Within the framework of Roma Week 2023, the International Step by Step Association (ISSA) through its REYN initiative, and together with the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), Eurochild, and the Minority Initiative, held a public event at the European Parliament in Brussels on April 27, 2023. The session, titled “Unlocking the Potential of Young Roma Children in Europe” was hosted by Dr. Milan Brglez, Member of the European Parliament (Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats).
Moderated by Tomas de Jong, Junior Policy Manager for Health Equity (EPHA), the meeting highlighted the importance of early childhood development to help Roma children in Europe grow and thrive, despite the structural barriers they are repeatedly faced with. It also brought to light the issue of school segregation and the overrepresentation of Roma children in institutional care. The meeting concluded by galvanizing European and national policymakers to take action in the early years.
Roma children in Europe not given the opportunity to thrive
The meeting started with a keynote speech by MEP, Dr. Milan Brglez, Vice-Chair of the Intergroup on children’s rights and member of the Committee of Employment and Social Affairs. In his opening statement, he said, “As a father, pedagogue and politician, I can confirm that there is no greater satisfaction than helping children and young people to thrive, recognize and realize their potential in a world full of challenges.”
The reality in which Roma children live often makes it very difficult, however, for them to develop and thrive. He argued that “unequal opportunities for Roma children to take full advantage of their potential are not only unjust and in violation of their fundamental rights, but also to the detriment of the Roma community and society as a whole as they perpetuate the intergenerational social hardship and exclusion.”
“To break the vicious circle of inequality that Roma children and their families face, we must first understand and raise awareness about the conundrum of structural determinants and obstacles coupled with antigypsyism and intersectional discrimination that negatively affect the lives of Roma from the earliest years of childhood.”
New data about the situation of young Roma children in Europe
Following Dr. Brglez, Aljosa Rudas, Program Manager at ISSA and coordinator of the REYN Initiative, referred to the scientific evidence that states that the first six years of a child’s life are critical in determining their future outcomes, and introduced the recent European REYN Early Childhood Research Study. Conducted in 11 countries, the study brings together unprecedented Roma-related early childhood data, exploring six key areas that impact a child’s holistic development, including discrimination and antigypsyism. The report also contains recommendations for coordinated European and national action to support the inclusion of Roma children.
Experiences of antigypsyism and poverty
Next, Reneta Krivozova, Policy and Advocacy Officer on Child Poverty at Eurochild, presented a new project taking place in Bulgaria, which to improve the lives of people living in disadvantaged situations — especially Roma populations as 86% live in poverty. Currently, there is an overrepresentation of Roma children in care. The project gathers evidence on how to prevent family separation and support families before children enter into care.
Expanding on the issue of the institutionalization of Roma children, Tanja Vasić, of the Minority Initiative, Austria, highlighted the large scale of the problem in Europe and that alternative care is hardly available for Roma children due to systemic racism and antigypsyism. Ms Vasić provided some suggestions on how to provide support to Roma National Strategies to ensure that alternative care is provided for Roma children. She stated that, “If we want to change something for those children, we have to change relations: we have to change how people treat Roma families.”
Call to action/ongoing initiatives
Agata D’Addato, Head of Program at Eurochild presented the First Years, First Priority campaign which works to bring early childhood development onto the EU policy and funding agenda. The campaign focuses especially on children from birth to three years of age and on those children who are facing the biggest disadvantage — such as Roma, migrants and refugees, children living in poverty or in institutions, and children with special needs or disabilities.
Francesca Colombo is a Program Manager at ISSA and works on the First Years First Priority campaign. She highlighted that for the campaign to be successful — ensuring that all young children aged 0 to 6 have equal opportunities for safe, healthy and optimal development — it is crucial to have evidence and data about the situation of the most vulnerable young children and their families, including Roma children, in order to be able to combat the discrimination and exclusion they face and be able to support them effectively.
“There is no quality in ECEC services if there is no inclusion”
Geraldine Libreau, Policy Officer for Early Childhood Education and Care at the European Commission, opened her speech with these words. She outlined potential avenues for action from the European Commission to break the circle of discrimination. She also highlighted the important efforts of the European Working Group on Early Childhood Care and Education in having inclusion as a key pillar of an integrated and holistic approach for the early years.
Voices from the field
Participants also had the opportunity to share their insights, including encouraging and successful practices. Zsuzsa Laszlo, National Coordinator of REYN Hungary shared the importance of working with Roma ECD professionals. She noted that, “Quality education in early childhood is only possible if we pay attention to the professionals who work with Roma and refugee children.”
Roma children must have equal access to opportunities
The meeting was closed by Mr Dragos Pîslaru MEP, Chair of the European Parliament Committee on Employment and Social Affairs. In his concluding remarks he urged EU Member States to comply with their obligations and take action to meet the needs of Roma people, and Roma children in particular. He argued that “It is crucial to see and feel the types of challenges that Roma children are facing” and emphasized that, “We cannot stop until each and every child in a Roma community has equal opportunities to access the same services as children in other communities.”