Integration of Roma is ‘Mission Impossible’

Due to pressure from the EU, Lithuania launched an action plan for a 2012-2014 integration of their segregated Roma minority into society. The action plan especially focuses on the Vilnius suburb of Kirtimai, five kilometres south of the Eastern European capital, as this is where the main integration issues lie. The Roma here have little intention on being a part of the Lithuanian society, and the willingness of the government is also disintegrating.

By Agnete Vestergaard-Kristensen

Vilnius, Lithuania: Even in early spring, heavy snow is falling. Plywood upon plywood make-shift house with plastic covered windows stand fragile and gloomy dark in contrast to the light and crisp, white snow covering the muddy tracks that make for roads in the small segregated Roma community. Placed far from the actual city of Vilnius with its’ fine shops nestled in among ancient churches and beautiful architectural constructions Tabor, where 450-500 Roma live, is placed in the industrial suburb of Kirtimai in the absolute outskirts of Vilnius. Their homes lie side by side with factories and junkyards right next to the busy train tracks leading to the Capital of Lithuania.

Among the Eastern European EU member states, who entered the political union in 2004, many found themselves under severe pressure to ensure the rights of the travelling minority – The Roma. The gypsies have settled on land that is not theirs in houses comparable to that of shacks; some have no citizenship, many have little or no education, some have no will to work. But due to human rights concerns, the integration of these people has become a grand concern throughout the 27 EU member states, so in 2011 the European Commission called on them to implement strategies to ensure that integration was initiated.

However, only 1,5 years down the line the Lithuanian action plan is slowly dissolving.

(The contrast between rich and poor is very apparent in the neighbourhood of Snipiskes. Photo: Agnete Vestergaard-Kristensen)

(The contrast between rich and poor is very apparent in the neighbourhood of Snipiskes. Photo: Agnete Vestergaard-Kristensen)

–          The Roma, Europe’s largest minority, are often victims of racism, discrimination and social exclusion. Many Roma children are still on the streets instead of going to school. Roma are often denied a fair chance on the labour market. Roma women are still victims of violence and exploitation, and 90% are living below the poverty line, the Commission stated.

In Lithuania the Action Plan aimed at promoting participation of Roma in public life, reducing social exclusion, enhancing consciousness within the Roma community as well as increasing public tolerance with the two specific goals to improve the social status of Roma and to create conditions for intercultural dialogue. These goals would be achieved through measures such as establishing two teacher assistant positions, organizing qualification improvement programs designated for those school communities, where Roma children make a constituent part, and by disseminating information on active labour market policy measures that provide Roma an opportunity for taking active part herein.

(Lithuanian teens leaving college. Only very few Roma make it to secondary school. Photo: Agnete Vestergaard-Kristensen)

(Lithuanian teens leaving college. Only very few Roma make it to secondary school.
Photo: Agnete Vestergaard-Kristensen)

Instead of promoting the measures of the Action Plan in order to better the situation the new government, elected in fall 2012 with the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party in the lead, is down prioritizing the political problems that come with the minority. By dropping measures and goals of the Action Plan the education and thereby integration of the Roma seem a’ Mission Impossible’

The implementation of measures envisaged in the Action Plan is financed from the general allocations of the State Budget of the Republic of Lithuania, but also partly from the European Union Structural Funds and the European Commission Program for Employment and Solidarity –Progress, still the €1.5 million is vanishing.

Integration of a drug central

The Lithuanian Roma is a very small minority only making up around 2,500-3,000 persons of the estimated 3 million Eastern European population. However the Roma in many cases have no tradition for education and work and many live off of social benefits, costing large amounts every months. Around 1,600 Roma are somewhat integrated into Lithuanian society, living in smaller villages around the country, mainly because they attend the same schools as the Lithuanians. Yet they have very little education and therefore only hold low wage jobs. Nevertheless the situation for those located in the Vilnius suburb of Kirtimai is much different. Two schools have been placed in close proximity with only Roma children attending, reinforcing the segregation of the Roma and the Lithuanians. The Kirtimai minority, consisting of approximately 450-500, is the one group that the Action Plan specifically targets, if more than just a paper. Their children seldom attend school and moonlighting or criminal actions are preferred to regular jobs.

