REF Presents at the Greens/EFA Conference "Can Europe Afford Not to Sanction against Discrimination and Racism?"

REF Grant Manager Beata Olahova joined the Greens/EFA conference "Can Europe afford not to sanction against discrimination and racism?" on November 19 at the European Parliament in Brussels. Olahova was honored to represent the Roma Education Fund and present her observations. She joined MEP Barbara Lochbihler and panelists Miranda Vuolasranta and Jana Balazova in a morning discussion on why Europe cannot tolerate discrimination, while in the afternoon, after a short film on cohesion policy and marginalized communities by MEP Terry Reintke, she joined MEP Bodil Valero and panelists Diana Nyman, Romeo Franz and Miranda Vuolasranta in a debate on what can the European Parliament do to improve the situation for Roma people in the EU.

She put forward the following remarks - insights gathered from ten years of experience at the Roma Education Fund.

Despite worrying practices in access to quality education that prevail, we also have evidence of progress on Roma inclusion in education. Indeed, there are several success stories, and REF is proud that the number of Roma in higher education has been increasing steadily. REF data indicates the enormous progress that has been made among all the countries in REF’s scholarship portfolio in the previous academic years, showing a tertiary education completion rate of 69 percent, only three percent below the European average.

REF tertiary scholarship program awards annually about 1,500 scholarships. Among the scholarship recipients 42 students are recently conducting their doctoral programs. The Roma Education Fund in its 10-years of existence supported the attendance of at least 7,000 young Roma individuals at university.

In 2014, REF partners have worked in 277 municipalities in 432 localities, in 13 countries, with nearly 35,000 Roma children and over 55,000 parents.

I would ask if the Roma Education Fund has achieved this with an annual budget of EUR 2 million for grants and a further EUR 1.5 million allocated for tertiary scholarships, then how much more can governments do with the support of the European Commission?

I would suggest the following measures:

•    The European Union should adopt standards prohibiting ethnic and racial segregation in education; widen the mandate of institutions that can work on development of legal measures to enforce these standards; and provide formal monitoring through inspections and sanctions.

•    Governments should only allocate education funds from the EU and the central budget to schools and authorities that accept and thoroughly implement integration and antidiscrimination measures.

•    Governments should reduce the number of Roma in special schools for children with intellectual disabilities by introducing free and compulsory early childhood education, accessible to all children and especially the vulnerable groups.

Research shows that children who do not participate in preschool education are disadvantaged from the beginning of their school career. Governments and local authorities should therefore make a systematic effort to make early childhood education compulsory and free of charge for all children bellow school age; and facilitate access and placement of Roma children into quality early childhood education facilities; engage with Roma parents on the importance of early childhood education, providing them with the necessary practical support to allow their children to attend.

The problems faced by Roma are complex, and call for an integrated approach, in order to address simultaneously low educational attainment, labor market barriers, segregation in education and in housing, and poor health outcomes. Implementing such change is the responsibility of national, regional and, especially, local governments; but the EU also has an important role to play – improving legislation against discrimination, coordinating policy, setting common integration goals, and providing funding.

We now have an EU Framework and national strategies in place; local action plans are being designed and implemented. But: we will need sustained political will, efficient coordinated efforts, and effective monitoring and evaluation tools if we want to make a tangible difference in Roma people’s lives.