Better inclusion of the Roma through civil society initiatives

Sep 18 2014
As part of the project on "Better inclusion of the Roma through civil society initiatives", three members of the coordination group and one member of the SOC secretariat took part in the first country study trip to Helsinki, Finland, on 2 and 3 June 2014.


2 and 3 June 2014


MEMBERS: Ákos Topolánszky (GR 3), Ivan Kokalov (Gr 2), Madi Sharma (GR 1)

SOC Secretariat: Valeria Atzori



As part of the project on "Better inclusion of the Roma through civil society initiatives", three members of the coordination group and one member of the SOC secretariat took part in the first country study trip to Helsinki, Finland, on 2 and 3 June 2014.


The visit was made possible by the very generous and professional support and assistance of Ms Viveca Arrhenius, the Roma National Contact Point for Finland, who also stayed with us for the entire length of the visit and interpreted where necessary.


The programme began with a visit to the National Advisory Board on Romani Affairs. This structure brings together representatives of different ministries (foreign affairs, education, social affairs, health, etc…) and Finnish national Roma organisations. The great majority of the representatives of the government bodies were Roma, which was a strong sign of the developed political culture and commitment of the Finnish government when it comes to implementing their Roma policy.


The first to speak were Sarita Friman-Korpela, senior adviser at the National Advisory Board on Romani Affairs, and Väinö Lindberg, deputy chairman of the Regional Advisory Board on Romani Affairs. They outlined the main achievements of the last 50 years of Roma policy in Finland. The Roma population in Finland is rather homogenous: they settled here 500 years ago and there have been few travellers due to the harsh winter conditions and difficult language. However, it took time to build mutual trust and understanding between the Roma and non-Roma communities. Participation of Roma was paramount and in the Finnish system they were represented at all levels of policy making. Equality had to be seen and perceived in everyday life and should not be a mere formality. Finland had also had a president who was very supportive of the Roma cause: committed politicians were an essential element of success. Finally, sufficient financial resources were needed. According to Ms Friman-Korpela, many mistakes had been made but they had tried to learn from them and make the necessary policy changes. The breakthrough was the first dedicated housing programme in the late 1970s in order to set minimum standards in housing policy, as well the commitment to implementing it to ensure appropriate living conditions. This made it possible to stabilise the general social and living conditions and educational opportunities for Roma, who until then had been itinerant.


Then, Ms Henna Huttu presented information on the National Advisory Board on Romani affairs: the structure was established in 1956 and is composed of 16 members, half of whom are nominated by Roma NGOs and Regional Advisory Boards and half by the government ministries. Its main tasks were to monitor the development of the situation concerning Roma, make proposals, fight discrimination and promote the Romani language and culture. There were also Regional Advisory Boards and Local Roma working groups. The local Roma working groups were established in 2001 and were present in 20 municipalities. They focused on activities and services for the local Roma population and were voluntary.


The main achievements of the last 50 years of Roma Policy in Finland were:


  • The Roma Housing Act (1970s) to address the problem of housing
  • The establishment of a Roma Education Unit in 1994
  • The establishment of a Regional Advisory Board in 2003 to improve Roma participation
  • The integration of Roma in broad terms in Finnish society today.


The Government had published a book on the history of Finnish Roma funded by the Ministry of Education and Culture.

The main challenges ahead were to widen the scope of Roma policy and to secure more resources.


Ms Satu Blomerus gave a presentation on the education of Roma people. The Finnish education system provided all children with a free education in Finnish or Swedish from the ages of 7 to 17. Different teaching methods were used, there was cooperation between home and school and every pupil received carefully planned support. A Roma education group was founded in 1994. It had three employees, two of whom were Roma. Moreover, the government provided financial assistance for the basic education of Roma people. In the period 2008-2014, 37 municipalities with the largest numbers of Roma residents received such assistance. This aid reached an estimated 85% of Roma pupils. Municipalities had to apply for the grant and the final amount depended on the number of Roma living there. The programme offered a number of examples of best practice:


  • Roma parents' seminars: to foster cooperation between home and school and build confidence
  • Further education of teachers and other staff
  • School assistance for pupils with special needs given by people with a Roma background (also provided to non-Roma children)
  • After-school activities (always on a voluntary basis): homework support, sport activities, snacks and meals. Activities for parents as well (information about school, parenting, etc.)
  • Support for further studies


With the Romani language in an increasingly precarious position for different reasons (better conditions in the labour market, assimilation, urbanisation, families of mixed ethnic background, etc.), the Finnish government had decided to protect it by providing two hours of class tuition per week for a minimum of two pupils, in addition to what they called "language nest activities" (for persons of all ages – mainly verbal activities).


