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Empowering Europe’s Roma

By George Soros- BUDAPEST – Across Europe, millions are suffering from unemployment and the prospect
of a long period of economic stagnation. But no group has been harder hit than the
Roma.

There are more than ten million Roma living in Europe, mostly concentrated in the
Balkans and in the European Union’s newest member states, especially Romania,
Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Hungary. What is truly shocking is that their living
conditions have actually deteriorated since many of them became EU citizens. At the
same time, the majority population’s attitude has become more hostile almost
everywhere in Europe.

The two trends are mutually reinforcing: marginalization breeds contempt, and vice
versa. The only escape from this trap is investment in education, which would pay
enormous social dividends. Consider, for example, that Roma represent more than 20%
of new entrants into the labor force in the above-mentioned countries.

The good news is that we know how to prepare Roma children to be productive members
of society. My foundations have been active in educating Roma for more than 25
years. Over that period, we have educated a small cohort of young Roma who retain
their identity and yet can break the hostile stereotypes held by those with whom
they interact.

Together with the World Bank, we established the Roma Education Fund in 2005. The
REF is ready to help national education authorities across the EU improve their
performance in educating Roma children. Indeed, its programs currently reach more
than 100,000 students each year, including more than 1,600 university students who
receive scholarships.

But these numbers are woefully inadequate relative to the magnitude of the problem.
Half of the Roma are of school age, and the population is growing faster than the
capacity of the REF. The Fund’s annual budget is only €12 million ($16.3 million),
of which my foundations cover nearly half, and we find it difficult to secure
additional funds. That is unacceptable. The programs developed by the REF ought to
be scaled up by governments, with the help of the EU, and made available to all Roma
children in Europe.

The European Commission has played a very helpful role through its structural funds,
which cover up to 80% of the additional costs involved in integrating the Roma.
Unfortunately, the remaining 20% is difficult to mobilize, owing to widespread
anti-Roma sentiment throughout Europe.

To break the negative stereotypes, Roma children must be educated to celebrate and
take pride in their Roma heritage. That is what the REF has done. As it is, educated
Roma do not fit the stereotypes, so they can easily blend into the majority
population, but the majority’s hostility remains. If the approach developed by the
REF were generally adopted, it would go a long way toward breaking the stereotypes.

But education is not enough. The Roma must also be able to find employment. A
lasting solution requires Europe to build a Roma working class. Here the private
sector also has a role to play. Experts from the European Commission and from my
foundations are developing a demonstration project to make private-sector
internships available to Roma youth enrolled in vocational schools.

Romania already has a similar program for the majority population, and Minister of
Education Remus Pricopie has pledged to open it up to the Roma. I urge other
governments to take similar steps.

Let’s be honest: There is a Roma problem in Europe, and it is getting worse. But
both the problem and its worsening reflect a toxic combination of deep-seated
hostility and persistent neglect.

In fact, Europe’s educated Roma are proving every day that the problem is eminently
solvable. But solving it will take more than a generation, and Europe cannot afford
to wait for economic recovery. On the contrary, given the increase in its Roma
population, Europe’s long-term prosperity depends on reversing current trends – and
getting started right away.

George Soros is Chairman of Soros Fund Management and of the Open Society
Foundations.

Project Syndicate,

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