Governments and many Roma alike are reluctant to gather accurate information on Europe’s largest minority, but activists say a lack of data blocks progress.
5 March 2008, Transitions Online/TOL
BRATISLAVA | Andrey Ivanov knows all about the Roma plight, as a former activist who ran a micro-lending program for Bulgarian Roma in the 1990s.
He saw then how difficult it was for both government agencies and non-governmental organizations to create truly effective policies and programs without official and reliable data on the scope of Romani poverty.
Today, as the human-development adviser to the U.N. Development Program regional office in Bratislava, Ivanov watches the curtain close on the third year of the vaunted Decade of Roma Inclusion. Questions loom about its prospects for success.
Accurate data is essential to establish benchmarks for measuring all efforts regarding Europe’s Roma, who number anywhere from 8 million to 15 million. This, observers say, also helps explain why most governments dodge the data: they shun the accountability.
“My favorite excuse from governments is, ‘I’m sorry, but the EU doesn’t allow us to collect data by ethnicity,’ ” says Ivanov, whose office shelves hold several files with precious ethnic data that UNDP itself has collected. “That’s not the point. The EU doesn’t forbid the collecting of data; it forbids abuse of that data – the tracking of individuals.”
If Europe hopes to see the Decade make real progress in Roma health, housing, employment and education, Ivanov says, it should clear one key hurdle: clarify to the nine Central and East European signatory countries that the EU data-protection law permits them to collect detailed statistics on ethnic communities – if they do so anonymously.
For the Council, “It became clear that it’s more detrimental to not do anything, than to do something,” Ott says. “So at that point, it jumped also in political importance.”
He also says his policy unit will follow up on the expert group’s recommendation on better ethnic-data collection with further proposals for how the European Commission can encourage states to gather more information while protecting individuals.
And Hungary, which occupies the rotating, one-year Roma Decade presidency, has created a working group that Urmos says may pinpoint “suitable indicators” to measure both segregation and progress on Romani employment, education, housing and health.
Ultimately, say observers, the ethnic-data issue must budge, with the governments, Romani activists and international watchdogs finding common ground.
“Without data, the Decade will pass and the countries will declare victory; but then you ask, ‘Based on what do you declare victory?’ And they can’t really say, except that they designed all these great programs,” says Christian Bodewig, an economist with the World Bank who is also the bank’s liaison to the Roma Decade.
“My view is simply that if you have an issue deserving of attention, you need to collect some data to show not only your society, but also to yourselves that you’re actually making progress. It’s a question of responsible public policy.”
“We know it’s more effective to create policies if we know exactly about the group to target,” Ott says. “The moment you have more ethnic data, it’s easier to evaluate the situation and the effectiveness of policies, programs, spending and outcomes. On the other hand, we know there’s a lot of sensitivity regarding the collection of this data.”
Indeed, the Roma have learned from their elders what happened to their families during World War II, when the Nazis and their local collaborators seized upon such data to identify and hunt down Jews, Roma and others deemed undesirable. As many as 500,000 Roma are thought to have died in German concentration camps during the war.
More recently, ethnic data was reportedly used during the intercommunal fighting in Bosnia and the genocide in Rwanda.
“Many Roma still have relatives who were put into concentration camps and persecuted, so the fear persists,” says Beata Olahova, a Slovak Roma who is a program officer with the Budapest-based Roma Education Fund. “This is something like a warning: see what happened to us in the past, try to avoid this in the future.
“Of course, it shouldn’t happen again, because there are all kinds of principles and regulations today. But who knows what happens in 100 years?”
QUESTIONS OF IDENTITY
Illustrating the dangers, in October a Romanian Roma was accused of the murder of a woman in Italy, sparking violence against fellow migrant Roma. Parts of the Italian and Romanian media then called for concrete data that would link Romani migrants with criminality, a step that the Romani Criss organization in Romania denounced.
“Identifying a person as belonging to the Roma ethnicity in the case of people investigated/accused of committing crimes is, unfortunately, very frequently seen in Romanian mass media and adds one more brick in creating and strengthening the widespread anti-Gypsyism within the Romanian society,” Romani Criss wrote.
Even if activists and ordinary Roma can be convinced to share details of their living conditions – and some say it may require a public-awareness campaign – it raises another vexing question: “Who is Romani?” There are those who self-identify as Roma, and those who don’t – but society does. National censuses also don’t typically allow for dual identity: to identify yourself as, say, both Romanian and Roma.
Under communism, ethnic differences were ironed out under the principle of class solidarity, and states aimed to improve the living standards of those like Roma ticketed as members of the proletariat.
During the post-Communist transition, states aspiring to join the EU had to adopt its strict privacy laws and implement the landmark EU data-protection directive adopted in 1995. The legislation outlines “the protection of individuals with regard to the processing of personal data and on the free movement of such data.”
What’s left is the national census as the only “official” bit of ethnic data. EU members vary widely in their census-taking methods, yet most ask for ethnic labels. Or the census may ask more benignly for “mother tongue.”
However, nearly everyone agrees that this approach can drastically under-represent ethnic populations. Ivanov cites the Czech example: the 1991 census counted 32,903 Roma, the 2001 census identified 11,746. The 1980 census, based on local officials’ estimates rather than citizens’ self-reporting, put the Romani population at 88,500. This statistical decline occurred as “real” Romani population numbers were climbing to the present level of around 200,000 or more, according to estimates by the U.S. government and the Open Society Institute.
Studies suggest the Roma prefer to identify with the ethnic majority, whether out of assimilationist impulse, or if they feel under threat, or fear future repercussions.
A government official in Hungary concedes that some of his colleagues at home and across the region prefer ignorance about ethnic data.
“It would be extreme to say they’re happy not to know the data, but sometimes they neglect to be aware of these things because this becomes a kind of pressure: it makes your job a little more difficult, since you should be more sensitive to the problem and more complex with your solution,” says Andor Urmos, head of the department for Romani integration at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor. “Of course that’s bad, because among people in extreme poverty, if there’s a very high rate of Roma, it’s a question of how you are able to specify your policies and programs.”
On the ground, the issue becomes tricky.
“In one labor office,” says Urmos, “if there are 100 unemployed, and we know about 60 percent of Roma are unemployed but only 20 percent identify themselves as Roma, should the labor office calculate its problem based on the 20 percent? Of course not, because we know we have more. But we can’t say who is Roma, who is not Roma.”
Ivanov recalls one Bulgarian government housing project earlier this decade. Construction workers were set to build a new apartment block meant specifically for Roma in a Plovdiv settlement, but had no idea exactly how many people were in need of new housing. Still, they forged ahead and installed water, sewage and electricity supplies without knowing if capacity would be adequate to handle the actual needs.
This gap in the data grants the governments virtual carte-blanche to claim victories, critics say.
“It’s political gamesmanship: they can deploy figures in any way they want to always present a positive outcome, because there’s no basis for comparison,” says Larry Olomoofe, a human-rights trainer with the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest.
“When we show them independent research that shows Roma suffer disproportionately in education, for instance, they say, ‘If you have no ethnic data, how can you prove this?’ It can always be argued that we can’t prove a certain phenomenon categorically.”