The Cost of Inaction

Changing the Landscape with the Next Generation of European Roma

Jacqueline Bhabha
Keynote Address at the “Realizing Roma Children Rights” Conference
April 10, 2014; Dublin, Ireland

Last July I spoke to a Roma teenager in Kosovo. She was living in the Roma Mahalla, an ethnic enclave or settlement in Northern Kosovo. We spoke in German, her first language. She told me she and her family had been deported from Germany. She longed for the settled life, regular school, friends and reasonable prospect of future employment in Germany, the country she had lived in from birth. Instead, through absolutely no fault or action of her own, she found herself in a squallid camp with no high school, substandard accommodation, no jobs. She was out of school, her parents were unemployed, she looked bedraggled and lost. “We are like clouds,” she said – referring to the Roma people, her people. “We are swept here and there, we have no control over where we go, we don’t belong anywhere”. Like her, thousands of Roma children are being deracinated from their homes in Germany, France and Sweden each year, and from the possibility of a rights respecting life doing just what policy makers say adolescents are supposed to be doing – studying, not breaking the law, acquiring skills – because their parents lack legal status or have lost their asylum claims. And thousands more – only for Germany an estimated 5000 to 6000 children[1] are under threat of deportation. A 2010 study by UNICEF documented the alarming finding that three quarters of the repatriated Roma children had not attended school since their deportation to Kosovo[2]. A follow up study a year later found further deterioration: “many of the families we met again this year barely manage to buy enough bread for one meal a day”[3]. Where, one wonders, is the impact of Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights, that protects the right to respect for private life – the language, the home, the living situation, all that makes life worth living for these children? Where, one wonders, is the impact of Article 3 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, that makes the “best interests of the child” a primary consideration in all matters concerning a child? Germany is a signatory to both these conventions – it has a legal obligation to comply with the provisions cited, and a moral obligation to take serious steps to avoid grave foreseeable harm. The cost of inaction here can be counted in ruined lives, in destitution, in an increased risk of labor or sexual exploitation – likely the only survival options within reach. In the EU of the 21st century, the best interests of these children, the loss of access to health, education, safe accommodation and skill training, basic human rights of children, are apparently outweighed by the deporting states’ interest in strict enforcement of immigration controls. Similar situations arise in other EU states, including Ireland, the UK and Italy, when long settled Roma children are deported.  So my first point: The absence of serious consideration of the best interests of a child in immigration decisions is a key human rights issue for Roma children throughout Europe today.

Deported Roma children face extreme hardship. But they are not the only ones. Roma children who are fully fledged citizens of the European countries they live in may fare no better. Consider the shocking pervasiveness of institutionalization among Roma children. In Hungary for example, the EU country where anti Roma xenophobia and racism has reached terrifying and epidemic proportions over the past months with the rising popularity of the Nazi Jobbik party, institutionalization of Roma children way outpaces a proportionate reflection of their population presence: a 2007 study found that 58% of children in state care homes in Hungary were Roma (40% Roma and 18% half Roma) even though they account for only 13% of the child population[4] – a nearly 4 times over representation. Here too, the situation is getting worse, not better with time: a 2011 investigation found 65.9% of children in institutions were Roma, whilst the Roma child population in Hungary had dropped to 7%. These figures are alarming. But they are not unique. The situation in Slovakia is even worse: a shocking 82.5% of institutionalized children are Roma, despite a population presence of only 9%[5]. This dramatic destruction of roma family life is reminiscent of the worst past histories of forced child removal, from indigenous, African American and destitute families from the mid nineteenth century on, practices for which public apologies have been made by heads of state. It is bitterly ironic that these practices should be occurring in Eastern Europe, the site of the most authoritative evidence that institutionalization of children produces irreversible harm – evidence built from the “natural experiment” of pervasive institutionalization in Romania under the dictatorship of Nicolau Ceaucescu. Not only does that evidence gathered by Charles Nelson and his team prove beyond doubt the deleterious impact of early and long term institutionalization on physical and mental health, on bonding capacity, on the capacity to socialize and thrive; it also demonstrates the irreversibility of harm: children radically deprived of sensory stimulation and emotional care in their early formative phase undergo irreversible brain changes which later nurture and compensatory care, however high quality, cannot reverse. The cost of inaction over institutionalization of Roma children contributes to ongoing grave human rights violations with cumulative, irreversible and unimaginable effects. Where one wonders is the impact of Article 9 of the CRC which prohibits separation of the child from the parent unless it is in the child’s best interests, or the realization of the universal norm that children should not be separated from their parents simply because of poverty or other material conditions? It has become customary, in the global North, for child protection to take place within families where this is possible – through family support, parental guidance and social and economic investment; generally the practice of separating children from their parents and placing them in institutional care for socio economic reasons only occurs in the global South, and even there this practice is increasingly under challenge. Why then in the richest part of the world should the most vulnerable children be consigned to nineteenth century treatment in violation of a whole host of international norms. Including for example the UN Guidelines on the Alternative Care of Children? SO my second point: The pervasive use of unjustified institutionalization to substitute for social welfare support and family strengthening is another key human rights issue for Roma children in Europe today.

