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June 26, 2022

The integration of the Roma begins in school

Regardless of what percentage of a country’s population they represent, the social and professional integration of the ethnic Roma minority basically is a European issue. In light of this principle, the EU recently criticised the French government for the successive acts of discrimination against Roma communities, which also resulted in the forced expulsion of some of them and the voluntary repatriation of others, paid by the French state. With many of these people being Romanian citizens, the traditionally friendly relations between the two countries got tense – and not only in terms of government ties. This is unfair, because the accusations brought to Romania regarding the integration of the Roma rely on fundamentally flawed information.

Such an example is the story recently aired by the French TV channel France 24 about the Roma community of Barbulesti, Ialomita County. The producers of this show praise the Roma while addressing justified, but also unjustified criticism to the Romanian state. First, the reporter invents a statistic figure regarding the Roma community of Romania: 2.5 million. But only half a million Romanian citizens declared themselves as belonging to this minority in the 2003 census, and no figure resulted yet from the latest census held last month. The leaders of Roma communities claim that the real figure is much bigger, but nobody could confirm it, because many ethnic Roma do not want to assume this identity. Then, on what hard evidence did they rely when they gave this figure of 2.5 million?

The question is left without an answer, same as another, of the same kind. The French reporter accuses Romania that only 1 pc of the funds aimed at the integration of Roma is really used to this purpose, but gives no source for this piece of information. Is this real, or just another invention, like the previous one? To his defence, we must say that the foreign journalist seems to have had a problem of conscience here. In an attempt to quell his own doubts, he presents several Roma children of Barbulesti who say they want to go to school. More than any story on TV, even a biased one, the words of these children take us closer to the essence of the issue concerning the social and professional integration of Roma.

Everywhere in the world, being part of a community catches the interest of children – a rule that also applies to school communities, which attract children at the age of their first contact with reading, writing and the optimist atmosphere of communion at school. Roma children are no different from those with other ethnic backgrounds, but their natural wish to go to school is often blocked by impassable barriers: the anachronistic cultural traditions that make some spiritual leaders of Roma communities demand their “subjects” not to send children to school. In their conception, education is a factor of “ethnic alienation.”

This fear of “ethnic alienation” manifest among Roma communities is nothing new in Europe. As a consequence, the Romanian Ministry of Education and Research drafted, more than 10 years ago, a Strategy of education for the Roma, largely based on positive discrimination at all the levels of the education system. Besides the existence of Roma-language schools in Romania, the ministry keeps places in many education units of all levels, precisely reserved for Roma pupils and students. These places are 100 pc subsidised by the state. The principle here is that the Roma minority needs an educated elite that will positively channel its existence. But, surprise! Many of these places are left vacant each year, from lack of candidates. This situation is common to all the incentives created for the benefit of the Roma minority, which would allow more of its members to complete their studies at various degrees. Faced with the reality of absenteeism, those in charge with the Education system granted even more incentives to the Roma, also in normal schools and institutor colleges, meant to stimulate the education in the Romani language within Roma communities. Young Roma students were allowed to enter these schools even without proper domicile papers, which many of them do not have.

Furthermore, the number of places in inter-cultural education camps was supplemented, and members of the Roma community were promoted in positions of school inspectors. A general inspectorate for the Roma minority was set up within the Ministry of Education and Research, and school inspectors of Roma origin were appointed at county level, based on the same principle of positive discrimination.

Soon, it became obvious that even these measures of positive discrimination will not yield the expected results, because the number of Roma pupils in high-schools cannot grow as long as the presence in primary and second schools is still very low. So, although they are an ethnic minority, the Roma have a high percentage of school abandonment and illiteracy in Romania. Here resides the fundamental problem of their professional and social integration. Regardless of the degree of positive discrimination, the solution ‘per se’ proves to be useless as long as Roma children avoid the primary school.

Unfortunately, absenteeism is still widespread throughout this community, given the mentality of elder Roma, which reject school also under the influence of unemployment, which is a discriminatory reality in itself. To change the mentality of Roma seniors, it has been resorted to NGOs, religious organisations etc. But, as they have their own agenda (recruiting new adepts, autonomy on ethnic criteria etc.) the interest for school is still suffering. A resource used to a very small extent is the influence of Roma quasi-political organisations during electoral campaigns. These structures can stimulate the interest for school, by focusing their electoral agenda on appeals to education, equally targeting the young Roma and their parents, rather than resorting to demagogy (such as the promises to obtain pardon for various crimes).

Anyway, one truth is beyond dispute. The social and professional integration of ethnic Roma begins in school!

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