Roma in the Western Balkans: A Radical Shift in Policy is needed

19 December 2019   ·   Stephan Müller

Despite various EU initiatives, the situation of the Roma population in the Western Balkans has hardly improved in recent years. It is time for a radical rethinking in Berlin and Brussels: both need to recognize antigypsyism as the root cause of discrimination against Roma, develop new measures to fight it and create concrete prospects for Roma in the local labor market.

Despite extensive (financial) investment by the European Union as part of the accession process and bilateral contributions, the situation of the Roma in the Western Balkans has seen little improvement in the last 20 years. International initiatives such as the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015 and the follow-up initiative Roma Integration 2020, as well as the adoption of national laws, strategies, and action plans have been unable to change this.

Antigypsyism characterizes the situation of the Roma in the Western Balkans

The following data on the situation of the Roma give an insight into the ineffective policies of recent years at both national and EU levels and demonstrate the need for a radical change in course. Data on the younger Roma population was deliberately selected, as the younger population should in theory have benefited most from the investment of recent years, including the extensive investment in educational measures. In 2017, 78% of young Roma (ages 18 to 24) in Albania were not in education, employment or training (NEET). In Bosnia and Herzegovina the share is 86%, in Kosovo 78%, in Montenegro 82%, in North Macedonia 74% and in Serbia 73%. For the majority population in the Western Balkans, the respective percentage of young people is between 33 and 59 per cent; in the EU, the average rate is 14.3%, while in Germany the rate is only 8.6%. Of young Roma between the ages of 18 and 21, between 31% (Montenegro) and 69% (North Macedonia) have completed their compulsory education; by contrast, 93% to 96% of the majority population in all Western Balkan countries graduated.

In the last ten years, more than 200,000 Roma from the Western Balkans, approximately one-fifth of the region's entire Roma population, have applied for asylum across the EU, including more than 100,000 in Germany. There are also tens of thousands more who regularly engage in (informal) work across Western Europe.

Antigypsyism, the specific racial bias against Sinti and Roma based on prejudice, stereotypes, and hostility is the main cause of discrimination against Roma and their exclusion from society. Until now, the fight against antigypsyism and structural discrimination against the Roma has not been a major priority in German policy with regard to the Western Balkans. The flight and forced migration of many Roma to Germany and the EU has largely been attributed to purely economic reasons. In line with the governments of the Western Balkan nations, the political leaders of Germany and the EU have thus ignored the influence of antigypsyism on the social and economic situation of the Roma as a reason for their forced migration. This ignorance in turn has resulted in a failure to adequately combat antigypsyism and structural discrimination against the Roma.

The EU Presidency is an opportunity for Germany to take responsibility

In the second half of 2020, Germany will hold the rotating EU Presidency. In that same year, the new EU Framework for Equal Participation of Sinti and Roma and for Combating Antigypsyism should be adopted; this will also have an impact in the Western Balkans. Berlin should seize the opportunity to support the Western Balkans alongside other EU Member States and the European Union in developing and implementing a more inclusive policy towards the Roma that recognizes the fight against antigypsyism as a key element.

In addition, Germany can use its reputation to convince the governments in the Western Balkans to cooperate on the implementation of new policies. It can encourage and support such processes and embed it in a new national or new EU policy towards the region. Germany also has a historic responsibility towards the Sinti and Roma which should not exclude the Roma of the Western Balkans. Only an actual improvement of their situation will reduce the pressure leading to further forced migration. 