I have dwelt on two out of the sad plethora of key children’s rights issues for the Roma community. Others will no doubt make reference to the pervasive health access deficits, that expose Roma children to heightened risks of malnutrition, respiratory infection, low vaccination rates, kidney infections as well as the many serious complications that arise from sub standard accommodation and lack of safe heating, early marriage and pregnancy, very poor access to maternal and reproductive health. The absence of effective preventative care, of diligent child health monitoring and of welcoming general practitioner access for medical, dental and mental health needs generates a massive cost of inaction, which manifests itself in the dramatic life long health deficits that the AITHS documents so vividly for just one EU country. And yet others will talk about the well known and persistent discrimination, segregation and degradation to which Roma school children are exposed on a daily basis – separate places at the back of the class (Italy), separate classes (Romania), separate schools (Czech republic) – considered “slow”, “lazy”, “dishonest’, “dirty”. Small wonder that, after decades of such psychological and social violence (and frequently physical too with pervasive accounts of bullying and fighting) Roma families are wary of school, often uninclined to expose their children to hardships and stigma that don’t yield worthwhile returns in terms of knowledge or skill acquisition. When the Italian government remarked, in an official submission to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 2006 that the Roma population, despite the schools’ willingness to take care of them, “actually shows scarce inclination towards integration and consequently the inborn tendency to refuse regular attendance in school”[6] they were voicing the same sort of racist attitude that the Irish judge expressed in the comment cited in the briefing notes for this conference: “I assume from his appearance that he’s from the Roma community, who came here to do what all of them tend to do, to use the streets to beg”[7]. A shifting of responsibility for the denial of fundamental human rights – to free and safe primary school education, to freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment, to non discriminatory treatment in access to opportunities, work, skill training, social and welfare services – a shifting of responsibility from the statutory bodies in dereliction of their duties, to the vulnerable and stigmatized community carving out a resilient survival strategy. Perhaps I can conclude this brief survey of key children’s rights issues for the Roma with another personal anecdote. Two years ago I visited an NGO run kindergarten in Bucharest; a colourful and bustling place, it was run by an energetic and self confident middle aged woman intent on demonstrating the valuable contribution to Roma children’s protection and integration that the school was making. With pride she expounded upon one of her cardinal rules: all Roma children have to take a shower every morning when they get to school, before they can enter the classroom. No question of whether the child was dirty or whether some non Roma child might be dirty and benefit from a shower. No the rule was just for Roma children – the other children complain that “they smell” so we insist on this to protect them! The UN Special Rapporteur on Water and Sanitation noted our complaint about this practice and got her staff to investigate; it turned out that this rule was not unique – across eastern Europe several schools have this obligatory Roma showering policy! If ever a clear sign of stigmatizing and discriminatory behavior in educational management was needed, this surely would provide it.

