LIVING in poverty, receiving inadequate education, and then facing dismal chances of finding work in a tight labour market. Those are three disadvantages that Roma citizens, who often live in shantytowns on the outskirts of villages and towns, face every day, along with open or latent prejudice from the majority population. The social exclusion experienced by these citizens – usually termed “the Roma problem” by many politicians and ordinary Slovaks – is one of the important areas in which the new government must develop policy prescriptions.
It is not yet clear what approach the government led by Prime Minister Robert Fico will take, but some statements by government officials give an idea of the approaches that might be taken.
“We need to decide whether we’ll have a third generation of people without any perspective in life, fully dependent on the state, or we’ll start taking measures to stop this trend,” Fico told the Hospodárske Noviny daily, adding that he thinks there are no standard methods to resolve “the Roma problem” in Slovakia, adding that the country may need to seek to modify some European human rights standards. The prime minister mentioned restricting Slovakia’s current social allowances to cover only three children and development of boarding schools for children from socially-excluded communities as possible directions.
Fico said the reason for developing boarding schools was “so that they [Roma children] see that they can also live differently,” as quoted by the Sme daily.
But Irena Bihariová, who heads an NGO called People Against Racism, told The Slovak Spectator that experiences in other countries, particularly Australia, show that boarding schools are not a solution for educating children from socially-disadvantaged groups.
“It doesn’t solve the problem of education and integration of Roma children; it only postpones it until later, to come back as a boomerang when these children leave the boarding schools,” Bihariová stated.
Regarding the prime minister’s suggestion of limiting social allowances to only three children, Bihariová said it is “forcing one’s way in through an open door” since the residents living in settlements currently do not qualify for several social allowances that are dependent on the number of children such as an additional allowance to the standard lump sum allowance that is given by the state after the birth of a first, second, and third child.
“It’s disappointing when a social-democratic party [Smer] that defines itself as against the right wing takes up the rhetoric of rightist, populist politicians,” Bihariová told The Slovak Spectator, adding that “Smer should know that lowering social standards only increases criminality and higher birth rates for minor girls, and that increasing social standards moves marginalised Roma citizens closer to the values of the majority population”.
There are options under consideration to reduce social allowances, said the Labour Ministry’s spokesperson, Michal Stuška, while adding that “under no circumstances would it affect the middle and lower classes of citizens; that would be counterproductive even for society”. Stuška refused to specify what steps the government might eventually take, saying it would be premature to comment at this point.
Stuška did tell The Slovak Spectator that the government, which is dominated by the Smer party, has stated there is little possibility that social protection benefits for families and vulnerable citizens would be reduced.
A primary challenge for the new government is the successful integration of disadvantaged groups into the labour market, Stuška added, stating that the Labour Ministry is planning to initiate numerous projects in this sphere, including some that have been under preparation for a considerable time.
“They will concern the issues of employment and social inclusion as the main supportive social programme, also with support from the European Commission,” Stuška told The Slovak Spectator, while noting that it is too early to provide specific details at this point.
E-cards under review
The previous government’s Labour Ministry initiated a programme in which recipients of social benefits in selected socially-excluded communities were given their allowances through e-pay cards rather than cash. Under this system, certain beneficiaries are enrolled in a bank account with an associated e-pay card and allowances are transferred directly to these bank accounts.
The Labour Ministry piloted the project in a small number of municipalities and Lucia Nicholsonová, the ministry’s former state secretary (i.e. deputy minister), expected the e-cards to be a tool against loan-sharking and misuse of allowances in these communities.
Bihariová expressed her opinion that Nicholsonová had correctly diagnosed the problems in socially-excluded communities but that her ministry developed counterproductive solutions, including the e-card project, “which eventually appeared more like a state order rather than a good intention”.
Initiating the e-card idea has cost the Labour Ministry a lot of money and effort, Stuška said, and for that reason the new leadership at the ministry is not making any hasty conclusions about whether to continue it. Nevertheless, Stuška told The Slovak Spectator that the ministry will thoroughly consider whether the project still makes sense since it “has significantly changed its original philosophy of reaching its set aims”. He said its continuation will primarily depend on the outcome of the ministry’s discussions with the mayors of the villages and towns that will be involved in the project.
Who will handle these issues?
The new government is not yet making decisions on how to deal with Roma issues and is still discussing the distribution of authority for these issues among various ministries since the post of deputy prime minister for minorities and human rights has now been abolished. The prime minister has said that his government is now considering creation of a new office, a plenipotentiary for minorities.
Fico said creating this position would not automatically mean scrapping the existing government post of plenipotentiary for Roma communities, currently held by Miroslav Pollák. But the prime minister suggested that the office should be moved from the capital to eastern Slovakia, the home of many Roma communities, so that it is based in “a locality most sensitive in the given relations and the Roma issue”. Fico said the office of the plenipotentiary for Roma communities might have more effective communication with mayors if it is based in a locale in the eastern part of the country rather than in Bratislava.
But Bihariová disagreed with this idea, arguing that issues faced by Roma citizens need to be resolved at a national political level.
“The plenipotentiary’s task is not acting as a mayor in the locales with a high number of Roma, but rather to coordinate processes at the level of government policy, to establish systematic changes and similar initiatives,” Bihariová told The Slovak Spectator.
30. Apr 2012 at 0:00 | Michaela Terenzani