A Fresh Start for the Roma Community in Ireland?

Patrick Dolan writes that education and representation must be the starting point for integration of the Roma community.

Anita Elena is a Romanian woman, who has lived, worked and studied in Ireland for 7 years. As part of her postgraduate work in Trinity College Dublin, she is conducting research on the life experiences of the 3,000 strong Roma community in Ireland.

“What many people forget or do not know is that the Roma face racism everywhere, including Romania. There is a refusal to accept the Roma way of life”.

In Ireland the consequences of that refusal to accept the Roma way of life manifest themselves in the Roma experience of access to public services, not least education. According to the Roma Support Group Ireland, around 30% of Roma children attend school. Approximately 85% of the Roma population are illiterate. 95% of Roma women cannot read or write in any language.

A major report on the educational needs of the Roma community in Ireland conducted in 2005 for the Dublin City VEC found members of the Roma community often find educational services difficult to access and that structural changes were required to make services more accessible.

The report argued that “countless programmes for Roma have been destined to fail because they were developed without Roma participation, and correspondingly, with scant awareness of the specific culture and needs of the intended beneficiaries”.

The author went on to recommend “that a family centred approach should be adhered to in addressing the educational needs of Roma” and that “targeting adults and/or children outside the family nucleus will not succeed in access”.

Martin Collins is the assistant director of the Irish travellers’ rights organisation Pavee Point, a group which also campaigns on issues relevant to the Roma community.

“On the 8th of April this year, International Roma day, we launched a leaflet highlighting the issues the Roma community face in education in Ireland. The key is integration and listening to the voice of the Roma themselves. Many Roma children will have parents from countries in Eastern Europe with a history of segregated education. The voice of the Roma support group needs to be heard in the formulation of policy”.

EU commission President Jose Manuel Barroso recently spoke of the need to protect the Roma from long prevailing attitudes which denigrate the community.

The problem for Barrosso, and for the EU institutions generally, is that despite the anti-discrimination polices they uphold, those long prevailing attitudes appear to be as stubborn as ever.

According to Martin Collins; “There is a need to recognise the appalling racism and discrimination in countries where Europe’s Roma originate from. Immigration is often a factor of discrimination. The voice of the European Traveller Forum, which has consultative status at EU level, needs to be heard and to be listened to”.

For Anita Elena, the challenge is to close the gap between the realities faced by the majority of the Roma community on an everyday basis and the aspirations of the EU institutions. The starting point, she suggests, is giving Roma a voice in education.

“The issues facing the Roma emerge into the media at certain times of controversy. But unless we recognise the basic issues of integration, the most obvious being education, we will learn nothing from the controversies and nothing will change”.