Balkan countries aspiring to join the European Union (EU) must do more to help Roma, refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), but assistance must target the whole community or risk isolating these impoverished and marginalized groups further, according to a new United Nations report.
“The importance of inclusive policy interventions that target the specific needs of the at-risk group but emphasize an integrative approach is particularly evident in this region, where - tragically - group identity has so often been defined along ethnic lines and has helped to fuel conflict,” UN Development Programme (UNDP) Director for Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States Kalman Mizsei said.
The UNDP report - At Risk: Roma and the Displaced in Southeast Europe - presents for the first time a wealth of survey data on the situation of Roma, refugees and IDPs in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina , Bulgaria, Croatia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, and Serbia, including the UN-administered province of Kosovo.
Roma are a diverse people, with an estimated eight million living in Europe. But in all countries of the region they are among the most likely to live in absolute poverty, to receive less education, to be shut out of the job market, to suffer worse health.
The report offers a comprehensive and statistically rich picture of the problems vulnerable groups face in the region and puts forward pragmatic, concrete policy advice on what governments, the international community and representatives of vulnerable groups themselves can do to break this vicious cycle of poverty and exclusion.
“This report comes at a key moment, with Montenegro’s recent emergence as an independent state, with the future status of Kosovo to be determined, with Bulgaria and Romania on the cusp of joining the EU,” Mr. Mizsei said.
“As the future of the Balkans is being decided we must take the opportunity to address the needs of the most vulnerable and eradicate these deep pockets of poverty which threaten the social cohesion of this fragile, post-conflict region.”
The report does not limit its analysis to the at-risk groups themselves but also examines the socioeconomic status of ‘majorities living in close proximity.’ “Exclusion of society’s vulnerable takes place at the local level, in the constant interaction with other groups. In order to foster inclusion it is vital that we understand these interactions,” the report’s lead author Andrey Ivanov said.
“What’s more, the majority populations living side by side with Roma or displaced groups often face some of the same risks - examining the overall picture can outline the common challenges that need to be addressed,” he added.
Unlike Roma, displaced persons were not necessarily vulnerable before their displacement in the Balkans upheaval of the 1990s. Most had property, homes, jobs and displacement brings a double blow: in addition to becoming refugees or IDPs, they lose their middle-class status and find themselves among the most excluded in society.
The report argues that like the Roma, the displaced need priority attention, and it underscores the importance of resolving their legal status to achieve real advances in poverty reduction and overcoming exclusion.