Integration versus assimilation

While the European Commission mulls over submissions by member states in response to the call for National Roma Integration Strategies (NRIS), there has been little discussion about what is meant by ‘integration’. Assimilation of minority populations is deemed to be neither politically credible nor ethically sound, and a multitude of models of integration abound. When probed deeper some models of integration are barely distinguishable from assimilation. In France, for example, the Commission of Nationality argued that integration involves ‘affirming the essential and indivisible values that found French society and determine its identity’.

 In Germany, integration is taken to involve not ‘mere adjustment’ to German society but ‘inner affirmation of its values’ and ‘internalization of common goods’. Following the attacks on multiculturalism emanating from the mainstream right, and the electoral successes of far-right populist parties across democracies old and new, perceptions of integration are increasingly being driven by an assimilationist rationale. In many nations, the notion of integration has become less hospitably pluralist than before with the onus being placed on the minorities to make the adjustments and accommodations deemed necessary for social cohesion.

This shift in the political mainstream has been accompanied by increasingly virulent and frequently violent attacks on marginalized minorities by extremist groupings. And across the EU Roma populations are bearing the brunt of populist hostility. Despite last year’s unprecedented moves to promote social inclusion under the aegis of the framework, European Roma continued to be vilified and persecuted.

Roma communities repeatedly came under siege from right-wing paramilitary groups and rioting neo-Nazi mobs. Public officials, mayors and far-right members of parliament continued to indulge in anti-Roma hate speech with seeming impunity. What may be more astounding is that many consider the term ‘inadaptable’ to be a ‘politically correct’ way to refer to Roma.

Widespread anti-Roma discrimination The 2009 EU Minorities and Discrimination Survey (EU-MIDIS) found that on average, across nine areas of everyday life, Roma were discriminated against because of their ethnic background more than all other groups surveyed, including Sub-Saharan Africans and North Africans.

 As UNDP stated more than a decade ago, ‘Development opportunities are inexorably linked to human rights’ 
If the framework is to ‘make a difference by 2020’ to the lives of impoverished and excluded Roma communities, how can we best combat anti-Roma prejudice, and how can we uproot this type of racism across the EU?

A first step would be to look beyond the specifics of Roma exclusion for lessons to be learned. In the United Kingdom, the racist murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993 led to the MacPherson Report in 1999. The report prompted a nationwide debate that forced
the British public to see more crude forms of racism in a wider context and to confront the complex nature of racism. The most important finding of the report was the prevalence of institutional racism in Britain, defined as:
‘The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin (...) in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.’  This definition set a new benchmark for race relations in Britain. The report called on all institutions to examine their policies and practices and stated that there must be an unequivocal rececognition of institutional racism and its nature before it can be addressed.

When it comes to Roma inclusion and institutional racism, it is clear that many EU Member States remain in deep denial. Member States, old and new alike, need to confront the deeply embedded institutional racism that has undermined, and will continue to undermine, all efforts to promote Roma inclusion.

There is a need for some soul searching by European institutions and member states to heed MacPherson’s insistence that ‘it is incumbent on every institution to examine their policies and the outcomes of their policies and practices to guard against disadvantaging any section of our communities’. He warned that without recognition and action to eliminate such racism it can prevail as part of the ethos or culture of the organization. He described
racism as a ‘corrosive disease.’ 

"What do we mean by integration? Some models of integration are indistinguishable from assimilation, and represent fundamentally flawed understandings of the relations between ethnic majority populations and minorities. Roma integration needs to be understood as a two way process, an open-ended sequence of negotiated adjustments between the majority and minorities. Thus, integration should not imply symmetry in the ‘negotiated adjustments’. There is no symmetry when it comes to confronting structured and embedded institutional racism. Bhikhu Parekh suggests that rather than ask how minorities can be integrated, we should ask how they can become equal citizens bound to the rest of society by the ties of common belonging. If we understand integratio in the terms defined by Roy Jenkins over 30 years ago, as ‘not a flattening process of assimilation, but equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance’, integration is best viewed as the means and not the end. The nature, forms, degrees and limits of integration should be negotiated and decided by their ability to serve the overall objective of fostering common belonging and dignity for all in the relations between Roma and non-Roma citizens."

Bernard Rorke, Open Society Foundations’ Roma Initiatives,  Director of International Advocacy and Research.

Roma inclusion is a human rights issue, 

increasingly present on the political agenda

both of governments and international institutions in Europe. 

The distinction between ‘integration’ and ‘inclusion’ is more subtle. ‘Integration’ provides opportunities for minorities’ involvement in majority structures while allowing them to retain elements of diverse identity.

In that case the external system (dominated by the majority) accepts certain elements of diversity but this acceptance

does not entail change in the system itself.

‘Inclusion’, on the other hand, entails a two-way process in which both the minority and the majority adjust.