what creates a strong deterrent for unemployed people to join the workforce.

Roma integration is indeed in the national economic interest of Slovakia. According to Pollák (2012) the economic losses to Slovakia resulting from social exclusion of Roma citizens come to 7% of GDP and the losses of not including Roma in the country’s labour market are higher than the costs of integrating them into society.

Between 2007 and 2013, more than Euro 185 million from the European Social Fund (ESF) and government funding was devoted to projects aiming at drifting Roma integration. The Slovak government has struggled to come up with policies to address the needs of the Roma community. Last year, the UNDP published a report analysing the progress of such projects, concluding that funds were not targeted at the right interventions, and were too short-term in nature. Many of these projects focused just on training or generating temporary employment, but once over, they had no lasting impact on the Roma’s ability to find work.

The fact is that population dynamics make Roma inclusion unavoidable for Slovakia’s long-term economic sustainability of its social protection system. The Roma population is estimated to nearly double at current growth rates by 2050, on the other hand Slovakia’s population as a whole is projected to shrink. Therefore, in an otherwise rapidly aging society, paying for future pensions and social services will increasingly depend on today’s young Roma. Hence, the quality and level of education that young Roma achieve today and in the upcoming years, and the kind of skills they develop to become productive citizens, bear considerable implications for the future of the Slovak society as a whole.

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