All state signatories to the UN Covenant on Economic and Social Rights, one of the implementing covenants of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to the European Convention on Human Rights and to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, have obligations to respect, protect and fulfill a comprehensive set of human rights obligations – not just, as was often assumed in an earlier phase, the prohibition on torture, the protection of the right to freedom of expression or religion and other liberal civil and political rights; no, states also have binding obligations to “progressively realize” a comprehensive set of social and economic rights – to education, to health care, to protection from exploitation, harmful traditional practices, sexual abuse, child labor, and a host of others. The overarching obligation, with all these rights, is non discrimination. A country may not be able to afford kidney transplants for all who need it, or medical school training for all who want it, but it cannot allocate these scarce resources in a discriminatory way, for example by excluding one ethnic group or privileging another. There is an obvious rational for this. A human rights based approach to access to basic rights, civil and political but also economic, social and cultural, is the bedrock of democratic governance: it is the building block for a society where the respect for human dignity and the diverse imperatives it generates correlates with need. No longer can this engagement with need be siloed into discrete compartments which reflect a sectional and partial view: education as the solution to employability, detached from protection of health, allocation of adequate accommodation, heating, light, privacy; or reproductive and sexual health care alone as the solution to early marriage and pregnancy, without access to education, to a sense of agency and self confidence, or to legal identity by way of documents, legal status, residency rights. The complexity of the problems being addressed demands a holistic rights based approach, grounded in the indivisibility of human dignity and the needs it generates, which should inform service provision and governance across departments and discrete service competences. More practically, this means interdepartmental and interdivisional networks are essential, practitioners, community members, experts need to communicate across expertise areas.

I would like to bring my comments to a close by reflecting on strategies for realizing Roma children’s rights, the main theme of this conference. As governance policies to address the community’s needs must be holistic, so too must advocacy strategies to enhance social justice, a single approach is unlikely to succeed. Legal strategies have long been the favourite domain of human rights advocates – myself included. This has certainly had some benefits – we have robust legislation, we have good human rights principles and reasonable procedures in many cases. And we have some good case law precedents – particularly from the European Court of human rights litigation on issues central to Roma children’s rights – on forced or involuntary sterilization of Roma women, and on school segregation and the abusive placement of Roma children in special schools for mentally disabled children. But where has this good body of statutory and case law got us? In 2003 Roma leaders in Europe approached Prof Jack Greenberg, an eminent American civil rights litigator and scholar. He was lead counsel in the landmark Brown vs Board of Education litigation. This litigation ended legal segregation of schools in the United States, forcing municipalities to ensure equal representation of children of different races in classrooms – a policy that revolutionized race segregation in education and to some extent beyond. Greenberg was acting for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, the lead African American civil rights organization. The Roma leaders asked him to advise them on how they could make their ECHR litigation effective like the Supreme court litigation in the US had been. He answered that there were some key differences between the two cases: in Europe discrimination has long been unlawful, whereas in the US, til the court decision, it was lawful. Moreover Brown v Board, as it is widely known in the US, was the outcome of years of organizing and campaigning and aggressive advocacy by the NAACP, by a mass movement of the people affected. By contrast the ECHR litigation was top down, not similar in its political scope or importance – no widespread democratic mobilization had initiated it. He concluded that without such active mobilization by the community, including in our case of Roma adolescents themselves, without political leadership and organizing, litigation alone would not succeed[8]. And sure enough, school segregation continues unabated, and it is not clear that forced sterilization is completely a thing of the past either.

