Ambassador Jørn E. Gjelstad on Roma Inclusion and Empowerment

Ambassador Jørn E. Gjelstad´s speech at the stakeholder conference for the EEA Grants programme on Roma Inclusion and Empowerment. The conference took place 23 January 2018.

Kalimera-sas,

Your Excellency Minister Antonopoulou,

Your Excellency Minister Fotiou

Distinguished guests, friends,

 

It is with excitement and expectations I participate here today at the Stakeholder Meeting on Roma inclusion and Empowerment. Our discussions of ideas and challenges will shape the way we will work, and lay the foundation of the EEA & Norway Grants programme for the new period.

 

Let me first say a few words about why Norway is present, and secondly, why we give high priority to the Roma Inclusion and Empowerment in Greece. I will then share some lessons from our project experience with Roma in Norway and other EEA grants countries. This I hope you will bring with you into the discussion.

 

Norway is here today because we are the main donor of the EEA & Norway grants. Let me briefly explain for those of you that are not very familiar with this mechanism. The EEA refers to the European Economic Area. As Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein are European countries that are not formally members of the European Union, we have a separate agreement that gives us access to the single European market through the EEA agreement. In return, we provide substantial funding earmarked for reducing economic and social disparities in selected European countries. This funding also has the aim of strengthening bilateral relations with the EU countries in Central and Southern Europe, and Greece is one of them.

 

When it comes to reducing social and economic disparities in Europe, the Roma people is a group in particular need of attention. As we know, the Roma is Europe’s largest minority, but also the most severely marginalized and vulnerable one throughout the whole continent. Poor living conditions combined with intolerance, discrimination and social exclusion – this is the everyday-life-experience for many Roma people.

 

I will, in the following make some brief reflections and observations on this issue.

 

Norway has its own challenges when it comes to the task of successfully integrating the Roma people. Our resident Roma population is a lot smaller than that of Greece; it is under 1000, while in Greece the number is estimated to be around 265 000. Since the accession of Romania to the EU and in the wake of the economic crisis in Europe, Norway has experienced a large influx of migrants from marginalized segments of the Romanian society, in particular Roma. They make their living through subsistence activities like begging, collecting bottles or other types of street work. Others make their living as street musician. Many Roma are extraordinary artistically gifted, in particular in the area of music. Being a music fanatic and speaking on Roma and music, it is impossible not to mention legendary Roma guitar virtuosos such as Django Reinhardt and the Rosenbergs. These musicians are true masters of the art.

 

Roma is a recognized minority in Norway. Since the 70s various Norwegian governments have run programs to alleviate their daily struggle, and to integrate them into society. This has not always been easy.

 

Norway is a signatory of the European Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. Our ratification in 1999 commits us to contribute actively to safeguard their rights, to end discrimination and to ensure equality before the law for all groups and individuals. We are also committed to offer minorities full and effective opportunities to participate in our society, be it in culture, economic or public life, on an equal footing with the rest of the population.

 

When it comes to the Roma minority, I have to admit that governmental efforts is still lagging behind also in Norway. However, a comprehensive action plan was developed in 1999, and various programmes have been implemented since then. In addition, our civil society has been active. Several NGOs and grass-root organization have through the years complemented governmental activities and carried out important work in helping the Roma. However, major challenges still remains. That leads me to the following question: do we have an adequate strategy and are we focusing on the right measures?

 

Our experiences so far within this area have thought us valuable lessons, and I will revert to this shortly.

 

But first a few words about this programme.

The main objective of the programme is to improve living standards and strengthen social inclusion of this minority. In order to achieve this goal, we have to improve the quality of the housing conditions in settlements and neighborhoods. At the same time we have to significantly improve the Roma’s access to education and the labour market. As we know, many Roma live in dwellings of a makeshift nature, without basic services such as electricity, water and sewage system. They also experience harassment, discrimination and exclusion from the society at large.  Prejudices and hostility limit their access to education and employment. And in order tackle these constraints, we have to work along many avenues in a holistic fashion.

 

 Even though the programme will center on housing, there is a need to see the situation holistically and simultaneously consider how to address challenges like schooling, work and access to social services.

