No place like home

Sinti and Roma should be banned from city centres. According to a recent study on authoritarianism, 49.2% of Germans agree with this statement. Moreover, more than 60 per cent of respondents said they believe these minority groups are predisposed to criminality.

No wonder that Katarina Niewiedzial, Commissioner of the Berlin Senate for Migration and Integration, says, “the widespread anti-gypsyism attitude represents the biggest hurdle for the societal participation of migrant Roma.”

This picture applies both to Roma with EU citizenship as well as third country nationals living in Germany. But it only portrays half a story. Berlin is taking action to ensure that newly arrived Roma, and every resident, has the right and possibility to actively participate in society through access to work and public services.

Enabling participation

Although Germany does not collect ethnic data – a result of the former National Socialist regime – meaning that no accurate statistics on the number or origin of foreign Roma living in Berlin actually exist, it’s clear that the number of Roma coming to Berlin has increased over recent years, alongside other new arrivals.

“For migrant Roma, the first challenge is to overcome the widespread prejudice. The anti-gypsyist attitudes affect to a great extent the access to labour, education, health and proper housing,” says Niewiedzial.

Consequently, Berlin’s action plan on migrant and Roma inclusion, which is based on the EU framework, focusses on three core areas: improving access to public services; the promotion of self-organisation for Roma; and fighting anti-gypsyism. It is worth pointing out, too, that while many of these actions are geared towards Roma, they are also made available for other vulnerable migrants.

“It’s important to support measures that enable participation as the institutional and social barriers are still very high. For Berlin it is essential to ensure equal access to public services for migrant Roma,” says Niewiedzial.

The city administration is therefore involved in many aspects of Roma participation, from running projects on community building, to providing counselling for youngsters in school or housing for families who are unable to access welfare benefits.

Accessing services

On principle, Berlin allows access for Roma families to all of its education and training institutions. However, this is not always so straightforward because of a range of different individual needs and it not always being clear how to place children in the German school system.

With this in mind, Berlin has established ‘learning groups’ for newly arrived migrant children that lack any knowledge of German. In these classes they are taught German, made literate if necessary, and prepared for joining mainstream education.

However, another hurdle for the local authorities has been that newly arrived Roma parents have not found participation in existing structures very easy, and have taken it upon themselves to set up new structures, meaning that a more holistic approach is needed towards Roma participation.

This has meant, for instance, organising social work at schools to provide advice and support for Roma pupils and their families for help with things like school enrolment, translation or conflict prevention and mediation. The idea is to build familiarity with the school environment, thus encouraging greater participation.

Another focus has been on vocational education and training. The ‘Training in Sight’ programme, which prepares youth for vocational training and work placements, has made special efforts to reach out to Roma youth, even though it is open to all young people.

“Difficult access to housing is also a challenge in connection with the lack of affordable living spaces in Berlin,” comments Niewiedzial. “Roma are more affected through the double challenge of prejudice. The Berlin action plan on Roma inclusion partially addresses this issue through a project – Nostels – targeting families without entitlement to social welfare. The beneficiary families get temporary sheltering, support for job seeking and counselling on access to social rights, education and health services.”

Another reference for housing needs is the Contact Point for European Migrant Workers and Roma in Berlin, which advises newly arrived Roma on housing matters. Since 2010, it has reported numerous times about how some landlords are willing to take advantage of the vulnerable social position of many Roma, by renting accommodation that does not have heating or electricity, for example, or of families losing their apartments overnight – a breach of German tenancy law.

​The city offers two contact points (such as the example given above) that have developed a lot of expertise to help Roma in relation to housing, education and other matters, and which have become so well-known according to Niewiedzial that they “do not need that much publicity” and are already heavily overloaded with ongoing case work and support.


As Niewiedzial explains, “the future programme on Roma inclusion will place its main focus on fighting anti-gypsyism. At the same time, it will increase the support for measures that ensure the social participation of migrant Roma also through community building.”

One particularly innovative project has been implementing a documentary project on anti-gypsyism for five years. The documentation centre on anti-gypsyism (DOSTA) collects, analyses and publishes anti-Gypsy incidents in Berlin in all areas of life. In addition, DOSTA employees support those affected by anti-gypsyism through counselling, to tackle the experience of discrimination.

In the first five years of the project’s existence, around 700 anti-Gypsy incidents were logged, and DOSTA has become very well-known in Berlin, even inspiring the introduction of the state issued anti-discrimination law.

Community building

The Berlin Senate, which otherwise oversees the implementation of the action plan via a steering committee, is keen not to provide specific criteria on self-organisation, beyond offering funding.

Keeping in mind this focus on self-organisation, projects like Amaro Foro, which was established by a group of young people, both Roma and non-Roma, coming together in the city to represent the interests of young Roma and fight anti-gypsyism, are a core part of the city administration’s vision for participation.

Amaro Foro, which translates as ‘our city’, is one of the first Roma youth organisations in Germany to actively counteract anti-gypsyism with with antidiscrimination approaches, educational work and empowerment. For example, an art exhibition shared details about historic Roma and Sinti persecution and resistance, and a weekly programme for children teaches them the power of storytelling.

This empowerment approach from the city council has also led to better representation of Roma and Sinti on the steering committee.

Going forwards, according to Niewiedzial, “Berlin will also set up a Roma and Sinti council, which will include representatives of Roma and Sinti NGOs and activists. Its role will be to make recommendations on policy developments.”

Furthermore, Berlin is sharing with and learning from other cities on their Roma participation work through the cities network, EUROCITIES, and is actively participating in discussions on the post-2020 framework.

For Niewiedzial, “the future EU framework on National Roma Integration Strategies would be the perfect opportunity to put the needs of migrant Roma into focus,” which she believes should also be reflected in the provisions of the future European Social Fund.

There is a long way to go to make Roma and other minorities feel fully able to participate in communities across Europe, but through active inclusion measures, a lot can already be done at the local level.

Alex Godson Eurocities Writer