Comprehensive measures in the region and opportunities for legal labor migration are needed

The German government could thus make a significant contribution to improving the situation of the Roma in the Western Balkans. To do so, Germany would need to develop a long-term comprehensive program to support governments and societies in implementing a policy of inclusion towards Roma in coordination with the EU. Its main components would include:  

  • The fight against antigypsyism, the root cause for social exclusion and discrimination in the Western Balkans.
  • Greater involvement and strengthening of Roma civil society in the Western Balkans following a participatory approach.
  • Strengthening the local Roma communities (community empowerment) in order to make integration sustainable.
  • A stronger focus on vocational training for young Roma. This could also be an answer to a shortage of labor force in many occupations, seen, for example, in Serbia.
  • The active inclusion of Roma in legal labor migration mechanisms. Within the framework of the Western Balkans Regulation, Roma were barely considered, although the scheme initially aimed to provide opportunities for legal labor migration for Roma as well. As long as antigypsyism makes it difficult for Roma to access the labor market in their home countries, participation in such programs will remain essential. The only alternative for many Roma is to generate income at the informal labor market in Western Europe.  
  • In the spirit of a coherent policy towards Sinti and Roma, both in the Western Balkans and in Germany, Germany should also focus on a sustainable integration of Roma living in Germany and rethink its deportation practices, which have also affected Roma born in Germany or who have lived here for 20 years.

The German government should focus on two components: the fight against antigypsyism and the better integration of Roma into the labor market.

Fighting antigypsyism should be Germany's first priority

German policy should center on supporting the fight against antigypsyism in the Western Balkans. However, this requires a political paradigm shift that introduces a "human rights-based approach" with the responsibility of the "duty-bearer" to policies regarding the Roma population. Western Balkan politicians and societies alike must take responsibility for the current situation as well as its improvement. The fight against antigypsyism must be implemented across the board and involve reforms to the labor market and education systems.

Concrete starting points for German policy towards the Western Balkans which supports the fight against antigypsyism on the one hand, while holding governments accountable on the other hand, should include education and training projects for various social groups (including teachers, police officers, civil servants, and employers), promote responsible media coverage, support the consistent prosecution of statements of antigypsyism, violence, and acts of discrimination, as well as the inclusion of Roma in anti-discrimination institutions. Additionally, a social narrative that defines Roma as members of society and of the nation-state, not as "others", must be promoted. The Western Balkans can benefit from Germany's experience in the fight against antigypsyism and from the proposals of an international coalition of civil society organizations.

Integrating Roma into the labor market requires political will and patience

Secondly, an important part of a new policy should be the better integration of the Roma into the local labor market. On the one hand, the governments in the Western Balkans must fulfil their legal obligations for the proportional employment of Roma in the civil service, which they have been failing to do for years. In addition to classic job creation and training measures, as well as measures required in the fight against and prevention of antigypsyism, better links between school and vocational training must be established. Due to the low level of education and training of the majority of Roma, job creation and training measures have largely focused on persons without education or vocational training. However, the resulting occupations barely allow individual or social advancement, and may even harden prejudice against Roma. An additional focus on qualified, dual education would therefore not only improve the economic and social situation of graduates, but also help reduce prejudice against the Roma.

However, success will only be tangible in the medium or long term. Therefore, Germany must be prepared not to think in the traditional project cycles of three or four years, but to pursue a long-term program, just as the accession process to the EU has been designed for the long term. German policy must be prepared to demand concrete measures to combat antigypsyism and discrimination from the governments in the Western Balkans and make it clear in the EU accession process that it is no longer sufficient to adopt strategies and action plans without actually implementing them. To this end, the German government should also work with the EU to ensure that Brussels pursues the same policies within the frame of the EU accession process.

Ultimately, however, the respective governments in the Western Balkans must take responsibility and develop and implement measures to improve the living conditions of the Roma population, jointly with local society. Initiated by Northern Macedonia, the Declaration of Poznan on Roma inclusion in the EU accession process was a first step towards launching a new regional policy towards the Roma population. While fighting antigypsyism and discrimination plays a minor role in the Declaration, this reflects the willingness of governments to do more for the inclusion of Roma. Germany should support this process if it wants to promote a democratic and constitutional rule of law in the states of the Western Balkans.

Westbalkan Antiziganismus

Stephan Müller

Stephan Müller works as an expert on German policy towards Roma in the Western Balkans for the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma. He previously worked in the Western Balkans as a consultant for governments, civil society and international organizations. @muellerbudapest