Peter Pollák: We don’t need more money for the Roma issue

In March 2012, Peter Pollák was elected as the first Roma member of the Slovak Parliament. Currently a lecturer at the Department of Social Work at the St. Elisabeth University of Health and Social Work in Bratislava, Pollák has a long track record of work with Slovakia’s Roma community – both as a civil society activist and a government employee. Contrary to a number of stakeholders, he is convinced that Slovakia’s Roma do not need more funds – just better solutions.

Foto: Peter Pollák

– What does your new post mean for you?

It was only a matter of time for the first Roma would be elected to Parliament. It could have been now, in four years’ time, or in ten years. I take it as a fact that it had to come. The fact that I am the first one is of course a great honour for me and also big responsibility towards other Roma, but also towards Slovakia as a whole. A lot of non-Roma voted for me and by doing so they expressed their hope that I will put the issue forward and try to resolve it.

– Why these elections? In what way were they different from previous ones?

I think that the most important factor as to why I became a deputy was that Igor Matovič, chairman of the party that nominated me, was not afraid to adopt measures that enabled my election. Previously no political party placed a Roma candidate on a rank sufficiently high on the ballot list, that the candidate could be actually elected. And when Matovič presented the first 20 candidates to the public, he was so moved when presenting me that he cried. It was the first symbolic step. That press conference indicated that he did not do it because of any populist reasons in order to win points, but that he meant it seriously. And I believed him.

– Looking beyond the Roma issue, and placing social policy in a broader context, you announced that you will focus on eurofunds. What major problems do you see in this area?

Slovakia has great gaps in how we spend the funds and at many occasions nothing is really done or solved with the money. The impact is minimal. Many times these resources are used to cover the needs of the applicant and not the end recipient. It is necessary to set some measurable criteria which would make sure that the biggest impact is on the people for whom the funds are originally designated. Speaking specifically about eurofunds for Roma, our system allows us to build a fire station and define it as a Roma project, or to build a cycle path. The only reason why it is possible is because the station or the path can be also used by Roma people. And these projects are automatically counted into the sum of money allocated to the Roma minority. Slovakia then reports them as projects aimed at marginalised Roma communities. As a Roma, I am irritated when I hear how much money supposedly went to ‘support Roma’. And of course, it irritates the majority of people of the country – they hear how much money went for the Roma and do not see results.

– The new prime minister, Robert Fico, has talked about taking some measures towards Roma communities, such as establishing boarding schools and restricting social allowances for families to a maximum of three children. Do you see it as a good idea?

The campaign finished a long while ago, but some politicians have yet to notice it. Boarding schools were tested by many countries. The result is that, for example, in Australia the Australian prime minister apologized to the Aborigines that were forced to attend these schools. The same thing happened in Canada. The Pope also apologized for the boarding schools run by the Catholic Church. Boarding schools were a bad experience and we should learn from it.

There is also another program which we know in Slovakia, but also from abroad, and that is the all-day educational scheme. Children attend classes in the morning, and in the afternoon they socialize and continue their education in a school club – in the company of pedagogic/expert staff, who help them to prepare for next school day, and also to acquire cultural habits necessary for life outside of segregated settlements. Unlike boarding schools, this system does not disrupt family bonds. In the evening, the child goes home and this is much more humane. It is also a cheaper solution than special boarding schools.

– What about other solutions? One of major problems is that a disproportionate number of Roma children – often without learning disabilities – is placed in so-called special schools.

We definitely need to make a principal change in special schools and move towards system of integrated education. Special schools cost us twice as much as ordinary schools. And a graduate from a special school will at most receive the qualification of, let’s say, a bricklayer’s assistant. And it is more than likely that a graduate from such a school will continue to be dependent on the social welfare system. Despite all these facts, the state is still willing to finance these schools with twice the amount of money it does normal schools.

Integrated schools are a great step forward and can help in making Roma children successful in the learning system. We should financially support those classes which will try to integrate children. And this is not to say that they should only integrate Roma children, but also children with various physical or mental disabilities. This law has to be applicable for everyone. Classes which integrate more children would receive more money and thus we would motivate them to think and act commercially, to help children and themselves. This is a much more fair and solid system. Not to mention how this system will definitely change the  amount of people dependent on the social system.

– It is often said that Roma are a major burden for the state welfare system. Yet a recent study in Slovakia showed that the biggest group living on welfare consists of young people – not ‘Roma families with many children’.

Yes, this study carried out by the Ministry of Labour and the World Bank reveals that 60% of those who live on welfare benefits are young people under the age of 26. Families with more than three children make up only 3% of welfare recipients. Then I ask myself whether the myth that Roma are the biggest consumers of the state social allowances isn’t really just something that was once said, then it was repeated ten times and gradually everybody started believing it. This study you mention serves as an argument to counter this perception.

– What about other approaches towards solving the Roma issue abroad? If we look at it from a regional perspective, how is handled in other V4 countries?

The Roma community is bigger in Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary. In Poland, it is much smaller. It can also be said that the problems in the Czech Republic are similar to those in Slovakia, although the Czech Republic does not have rural Roma settlements – it is mostly ghettos in cities. They don’t have settlements such as Letanovce, without drinking water or a road.

In Hungary, they were able to reform the law on special schools and this came about as a result Roma candidates being elected into the national parliament and thus they had a real possibility to influence some of the issues on the political level. In Slovakia and the Czech Republic, Roma were not part of the political system and they did not have a strong group of citizens behind them. In Hungary, this was achieved. Roma got support of big parties on the left and right of the political spectrum. Until now, politicians in Slovakia merely abused the Roma issue in a populist manner, to gain points in elections.

We don’t need more money for the Roma issue. What we have is enough, but we have to use it in the most effective way.

– So among the V4 countries Hungary currently has the best approach to Roma issues?

Yes, in terms of the measures which the government took in this area, Hungary is the  frontrunner. I don’t want to say that all the policies that were approved are good or that they would also fit the realities in Slovakia or the Czech Republic. But political will helped a lot. Furthermore, Hungary has a very good minority self-administration and in every county where they have Roma inhabitants, they have a Roma self-administration. They also have a regional and a national Roma self-administration, which is financed from the state budget.  They were able to create a system, and that was possible through political will.

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