A survey on the education of Roma was conducted in 2010-2011. It was addressed to headmasters, Roma parents, caregivers and pupils. 1 341 schools took part. The results were encouraging. A majority of Roma pupils perform well at school and 94% of the headmasters felt that cooperation between Roma homes and schools was good. Bullying exists but was not felt to be a big problem by Roma children. The biggest problem remained absenteeism. Over the last 10 years, the number of pupils going on to vocational training after basic education had doubled.


Henry Hedman, a professor at the University of Helsinki of Roma background, spoke about the Romani language. There were two main dialects spoken in Finland and considered by UNESCO to be among the most endangered languages. As few as 13% of Roma now spoke their original language. 80% of Roma children had not received any Romani language instruction. The main obstacles were the lack of teachers and written learning material. Language revitalisation was one of the objectives of national policy on Roma. Romani was now been taught at the University of Helsinki as an optional subject, and there were six doctoral students carrying out research on it. A television channel in Romani would be a big achievement.


Pirjo Kruskopf from the office of the Ombudsman for Minorities spoke about discrimination against Roma in housing and working life. She also discussed the legal situation: citizenship was granted on the basis of the Nationality Act of 1919. Cultural and linguistic rights were guaranteed by the Constitution and the Non-discrimination Act of 2004.


Statistical data on Roma is limited because of Finnish law on the protection of personal data (no sensitive information, such as ethnic origin, can be collected). The available sources show that they are generally in a weaker position than the rest of the population. The Ombudsman for Minorities prevents and tackles ethnic discrimination. Roma are their largest group of clients and they face most of the problems in housing. A survey took place in 2013 based on 250 interviews on housing and working life, and showed that 69% of Roma have experienced discrimination but they also have a very keen awareness of their rights, which is considered to be one of the most important drivers of progress in anti-discrimination policy. 54% had experienced some discrimination in working life. This affected young Roma in particular, or Roma with traditional clothing and who did not have any vocational or higher education. Proposed measures included improving the educational level of Roma, increasing transparency in the recruitment process, teaching job seeking skills, and dialogue with employers on a diverse dress code. With regard to housing, 50% had experienced discrimination when applying for rental housing. This rate was higher than in other countries, especially for the private market. Despite that there was no segregation; a lot of complaints were presented to the Ombudsman. Stronger action and commitment by politicians was needed.


Panu Artemjeff and Sarita Friman of the Ministry of Interior illustrated the work on equality and measures to tackle discrimination. A number of legislative acts and agreements had been put in place. Within the Ministry of Interior, an Equality Team coordinated government equality policies. Guidebooks for equality planning for the public sector and NGOs had been produced, and a number of officials in the administration, police, etc. had undergone training. A specific website which collects information on Roma policies, culture, history and language had been created (Roma Portal).

In the afternoon, we went to the Meilahti recreation centre, where we met a group of elderly Roma women who participate in a project. The project allows them to meet regularly and organise a large number of activities. Our contact point, Ms Arrhenius, had met them beforehand and explained the purpose of our visit. They were very pleased with the interest in their stories and were very willing to talk about their past experiences. All of them agreed that until the 1950s, the situation was very difficult. Most of them had experienced discrimination at work, and had no education or housing. Most of them were travellers at that time who had been forced to move each day with their tents. Some had even been arrested for begging in the street and their children taken into custody. The situation had improved by the 1960s. They were given access to housing and received income support. Access to healthcare services was now good as the healthcare centres provided assistance free of charge. The messages they wanted to pass to the younger generations were: get an education, a job and a family, in order to preserve the Romani language and Roma religious values.


In the evening we were invited to dinner by Ms Arrhenius and we had the opportunity to speak with two Roma and listen to their experiences, which enriched our understanding of Finnish Roma policy. It was important evidence of the balanced and integrated policy measures and public policy culture existing in Finland.


On the second day, we left for the City of Vantaa. The vice mayor Heidi Nygren presented some data about the city: 205 000 inhabitants, 2 000 of whom were Roma. The local Roma working group had been set up in 1993. The Roma employment rate was lower than in other parts of Finland and only 2% of Roma children went to school. The main achievements of the local group had been: the Roma Day celebration, initiatives to ask for funding for Roma children's education from the national Board of Education, and preparation of a pilot project for the European Social Fund. On this point, at the moment they were looking for partners in neighbouring cities. Education, employment and participation were the themes and the target group was Roma between 18 and 40 years of age. There would be public hearings and outreach work.


Väinö Lindberg spoke about the situation of Roma in Turku. Measures targeting Roma were introduced as early as the 1970s, in cooperation with the local Lutheran church. The city council had adopted a strategy for Roma integration as well as equality plans, and they encompassed all branches of life.