Another important strategy, and one that happily human rights advocates are increasingly adopting, is participatory engagement with the communities they work with, both to generate a substantial body of empirical evidence that can anchor rights based claims and to support political leadership and agency within the affected community. This strategy to be rich and reflective of the reality being described must be based on participatory research involving the community itself (research with not on communities).   Using it to restructure service provision in light of the community’s needs has had some significant success. I conclude with an inspiring account, from the Gitano community in Spain[9]. Some years ago, the neighbourhood of La Migagrosa, in Albacete, was one of the poorest, most crime ridden and socially destitute in Spain. An area of about 600 subsidized housing units built during the 1970s and 80s, it was populated by Roma families expelled from other parts of the city. Over the years, lack of upkeep and pervasive municipal neglect led to social degradation across a spectrum of key indicators – crumbling housing stock, close to 100% unemployment, very high levels of violence and criminal offending, and – of particular interest here – dramatic educational failure, with over 84% of the relevant population not completing compuslary primary education. Teachers demanded a police escort before attending school, even school attending children exhibited high rates of illiteracy. A holistic social disaster, a Roma ghetto that confirmed the worst prejudices. Enter CREA, an inspired action research team from Barcelona University closely allied with leading members of the Roma community in Albacete. Over the course of several years, this collaboration became a network of engagement, a slow and grass roots based building of trust, of two way respectful communication, of joint action led by community members themselves. It revolutionized the community. To focus just on the child rights piece related to school: After extensive community consultation, the neighbourhood school was closed down, and a new school under different leadership with active participation from the community was opened in its place. A dramatic set of innovative educational initiatives with the community in the lead were initiated – education for families not previously exposed to educational and cultural activites, local grandmothers (mostly illiterate) of the school children recruited to assist teachers in the classroom with discipline and informal activities; an extension of the learning time for children with extra needs (eg by keeping the school library open for longer hours – the opposite of the policy where less demands are placed on “slow” or unmotivated children) and strong representation of family members in school decision making. This set of initiatives were the end result of a careful, meticulous and respectful recruitment process making school feel a resource of and for the community itself. The results have been dramatic – educationally and socially. The first cohort of Albacete Roma school children is now enrolled in university, literacy is universal among the school children, and the other social indicators have all – holistically – improved. The lesson: a careful combination of patient community mobilization and participation, receptive government humble enough to learn from the community itself by listening and changing, and a long and enduring commitment from the action researchers, not a speedy in and out to gather data engagement.  This example illustrates the potential of a slow, painstaking and holistic rights based approach to the realization of rights, that in the end is a shortcut given the cost of inaction. I commend it to you.



[1] Verena Knaus, , NO Place to Call Home: Repatriation from Germany to Kosovo as seen and experienced by Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian children UNICEF, August 2011, 14.
[2] Verena Knaus, , NO Place to Call Home: Repatriation from Germany to Kosovo as seen and experienced by Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian children UNICEF, August 2011, 11.
[3] Op. cit., 13.
[4]   [4] ERRC: Dis-interest of the Child: Romani Children and the Hungarian Child Protection System (2007), as noted in A. Sarafian, “The Institutionalization of Roma Children – a breach of human rights”, manuscript on file with the author., p. 1.
[5] ERRC, BHC, MSF and Osservazione (2011) Life Sentence: Romani Children in Institutional Care, available at:, Sarafian, ibid.
[6] Elena Rozzi, “Their Responsibility? Interpreting the Low School Participation of “Nomad” Children in Italy”, draft chapter on file with the author, p 1.
[7] Justice Patrick McCartan, Dublin Circuit Criminal Court, March 2013, cited in Pavee Point, Realising Roma Chidlren’s Rights, Briefing Note for conference on April 10, 2014, 6.
[8] Jack Greenberg, Report on Roma Education Today: From Slavery to Segregation and Beyond. 110 (4)Columbia Law Review, 2010
[9] The whole of this paragraph is based on the trend setting work of Ramon Flecha and his team at CREA. I am particularly grateful to Teresa Sorde Muti for her descriptions of the work in Albacete. This account is based on her draft chapter “Making Roma Rights a reality through Successful Actions: The case of La Milagrosa (Albacete). On file with the author.