–          The Roma deal and use drugs. Kirtimai is known as the drug central of Lithuania and only a few have gone beyond the obligatory primary school (until 16 years of age). But when you live off of social benefits, both parents get a monthly payout plus an amount for each of the children. If dad goes out and gets a job, all social benefits for the family disappear, and his income will be their sole livelihood. Where’s the incentive to work? Asks Svetlana Novopolskaja, Director for Roma Community Centre.

The police have done lots to stop the drug trafficking, building a police station right in the middle of the ‘drug central’. But within one week it had been burnt to the ground. They built one yet again and this time around in concrete with iron bars. Installing cameras in the camp in 2004 helped to identify 1,000 drug users, and the arrest of some dealers. This along with building the community centre has helped the Roma see that education and integration do matter, and helping the younger generation get further in school, wanting other things than criminal acts to be their future.


Watch the celebration of International Roma Day here: 


Strategies for Roma integration

– Under the new European Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies, EU Member States were required to submit strategies on Roma inclusion to the European Commission (EC) by the end of December 2011.

– Lithuania failed to submit an actual National Strategy for Roma Integration, and instead did an Action Plan focused mainly on the Vilnius suburb of Kirtimai.

– When National Roma Integration Strategies were implemented in 2012, 11 % of the member states joining the strategy work were uncertain whether anti-discrimination measures were discussed, including in Denmark, Greece and Lithuania.

– 2005-2015 is named The Decade of Roma Inclusion. The decade stands for an unprecedented political commitment by European governments to improve the socio-economic status and social inclusion of Roma.


A community centre sees the light of day

Lithuania has in fact been working with their Roma minority since 1994. Different food programs and activity projects have been initiated by some of the eight organisations who focus on the Roma since then. Svetlana Novopolskaja has led the community centre since its’ opening in 2001, working on different projects with preschoolers, after school activities, parenting classes all giving the Roma more social skills and opportunity to enter the labour market, but it has taken a long while to get the acceptance of the Kirtimai community.

–          The Roma don’t necessarily want their kids to not go to school, they just don’t motivate them. Because they themselves have no jobs, they automatically think their kids will get no job either, so what’s the point of school? Ponders Romualda Navikaite, coordinator for World Children’s Fund, Lithuania.

She thinks the biggest problem with the Action Plan is that nobody wants to take full responsibility for it.

–          It was a EU obligation to set out a strategy for the integration of Roma, and it’s a problem in Lithuania, even if it is a small minority. It seems a ‘mission impossible’ that takes a massive attitude change. The Roma need to see the benefits of education, work and integration. The Lithuanians need to open their mind and not judge the Roma as all being criminals, she says.

Actionless plan

Since 2000 the Seimas (government) has had actual political plans with different approaches on how to handle the socio-economic problems of the Roma, but a plan that covers all-round Roma issues has yet to be initiated. The most recent Action Plan for example does not include housing and health. And the measures presented are lacking in political will.

–          We definitely wished for a different kind of plan than the one that came out in 2012. Basically it is just a piece of paper, because there is no money and no actual plan. We see no political will for integration, says Svetlana Novopolskaja.

(At the Roma Community Centre, children have after school activities and do homework. Photo: Agnete Vestergaard-Kristensen)

(At the Roma Community Centre, children have after school activities and do homework. Photo: Agnete Vestergaard-Kristensen)

Education is not a deeply integrated value with the Roma. But according to the people at the Roma Community Centre, the changing of mentality is possible – over time.

–          Education doesn’t go hand in hand with their traditions and way of life. So it’s important to keep working with them to make them understand that they need school to get jobs, to get a proper life. The future lies within the governmental strategies in the area. Instead of demolishing the Roma houses in Kirtimai, because they are illegal, they should make incentives to not be criminals, says Svetlana Novopolskaja, referring to the tearing down Roma houses which happened both in 2009 and again in 2012.

