Meeting Roma integration goals in Albania and the region

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times May 26, 2017 10:35

Story Highlights

  • RCC RI 2020 project is not starting from the scratch but is rather building up on achievements of the Roma Decade initiative, which established the grounds for public policy processes and institutional arrangements on Roma integration, as well as other large scale projects and programmes that have aimed at improving Roma living conditions across the region, including in Albania since 2003.

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Orhan Usein

An interview by Lutfi Dervishi with Orhan Usein, team leader of the Regional Cooperation Council’s Roma Integration 2020 Action Team.

Roma Integration 2020, sounds like an ambitious title project since we are already on 2017. At the end of the year 2020 what "integration" will mean for a Roma family let say in Albania?

The “Roma Integration 2020” (RCC RI 2020) links the  project with the EU Agenda 2020, focused on socio-economic development across Europe, including the enlargement region, as Roma integration is a priority and conditionality for the enlargement countries aiming to join the EU. So the governments will have to show tangible results of the integration of Roma before joining the EU, as increased attention is devoted to it.

RCC RI 2020 project is not starting from the scratch but is rather building up on achievements of the Roma Decade initiative, which established the grounds for public policy processes and institutional arrangements on Roma integration, as well as other large scale projects and programmes that have aimed at improving Roma living conditions across the region, including in Albania since 2003. In other words, it is an ongoing process which requires continuous political will, commitment of all stakeholders and cooperation between different line ministries.

The lessons learnt from past accessions suggest that promoting Roma integration does not only require an enhanced political commitment to Roma inclusion but also the allocation of appropriate resources under the national budgets, better coordination with all relevant donors and stakeholders in general, as well as the systematic evaluation and reinforced monitoring.

Therefore, the Roma Integration 2020 project, through its regional approach, and embedded into the ongoing Regional Cooperation Council’s (RCC) Strategy and Work programme 2017-2019 as well as South East Europe 2020 Strategy (SEE 2020) for the governments of Western Balkans, aims to assist governments to integrate Roma specific policy measures into the mainstream socioeconomic policies and the national budget planning and service delivery through work at national and regional level.

At the national level we provide continuous direct assistance and technical support to the governments on implementing and reporting on policies for Roma; including through consultative meetings, trainings and recommendations on policy formulations, prioritizing, mainstreaming, budgeting and monitoring. One such mechanism is through the public dialogue forums, as the one in Tirana, which aims at opening the policy process to all relevant stakeholders including the Parliament, the national and local government, NGOs and wider civil society, media and others in order to disseminate information, provide possibility for accountability and advocacy.

At the regional level, the project aims to establish regional standards applied by the governments when it comes to implementing the Strategies and Action Plans on Roma. We have organized several workshops brining diverse government delegations from the Western Balkans and Turkey to discuss issues related to Monitoring and Reporting on Roma policies as well as Budgeting for Roma integration policies. These workshops are designed with the idea to build capacities of government officials, as well as to share of best practices from the region and beyond.

In short, it is all about inclusiveness. The region needs to walk the path to EU with its entire people, and Roma cannot be left behind. It provides an opportunity for public officials in charge of policy reforms and public budgeting, to work together with their colleagues in charge of Roma issues to find ways so that schools, social centres, hospitals, and employment agencies can provide service to Roma as they do for other citizens.

Before going any further let me clarify on the term ‘Roma’. Within this initiative, the term is used as it is used by the European Commission, and refers to Roma, Sinti, Kale and related groups in Europe, including Travellers and the Eastern groups (Dom and Lom), and covers the wide diversity of the groups concerned, including persons who identify themselves as Gypsies. In the context of the RCC RI2020 participating economies, the term Roma also covers Ashkali and Egyptians as relevant.

Coming back to your question, in 2020 an average Roma or Egyptian family living in Albania will primarily have capacitated institutions to better formulate and deliver integration policies, will have better access to public services. It will be aware about the procedures for civil registry and change of residence, which will improve its access to health services. It will also increase the chances to enroll children in pre-school education and compulsory education, as well as encourage its youth to pursue university education. It will have more chances to be part of the formal labour market and will less likely live in an informal settlement. Let’s be clear that full integration requires work with generations of people, both Roma and non-Roma, and it’s a continuous process. But even for a short period of time, as up to 2020, we should set our vision ambitiously and motivationally.


Governments easily say that they subscribe to "Roma integration", but when it comes to the budgeting issues - Roma's problems are at the bottom - at best.  How can we be sure that words/promises of governments will be match by their actions?

The launching event of the Roma Integration 2020 held in June last year in Brussels showed high commitment of the participating economies. We are aware that participating economies apply different approaches to budgeting for Roma integration, including through mainstream and targeted measures as well as applying programming and itemized budgeting processes.

During the recent regional workshop that RI2020 organised in Skopje it was pointed out how important is the relationship between planning and budgeting to ensure that the policy and strategic priorities related to Roma integration are adequately reflected in mid-term and annual governments’ budgets. The challenge is how to ensure that the key objectives and priorities of the National Roma Integration Strategies and related relevant strategies and Action Plans are budgeted and implemented. The RI2020 is working both on how to budget for Roma integration policies as well as how to develop monitoring and reporting mechanism. As we speak, the participating economies are finalizing their first reports for 2016.