 

The question is how we proceed to achieve our goals. Norway has experience from home, and we can also draw on past experiences from EEA & Norway Grants programmes implemented in other countries with a sizeable Roma minorities, such as Romania and Bulgaria.

 

The number one lesson and recommendation for successfully reaching out to the Roma population is to engage them directly in planning and implementation. In order to reach out effectively with health care, school programmes, or  housing projects, a well calibrated coordination with a Roma representative is key. Such a person can build bridges and trust, and improve communications with the larger community. We do know that this strategy has proven valuable.

 

Effective communication is in this context imperative, and will be a core component of this project. In addition to having an intermediary from the Roma community, we know from the experiences of teachers and health workers that a dedicated contact person representing the Roma parents at school, in the health clinic or at the hospital will also make a significant difference. Roma people has often a lack of knowledge about how various systems do work, and a correspondingly little trust in these systems. The cooperation with a person, who understands the Roma and especially the different Roma groups and their needs, has proven valuable.

 

Therefor project employment of Roma assistants at school should be considered as a measure of strategic importance. These professionals can also serve as important role models in such an environment. I believe that one of our most demanding tasks in this regard is to champion role models that can inspire young Roma to dare to develop their ambitions and dreams for the future.

 

Sometimes funding is well targeted and works. In Slovakia, with the EEA grants, we have funded a partnership with the University of Economics in Bratislava. This in order to strengthen the education of Roma youth. By providing free courses, scholarships, and extra coaching, the programme -  “You also have a chance” - helps Roma youth to have access to higher education. This has resulted successfully in new enrollments of Roma students to the mentioned university, which prior to this programme had no Roma students at all. The educational programme is still running, and Roma students can apply for participation in 2018.

 

A second lesson I want to highlight today is the importance of the society around the Roma. We have to work on general attitudes within the society. We have to recognize that being discriminated and harassed breaks down thrust, confidence and self esteem, and offset Roma-individual’s belief in any system they have to relate to. This is the key factor in Roma parents’ reluctance to send their children to school, as well as the children’s lack of motivation to participate in school programmes.

 

In a survey carried out in Norway amongst migrant Roma parents, more than 80% conveyed that they believe their children will get a better life if they can go to school and acquire necessary skills and competence. The findings of this survey do not confirm the frequent cited stereotype that Roma parents do not want schooling for their children. However, many parents are still worried for what kind of environment their children will meet or be confronted with at school.

 

Both authorities and organisations can give the Roma the right and the opportunity to be a part of our communities, educational systems and workforce. But at the end of the day it is the attitude of the people inside these systems that makes the difference. Their attitude will ultimately influence a Roma’s decision whether to stay or to go.

 

Past projects have also taught us the importance of having local authorities onboard. Mayors and public actors should take ownership in our projects and committ themselves to holistic efforts that will involve both housing, schooling and social services.

 

I really do hope we will take these reflections into account in todays discussions on how to implement good and sustainable projects. I have no doubts that we can address this in a constructive matter at this Stakeholder Meeting. Today, we have gathered a diverse group of participants, ranging from key government institutions and local authorities to non-governmental actors. Everyone bringing in and contributing with their own competence, skills, experience and vision.

 

Before I end, please let me also address a few points on Norway’s broader engagement in Greece for the coming years. In the context of the new programme period, we will also see a strong program-focus on entrepreneurship and innovation, in particular with a view to the young educated people in this country. Opportunities for the new young generation have to be created. Efforts will also be made to strengthen Greek research on innovative technology. There will be a strong focus on green energy and resource management programs, the Greek civil society organizations, the poorest segment of the Greek society, the public administration’s digitalization services, the Greek Ombudsman, and the Greek Government’s fight against corruption. All these areas stand out as important benchmarks for us.

 

In closing, I will urge you all to be creative and inventive in our discussions today. Make sure that synergies are created, and that all relevant aspects of the potential for Roma inclusion and empowerment are being considered. If we succeed, some of the Roma will be given the same opportunities as the rest of the citizens, which in turn will benefit the whole society. Social inclusion of all groups in society is important, both for welfare and equality reasons, as well as to build trust and promote social stability. Therefore, we must find ways to remove the conditions that contributes to systematic disadvantages for a vulnerable group to the rest of the population. I am sure that we will find this way. Together we will make the difference!

 

Thank you for your attention.