Feet dancing or brain twisting

Not only the Roma themselves are making the integration hard. The new government is reluctant to allocate the state budget promised for the measures initiated.

–          The Roma skip out after the free lunch – and what can we do about it? They only attend morning lessons then slip away. They are good at singing and dancing, but not much else and then they end up in their closed community. We do have social workers at the schools working with the families, discussing the children’s right to school, but we can’t force it onto them more than we already do- says Rimantas Vaitkus, Vice Minister for Education and Science, who also says that teaching closer to home in close connection with the family as well as making the Roma teaching assistant positions permanent are on the political agenda.

The Ministry of Culture sees this specific role as one of the obvious means to solving some of the educational problems the Roma have.

Some of the older generation Roma see no other way than to beg in the streets. Photo: Agnete Vestergaard-Kristensen

Some of the older generation Roma see no other way than to beg in the streets. Photo: Agnete Vestergaard-Kristensen

–          We need someone to mediate in the home, someone to establish contact with the whole family, someone who can go beyond the language barriers and the discrimination we still see with some teachers, and it has to be a permanent position, says Gražina Sluško, chief specialist of the Division of the Affairs of Ethnic Minorities, Ministry of Culture.

She says the lack of interinstitutional cooperation is becoming very apparent with the new government.

–          Some measures are simply not implemented, because the money is being redirected. €1.5 million was originally put into the Action Plan. Now the amount is shrinking, but we do not have the power to force the Ministry for Education and Science or the Municipality of Vilnius to pull through with the project.

Yet without the political will, some things are going in the right direction.

-What we can say is that drug dealing is not as attractive as it was five years ago. We try working to get the older generation Roma into the labour market, but to strengthen our work with the children is the most important. To integrate the Roma in general, we must work with them, says Gražina Sluško.

European gypsy life

– Roma is a term for various groups who have migrated across Europe for centuries and are now the biggest ethnic minority in the European Union. Most of them come from countries like Romania, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic.

– There are an estimated 12 million across Europe. Approximately 20.000 of these live in the Baltics.

– Since their arrival in Europe from India some 700 years ago, they have been politically, socially, culturally and economically marginalized by the dominant population, which have consistently shown negative social attitudes towards them.

– The post-1989 era in Europe has seen an outbreak of intense anti-Romani sentiment in both Eastern and Western Europe. In Eastern Europe, governments in some countries blamed Roma collectively for a breakdown in public order.


European Commission calls for further efforts 

Much more progress has yet to be made at national level to fight discrimination and improve access for Roma to employment, education, housing and healthcare in particular, says Vice-President Viviane Reding (EU-Justice Commissioner), László Andor (Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion), Johannes Hahn (Commissioner for Regional Policy) and Androulla Vassiliou (Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth) in a joint statement sent out, when marking the International Roma Day on April 8th 2012.

–          Roma integration cannot be left to Sunday speeches that are not followed up come Monday morning. What we need is a genuine political commitment from the Member States to implement national strategies. The drafting of national strategies was certainly a good start but we still need more to make changes happen, the commissioners say.

Integration means money in the bank

In the assessment of the national Roma integration strategies, one of the primary findings was that Member States are not making good use of EU funds, but spending some on the integration seems logical.

– Roma inclusion makes sense: a Research by the World Bank suggests full Roma integration could be worth around half a billion euro a year to the economies of some countries by improving productivity, cutting welfare bills and boosting tax receipts. Roma integration thus must not be seen as a cost, but as a social investment, and will be a key strategy to achieve the targets of the Europe 2020 Strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, the Commissioners say.

As the Lithuanian population is getting older and a large proportion of the highly educated flee the country for better opportunities elsewhere in Europe, the check the Government has to pay out in the end is only getting bigger and bigger, making the education and integration of Roma seem an obvious solution in order to put a break on some of the State expenditure on social benefits.

(Photos by: Agnete Vestergaard-Kristensen)