It should be noted that Strategies and Action Plans for the integration of Roma have been developed, most often, with the participation of the Roma civil society and the international community. Often these policies are some kind of a compromise between the good will and wishes on one hand and administrative limits on the other hand. There is a need for realistic and focused evidence-based planning. We aim at supporting governments to build their capacities for such policy formulation and budgeting. Our philosophy is that one measure per priority area would be sufficient for a year-long period, but only if it is well planned with all the necessary planning elements and it is realistic – something that can be and will be done. Step by step, we are closer to the aim of full integration


What are the commonalities and differences of Roma's situation across the region?

Roma represent about 5.5 percent in the average of the population in the Region.  Across the region Roma still face social exclusion and discrimination. That leads to lack of education, chronic unemployment, limited access to healthcare, housing, limited access to essential services and widespread poverty and no or limited participation in decision making. This is common. Another thing that all participating economies have in common is that there are no complete, accurate and undisputed statistics regarding the number of Roma. These affect policies, budget allocation and overall attention paid by the governments and other stakeholders to Roma communities. We should also be  aware that there are differences within a particular economy. Recent report produced by the Roma Integration 2020 shows, for example, that there is a great heterogeneity amongst Roma population in Albania in terms of wealth, lifestyle, level of education, challenges they face and so on.

Nevertheless, across the region, a new generation of young well-educated Roma activists is emerging. These people have created new or strengthened already existing associations and non-governmental organizations and work to empower the Roma communities. Being educated have provided them with better access in the labour market and better positioning in the society at large. It may be expected that this will lead to creating of Roma communities that are well-educated, have good jobs, financial resources and thus came out of marginalization and poverty. The empowerment of Roma communities shall be seen in the broader human rights framework in order to work towards empowerment of the other Roma generations and communities. The empowerment journey should not stop once a Roma be it a young person, or a family, or a group is better off, but should lead to actions to support the rest of the Roma communities.

We avoid comparing the economies. They all have different sizes of different Roma groups, and to large extent different political and administrative systems. Moreover, the history and the starting point of all those countries have been different, as well as the conditions and developments surrounding Roma integration policies. Therefore, it is ungrateful to compare them.  What we strive to do is to take into account the specific context when we put our efforts in building the capacities and setting the mechanisms for effective and efficient Roma integration in the economies, at the same time identifying common needs and challenges in order to set regional standards.


When we talk about best practices - can you describe a concrete example from the region?

The notion of best practice of Roma integration, in our view, is a controversial issue. What constitutes a good practice? Is that a practice that has achieved the ultimate aim – full integration of Roma in the society, preserving their distinct identity, which is sustainable over long period of time? If so, can we really speak about existence of such a good practice? However, we can talk about initiatives and practices that are promising and show positive developments and results that may grow into good practice. Or, we can talk about specific aspects of different practices that are positive and contribute to achieving the ultimate aim. There are such practices across the region, of course, and many governments and international organizations have documented and publicized those, including the European Commission.

For example, there are such practices in Albania, as the one from Lezha, where the Municipality engaged Roma and Egyptian communities in identifying a project that the two communities would benefit from.. It also gave an office to the local Roma Association providing a meeting place and formalising the relationship. At the ministerial level, many ministries have developed interesting initiatives like free training for Roma women or have allocated budget lines for Roma housing. In terms of establishing structures and mechanisms to support the implementation of the Action Plan the recent development of appointing Roma Focal Points at the ministries and local government units is very welcomed.

An interesting publication elaborating factors that contribute to the success or failure of a measure or policy aiming at Roma integration is the Decade Secretariat’s “Decade Intelligence” . I would recommend this report to all officials, central and local, working on development and implementing Roma integration policies.


Only 7% of the businesses in SEE say that they hire Roma. What can be done to change the situation?

Deeply rooted stereotypes and prejudice falsely portray Roma as unsuitable work force, prone to stilling, avoiding work, creating uncomfortable work environments. This is, of course, not true. It is a generalization that stigmatizes Roma, who most often have to work 5 times harder to prove worthy as the non-Roma. That is if they ever get the chance to prove it. Even when businesspersons are open to hiring Roma, they are aware of this widespread stigma in the general population, including their potential clients. Therefore, most of them do not consider Roma in their workforce. There are, however, socially responsible companies that are not interested only in profits, but also in their contribution to a better society. These are the once that are ready to hire Roma.

Changing stereotypes and prejudice, reverting discrimination towards Roma, in all areas, including employment, is a hard, long and resource-demanding process. But most of all it needs commitment, consistency and determination by the leadership and their own freedom from prejudice. Changing beliefs and attitudes is the most difficult task of a leadership. It requires long-term interventions in the education, media, legislation and other spheres of life that provide opportunity to building tolerance, understanding and equality. It also requires good examples among the Roma. There are such examples, but we need more of them and we need their inclusion in all spheres of the society in order to spread out the good word.


