As Europe’s populations age, Roma communities are experiencing rapid growth thanks to a high birth-rate. In theory they are in a strong position to assert their rights.
In reality, however, their demographic weight has a flipside. In many countries they are still marginalized socially and economically. Poverty rates in Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary are four times higher for Roma than for non-Roma. Many get by on less than two euros a day, and living standards have not improved since the fall of Communism.
It is estimated there are between seven 7 and nine million Roma in Europe. With up to two and a half million, Romania has the largest community, followed by Bulgaria and Spain.
Overall their population is larger than that of some EU member states, but historically the numbers have not translated into political clout. The Roma people – a nation without borders, as they define themselves – have long been invisible. But as the EU expands, they are becoming more assertive.
Aldar Horvath is the leader of the Roma Civil Rights movement in Budapest:
“My organisation has played a key role in encouraging people to participate in the political process. Nowadays 60 percent of Roma vote in elections – that’s a big achievemnt.”
The integration of Roma into society has also begun in Romania, a candidate for EU membership in 2007. Cristina Bucur is a prime example. Thanks to her education she got a job as an executive in a company which runs a factory.
“It’s good here. People don’t distinguish between Roma and Romanians. We have good relations. It’s a normal environment to work in.”
The challenge facing this ancient people is twofold: to integrate further into European societies without losing their language and identity. Success would mean shaking off the stigma that has plagued them ever since they arrived in Europe in the Middle Ages.