Europe-wide project turns Roma victims into citizens


The Romani people are among the most neglected in Europe. A new project led by researchers from Limburg aims to speed up their integration in education and the labour market

Nomads no longer

Just as the indigenous people of the Arctic don’t like to be called Eskimos, the Romani people, who live scattered across Europe, don’t like being referred to as gypsies. Still, a European project that kicked off this month carries the word in its tagline.

The PAL project, worth €1.27 million, has several goals,  the main one of which is “anti-gypsyism”: combating discrimination of Roma people in education and employment.

Though it’s not general knowledge, but the people who suffered the most in the Holocaust after Jewish people were the Romani. Because history is written by the victorious and the Romani have never been tied to one country, their genocide has never been properly acknowledged.

In Flanders the Romani – or Sinti – are no longer identified as travelling nomads. Estimations of the number of Romani living in Belgium vary between 20,000 and 40,000. Ghent, for example, has a large community, and while these people are no longer nomadic, their housing conditions are generally poor.

In most cases, Romani live permanently in caravan parks or in neglected neighbourhoods. The situation in other countries is not much better. And in southern and eastern Europe, Romani people also face racism.

“Romani children and youngsters don’t tend to stay at the same school for long,” says Valère Awouters, project leader at ed+ict, a research unit in the teacher training department at the University Colleges Leuven-Limburg (UCLL). “That makes it difficult for schools to arrange proper education for them.” 

“Democratic values”

Ed+ict is leading the European project – the largest the unit has ever been involved in – which unites similar research groups from the Czech Republic, Greece, Slovenia, Romania, Spain, Hungary and France. “The overall goal is to improve the situation of Romani,” says Awouters. “We will investigate how we can address promotion of Roma integration and how we can support the implementation of national Roma inclusion strategies or integrated sets of policy measures.”

So how will Awouters, his colleagues and his foreign partners proceed, in the hope of doing better than existing national policies? “We want to realise our goals through promoting common democratic values, strengthening fundamental rights and consolidating the rule of law,” he says.

That final point, he continues, “is particularly important in countries like Hungary and Romania, where we need to pay special attention to combating discrimination and racism, and to promoting tolerance and multicultural awareness.” Because education and employment are considered the most important levers for successful integration, PAL’s activities will target these two areas.

It’s difficult for schools to arrange proper education for Romani children

- Valère Awouters

These are all nice words, but will they make a difference on the ground? What concrete measures will help Romani youngsters who are struggling with a lack of educational opportunities? “We will develop a specific programme for ‘second chance’ education,” says Awouters. “We will also launch a campaign among the Romani community spreading the message that it’s never too late to benefit from education.”

Because ed+ict’s core business is the deployment of digital media and gaming in education, the education section of the PAL project will have a strong online focus. Online courses will be set up for teachers in participating countries to offer them a crash course in Romani culture, and schools will receive extra resources that they can use to deal with students. “Schools will host, for example, group building days in which the focus is heavily on socialisation.”

The PAL project should reach 4,000 Romani teenagers, children and young mothers and 700 Romani teachers and trainers, as well as 200 non-Romani trainers. Collaboration with a large number of local NGOs is also on the agenda.

After education, of course, comes employment. What incentives can help the Romani people find work? “We must consider specific and adapted employment,” says Awouters, “combined with a campaign aimed at employers to increase equal opportunities.”

PAL will be accompanied by newsletters, brochures, posters and other promotion material. “We will organise a number of information days and roundtable sessions, to bring all the partners together. Just like we did during the kick-off meeting earlier this month at our campus in Diepenbeek.”

Photo: Romani people were among those evicted from a church in Brussels two years ago 
© Kevin Van den Panhuyzen/Demotix/Corbis