We then met various representatives of Roma NGOs:


  • Tuula Åkerlund from Romani Missio ry.

This organisation was the oldest in Finland and has 400 members. They offered advice on housing, employment, education and social issues. They awarded scholarships and had two large houses for children. They also provided information to schools and local authorities. Moreover, they published a newspaper called Romani boodos ("Romani message"). The funds came from local municipalities and churches. They were currently working on a project which targeted women in prisons. The aim was to prevent crime among imprisoned women and offer a rehabilitative programme. The results had been excellent.


  • Tiina Pirttilahti from the Finnish Roma Association.

This organisation was created in 1976 and currently had volunteers and one employee. They offered consultation to Roma, gave lectures and published books. They often worked with other NGOs (for example, on a project on domestic violence). Now they had two projects: one for elderly women (that we visited the previous day) and one for young people.


  • Tino Varjola from the National Roma Forum of Finland (Suomen Romanifoorumi ry).

The Forum was established in 2007 and now included 8 NGOs. Their main activity was capacity building for NGOs, such as training in how to apply for funds. They also cooperated with ecclesiastical bodies and were involved in Roma policy in Finland. In general, Finnish Roma were happy in Finland and had faith in its institutions, but it was felt that populism was a growing phenomenon in Europe and Finland was no exception.


  • Paivi Majaniemi from the Finnish League for Human Rights.

A project on Roma was begun in 2007 with the purpose of making Roma aware of discrimination and their rights. Training had been offered for that purpose. Discrimination also sometimes occurred inside the Roma community (along gender lines, among others).


At the end of the morning, we had time to talk freely with the other participants: we were told that the Roma in Finland were in a relatively strong position in comparison with those in other Member States, and that education of Roma children was crucial.




Conclusions, Finland


  • An important message from Finland is that it is possible to pursue determined and effective public policies based on a comprehensive approach to the social situation of the Roma, and thus achieve fundamental changes. Important lessons can be learned from this, even though the Finnish example appears to be one of a kind.


  • The main factor is the kind of political will which is embedded in a highly developed and uncontested general culture of democracy, with commitment from successive governments over the decades. For such a policy, which deals with the social group most severely exposed to segregation and discrimination, it is important to avoid the trap of thinking in terms of electoral cycles and maximising votes.


  • This requires not only insight but also consistent implementation of long-term political commitments transcending individual governments' terms of office - a common concern in relation to Roma policy, but one which is not addressed elsewhere. Political will among decision-makers and political leaders (prime ministers, heads of state, ministers) can bring about change; by contrast, its absence may perpetuate the situation or lead to its deterioration.


  • Acknowledging this fact and systematically acting on it means policies which can learn from mistakes.


  • The breakthrough came with a radical rights-based change in housing policy, leading to gradually improving housing standards. Proper social and existential conditions are helping to improve educational opportunities too.


  • Coordination mechanisms more or less systematically coordinate all levels with consistent involvement of all stakeholders. There is a culture which goes beyond consultation, and platforms for continuous dialogue.


  • Together with an integrated approach to education, it is also important to maintain efforts to fine-tune educational programmes, with the involvement of parents, initiatives to give pupils a second chance, teacher training, after-school activities, programmes supporting further education, development of special teaching aids, etc.


  • It is essential to promote Roma culture and language, together with a positive identity (preserving culture, language and festivals, supporting cultural and media products, etc.). Taking pride in one's Roma identity offers great potential.


  • Uncompromising action against discrimination is needed, with consistent representation by decision-makers at national and local level, supported by authorities responsible for equal treatment, ombudsmen and law enforcement agencies generally. Continuous efforts are needed to make those concerned aware of their rights. Mechanisms to enforce rights must be as easily accessible as possible.


  • Perhaps the most convincing aspect of the Finnish example and its main message is the fact that those concerned are involved and help to take decisions. The Roma were well represented during all our encounters with Roma policy.


  • In Finland the Roma do not only participate in processes but also confidently shape their destinies through formal and informal communities. Their environment not only accepts but also supports this situation. Prospects for integration are significantly improved as a result. However, one warning sign is that despite these positive developments we can still see significant levels of the mutually reinforcing phenomena of segregation and discrimination.


  • The progressive attitude of the churches and their involvement in developing local communities should be acknowledged.


  • These issues are systematically managed as a government policy, translating into an integrated approach based on coordination in all relevant areas, rather than mere project-based programming.


  • This policy has to be adapted to individuals and small communities, in line with living conditions, needs and capacities in local communities.


  • To ensure that the policy is not just a communication tool and goes beyond mere declarations, adequate funding is needed, enabling forward planning. Programme support should be neither "excessive" nor symbolic, but realistic.


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