The European Union asked Romania to step up its efforts in integrating its large Roma minority. But the government in Bucharest has proven unable to get EU aid to the communities that need it most.
NGOs work to de-segregate education in Romania
Despite the smell of fresh paint, there is a pervasive stench of rotting garbage that litters the schoolyard at School No. 136, in Bucharest's Ferentari district. Starving stray dogs prowl around the building.
But School No. 136 is one of Ferentari's few success stories.
About 70 percent of the city's 90,000 inhabitants are Roma as are the majority of the 400 students at Scholl No. 136.
As the European governments struggle to deal with their Roma populations living in their countries, a similar struggle is playing out across Romania, which joined the EU in 2007.
A group of organizations that aim to improve the lives of Roma in Romania have begun an education program with School No. 136 and 90 other schools across Romania to support the process of integration between Roma and the rest of Romanian society.
"We are trying to provide a safe place for children off the street," said Valeriu Nicolae of the Policy Center for Roma and Minorities. "If they had the same, or better approach in every community, where children were happy to be in school, it would change the way these communities work."
The education program targets kids aged 10 to 15, predominantly Roma, who are currently exposed to high risk behavior like crime, drugs and prostitution. Most of the kids in the program are barely literate.
The aim is to keep these kids in school by providing opportunities like a football team, photography and film classes and peer mentoring. The club welcomes any kids from the ghetto who want to join.
Urgent need for improvement
Many people often occupy a one room flat in Ferentari ghetto
Social inclusion in education cannot be ignored anymore, Nicolae said, adding that 40 percent of Roma are youth and that education needed to play a prominent role in breaking the cycle of poverty in Roma communities.
Of the 10 to 12 million Roma in Europe, an estimated 2 million live in Romania, making it the largest Roma population in one country.
The European Union has committed 17 million euros ($23.3 million) to a special fund for Roma education initiatives in several EU member states. But the projects have been slow to start in Romania.
Efforts to desegregate Roma and non-Roma education, a practice Romania had said it would abolish by 2010, are being supported by the Roma Centre for Social Intervention and Studies (CRISS). But it involves more than just combining classes, according to CRISS' Cezara David.
"The problem is not just that they are physically separated, it's also about the quality of education and teacher training in Roma schools," David told Deutsche Welle, adding that desegregating schools often results in "white flight," where non-Roma parents simply remove their children from mixed classes.
Just under 10 percent of Roma children complete secondary school while less than 1 percent complete a tertiary education. Teaching staff are hard to retain too, with over 50 percent of teachers in ghetto schools leaving every year.
European integration funding
EU Commissioner Laszlo Ando with Romanian President Traian Basescu
But when it comes to funding the social integration of Roma, which EU member states have committed to by 2020, there is no shortage of cash. From 2007 until 2013, the European social fund offered 13 billion euros to help finance education and housing projects for Roma living in EU states participating in the Decade of Roma Inclusion, which began in 2005.
Presently, only a fraction of that money has been utilized by the member states. In Romania, 1 percent of the 2.25 billion euros made available by the European Social Fund has been implemented.
The low rate of absorption of the EU funds in Romania is due to a weak and inefficient civil service, as well as a lack of transparency, according to Oana Niculescu-Mizil, a member of Romanian parliament from the Ferentari District.
"It's a lack of political will," she told Deutsche Welle. "The government doesn't have experts. Even the agency for Roma is badly managed. The funds provide a lot of money which could be absorbed by Romania, but it doesn't come to Roma community. What can I say? The national strategy doesn't exist."
European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion Laszlo Andor agreed that infrastructure in Romania is weak.
"What we see in Romania and other countries is the consequences of ignorance of several decades," he said, adding that the poor are not benefiting from foreign aid.
"The role of the EU is about support and coordination, and we are ready to upgrade our efforts," he told Deutsche Welle. "But we've made it very clear the fundamental responsibility lies with member states where Roma are citizens. It's the obligation of the state to take care of people who live there."
But that's proving extremely difficult for the Romanian government. Integration projects - including the one operating at School 136 - are going bankrupt because it has not come up with the promised funds.
The closure of welfare programs like this is common in Romania, according to David Mark from the Roma Civic Alliance.
"Unfortunately this is a common story among organizations that are implementing social funds," he said. "If you are waiting for 10 months or over one year for reimbursements then how can you concentrate on problems on the ground? I think the bureaucratic overburdening of implementers is seriously affecting the impact these projects are going to have."
Author: Sasha Pavey
Editor: Sean Sinico