Roma are one of Europe’s most marginalised and deprived communities. Addressing their problems is made more difficult by lack of transparency in the methods used to collect data on them, argues Professor Yaron Matras, as a new project is launched to tackle the problem.
Europe’s Roma population suffers extreme poverty and social marginalisation. European institutions have made Roma inclusion a priority and introduced reporting mechanisms and funds to support the process. In order to formulate indicators for improvement, policymakers require a clearer picture of the target population. But reliable statistics are lacking.
There are several reasons for this. The first is that the target group is only vaguely defined in policy documents. The Roma are an ethnic minority who are geographically dispersed, but share a language, historical origins, and many customs and traditions. Some, but not all, were historically engaged in a mobile or itinerant economy. For that reason, they are often lumped together with the diverse populations that are collectively referred to as ‘Travellers’. Imagery derived from fiction and the arts groups them as ‘Gypsies’: a label that some communities, like the English Romanies, have adopted as their own self-designation, but which for outsiders generally invokes associations of a lifestyle rather than of shared origins, language, or culture.
Such lack of differentiation often enters the policy level. The Council of Europe and the European Commission tend to use ‘Roma’ as an ‘umbrella term’ for diverse populations. In the UK, the common term is ‘GRT’, which stands for ‘Gypsy, Roma, Travellers’, but the 2011 Census captured only ‘Gypsies and Irish Travellers’ while ignoring Roma. Governments use different labels when collecting census data on Roma or Travellers, and some exclude them altogether, making it difficult to arrive at an overall estimate of population size. Many Roma do not report their Romani identity for fear of discrimination.
Yet numbers constitute a powerful instrument and they can lend a sense of urgency to interventions. In the absence of reliable figures, stakeholders sometimes take the liberty of casting and moulding statistics as they see fit. In 1993, the Council of Europe admitted that reliable figures on Roma were not available, citing a range of estimates for some of the countries. These estimates produced a maximum total of five million. Currently, however, both the Council of Europe and the European Commission refer to “10-12 million Roma in Europe”. This is not based on any new evidence. Rather, it is the product of intensive lobbying by Roma associations and their supporters. When I raised the issue a few weeks ago at a forum of the Assembly of European Regions in Strasbourg, a senior member replied: “Lowering the figure would send a message that the problem is less urgent”.
This explains the motivation of lobbyists, and of experts working on their behalf, to find plausible ways to raise the estimates. In October 2013, a team of researchers at Salford University released a report that put the number of eastern European Roma migrants in the UK at 200,000. The figure has since been widely cited in the press, and a group of parliamentarians tabled a motion in which they referred to the report as “pioneering research”.
But there are fundamental flaws in the research methods. First, the team relied on questionnaires sent to local authorities, asking for the number of Roma in their locations. Only 12% were returned with a numerical estimate. Even that small set is not coherent, because it consists of responses from practitioners in different fields, based on different estimation methods (mainly anecdotal, since hard data are seldom available), and using different definitions of ‘Roma’. The authors do not disclose the actual figures received, so the sample remains impossible to verify. Yet the authors use the sample for a projection, ‘scaling-up’ the figures to fill in the missing locations – a staggering 88% – using the unrealistic assumption that Roma migrants distribute themselves evenly across the country.
The team went on to predict that the lifting of employment restrictions on Romanian nationals in January 2014 would lead to a significant influx of Roma. Unintentionally, though not surprisingly, this helped unleash a scaremongering campaign by tabloids and politicians which in hindsight we know to have been unjustified. The Salford report was part of a collaborative venture with Migration Yorkshire, a consortium of local authority and third sector agencies seeking to secure service contracts for work with Roma migrants.
In December 2014, Ofsted released a report on Roma migrant children in schools. With reference to Manchester, it claimed that 239 Roma children were registered in schools in 2013, but that the number for 2014 was estimated at 800, suggesting a more than threefold increase in just one year. Manchester City Council has since reported that, in fact, Ofsted conflated two separate datasets. The city council described the first set as a “snapshot” of Roma in schools at the time, while the second was an estimated “total” that lumped together children of various backgrounds: Roma, Travellers, Showmen and Gypsies. The impression of an increase was therefore incorrect. But the city council also admits that both figures were based on information received from a variety of different sources; they are therefore very difficult to verify.
Roma inclusion is a highly politicised topic that is often accompanied by strong emotions. At times, a conflict emerges between commitment to the cause and the diligence of evidence collection to support policies. In such cases, researchers face an ethical dilemma: to sanction vague numbers in order to amplify the need for interventions, or to insist on transparency of the methods that underlie data collection. The latter may risk exposing flaws and inconsistencies in the arguments of institutions that are in principle well meaning in their commitment to support Roma inclusion.