One big problem for Roma people in Albania is registration, and that is the main reason why numbers of  Roma asylum seekers from Albania to Germany is low. What can be done to address this issue?

Roma population has lived dramatic and precarious change of their social and economic situation in the post-socialist times and the transition to a market economy. They moved from a relative integration into the mainstream society to a marginalization in extreme poverty, including losing their legal status in many cases. One must be aware that the issue of legal invisibility is in particular relevant to generations born after the collapse of the former regime - many children were not registered and the trend persists.

However, bureaucracy often did not change ast quickly as the socio-economic situation of the citizens. Difficult procedures and the principle of citizens approaching public service, rather than the other way around, remained. Citizens, particularly those in most vulnerable positions, were forced to pay more and more efforts to their surviving strategies, while at the same time public services were not reaching out to them. This was the case with a number of public services, not only civil registration, which influenced further deterioration of the situation.

Becoming aware of the issue, governments have attempted to solve it. There were, for example, measures to encourage civil registration, such as exemption from administrative fees, informative campaigns, etc. The most effective measures are those including reaching out to people, such as in Serbia through Roma mediators. Measures such these resulted in significant drop in the number of legally invisible persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, for example. We hope Albania will follow the good example and learn from its partners in the Roma Integration 2020 on this issue.


Housing/unemployment are another big problem for Roma and not only for them. Government across the region have failed to address those issues in general. What can they particularly do to address this issues for Roma community?

The Decade of Roma Inclusion made significant progress in the area of education across the region. Education was believed to be the key to ending the vicious circle of poverty and a starting point to progress in all other areas. While this is partially true, a person, regardless of level of her/his  education, cannot progress in life without a roof over the head or without income providing job and ensuring food on the table. This is an approach  we try to promote  - an integral one, , when the integration efforts deal simultaneously with all the needs of a person or family.

Housing and employment are important and, as you noted, still represent a significant problem. Moreover, trends show that while unemployment is being reduced among Roma, employment is not increasing, but informal employment is. In housing, segregation seems to be on the raise. This is evident from the data of the Roma Inclusion Index.

The good example of education from the Roma Decade may provide for a more comprehensive approach to these issues. Internationally, an institution was created – the Roma Education Fund (REF), which works on the two most important levels simultaneously: intervening in the official education policies to remove obstacles for education of Roma, and providing direct support to Roma for and in education. It has to be noted that REF was well resourced to do this comprehensive job both with funding and with capable Roma staff. Similar structures may be introduced in housing, and in particularly in employment at regional level. We hope to work with the governments to develop this idea.


What do you expect from Public Dialogue Forum in Tirana?

I would like to recall that this is the first such event in Albania organized under the framework of the RCC’s Roma Integration 2020 initiative. We expect that it will bring together a wide spectre of relevant stakeholders from the government, both at the local and national level, to the civil society and academia as well as international stakeholders.  In other words, around 70 persons with vast and relevant experience and ideas discussing the achievements related to the implementation of the National Action Plan for Integration of Roma and Egyptian (2016-2020) in 6 priority areas; civil registration and access to justice, education, employment, health, housing and social protection and building on the lessons learnt the priorities for 2018. It is also expected that a reference will be made to the operational conclusions of the 2016 EU Roma seminar. Finally, we expect to discuss the implementation of priority measures for 2017 and 2018, including the monitoring and budgeting process.


Originally from Ohrid, Macedonia, Orhan Usein  is the Team Leader of RCC’s Roma Integration 2020 Action Team. He holds an MA Degree in International Relations and European Studies from the Central European University. Before joining the RCC, Mr Usein worked for the Decade of Roma Inclusion Secretariat Foundation as Program Manager responsible for providing conceptual, operational and technical support to the Roma Decade countries. In 2012, Mr Usein was a Lantos Fellow at the United States House of Representatives working in the office of Congressman Elliot L. Engels. While there, he wrote several statements for the Congressman on the situation of Roma in Europe. Mr Usein was a representative of the Advisory Council on Youth in the Council of Europe. He has also worked in various capacities for the Roma Education Fund, the European Roma Rights Centre and the European Commission.

Within the Roma Integration 2020 Action Team Mr Usein is responsible for the overall coordination and implementation of the project between the European Commission, the RCC Secretariat, the National Roma Contact Points and the Open Society Foundations. More concretely, he manages the project by engaging the respective economies in the process of Roma integration driven by the EU accession and national budget-timing, as well as by facilitating peer learning, expert input and civil society engagement. Mr Usein’s tasks include streamlining the initiative with the RCC work; cooperating with the Roma Integration 2020 Task Force; assisting economies with the usage of the monitoring and reporting template; representing the RCC Action Team at international and national events; and coordinating communication. Besides overseeing the work in each participating economy, Mr Usein also serves as a desk officer for Bosnia and Herzegovina.


Tirana Times
By Tirana Times May 26, 2017 10:35