Thursday, 11 May, 2017

Brian Williams, UN Resident Coordinator, Albania OP-ED

Roma Day is marked internationally every April 8. We celebrate Roma values, their rich cultural contribution to our societies and our progress in enabling everyone – including Roma and Egyptians – to achieve their life`s ambitions. But it is also a moment for reflection on the challenges that Roma and Egyptian communities face, including lingering - and unacceptable - discrimination. 
During Roma Week this year, I was impressed to meet young Roma professionals who have gone from universities to jobs, Roma who have learned vocational skills and are started down a professional path, a Roma teacher who overcame societal stigma and is becoming a role model for her community, a stellar Roma singer, a young Roma woman who says she wants to be a Member of Parliament one day, and a Roma musician teaching Roma and non-Roma kids classical music in their mixed community center. Watch any one of our 2 minute videos and see for yourself:

But over the course of the last year, I have also met Roma who live in the margins of society. In September 2016, with the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Ombudsman, we visited Roma families living in deplorable conditions on a Tirana river bank. This particular story has some good news: Tirana Municipality has chosen to use Italian debt-swap money to construct new housing, and with EU funds UNDP is helping to stabilize the river bank. The Deputy High Commissioner has vowed to return this year, to see the renovated works.

But not enough stories have happy endings yet. Too many Roma and Egyptian families are living in sub-standard housing; too many kids are not finishing school; too many individuals are struggling to access healthcare; too many are in informal, sporadic employment situations. Too many reports of the Ombudsman are left unattended by parliament and Government; too much daily discrimination – too many negative assumptions and stereotyping – occurs. Evictions seem to have reduced, but any eviction that is done contrary to the law is one too many.

A year ago, the Government launched a 5-year Roma/Egyptian Action Plan. It has attracted support, including from the EU – for whom support to Roma and Egyptian communities falls under their critical priority of human rights – from Switzerland and the United Nations, among others. Plans are often dismissed as being bureaucratic or just pieces of paper, but I believe in them – because they are a way to hold us all to account.

So how is it going?

A key aspect of the plan was increasing education. Enrollment of Roma and Egyptian boys and girls in preschool and basic education more than doubled during 2016, rising from 4,996 during 2015 to 11,681.

Employment is also critical. While we don`t have data on overall Roma employment, we do know that more Roma have benefited from government efforts: government reports that 224 Roma and Egyptian youth have been employed through National Employment Service offices during 2016, compared to only 140 during 2015.

Iimproving access to health services is another priority. During 2016, government reports that 21,054 Roma and Egyptians were equipped with free health cards.

And a significant step this year was the drafting of a new law on social housing. Although yet to be passed by parliament, the draft expands significantly the range of programmes, meaning that many more Roma and Egyptians should qualify for assistance. Also during 2016, 10 municipalities received funds from the budget of the Ministry of Urban Development –more than 100 million Lek – which has so far led to small grants helping 20 families improve their homes, with more on the way.

Much more needs to be done – especially in the area of sustainable housing that builds integrated communities, fighting prejudicial attitudes in the short and long-term, and full and equal access to services. The ROMALB web portal offering data on service provision: and re-vitalized in 2016 – should help hold everyone to account.

One of the strengths of the Action Plan on Roma/Egyptian is that is outlines costs for its implementation, with clear commitments from the Government. For the full five years, the Government said it needed approximately 56 million EUR, and that it would contribute 31 million EUR, leaving a gap of 25 million EUR. For 2016, although final figures are hard to confirm as it requires multiple ministries to submit calculations, we estimate that the Government spent approximately 3,400,000 EUR. This contribution is significant, but more should be done to ensure that this commitment continues through 2017 and coming years.

For our part, the UN team in Albania considers this a social inclusion and human rights priority, with particular relevance for Sustainable Development Goal number 10 focused on inequalities. We are proud to be working closely with Government, civil society and development partners including the EU, Switzerland and Italy.

UNDP`s programme is piloting family-oriented counseling programmes, expanding mentoring and employment support activities, strengthening civil society, and undertaking participatory community mobilization that, among other results, will help with upgrading community infrastructure and enhancing their advocacy efforts. It`s focused especially on Shkodra, Durres, Tirana and Berat. Last year, 146 Roma have benefited from employment placement programmes, which supportive employers help pay for.

UNICEF supported the adoption of a new Law on Social Care Services in 2016, outlining mechanisms for local government to undertake social care services for families and children in need, including Roma and Egyptians. Hundreds of additional children have benefitted from early learning thanks to the national “Every Roma Child in the Preschool” initiative, while other efforts seek to identify out-of-school children, many of whom are Roma. And 9,000 teachers (100% of teachers working in Grades 2 and 7) have benefited from an “Inclusive Teacher Profile”. 
In the health sector, the development of the Strategic Document and Action Plan for Sexual and Reproductive Health 2017-2021, supported by UNFPA, pays particular attention to how national health programmes can better address equity, social determinants, gender and human rights. 
At the heart of Agenda 2030 is a simple principle: leave no one behind. We all have a role to play. This #romaweek, I ask everyone, not only the Government, to consider how they can behave differently to break down the barriers causing exclusion, and act inclusively.