Roma in Lithuania: When a Lavishly Financed Program has a 4-5% Success Rate, and Half the Inmates in Nation’s Only Women’s Prison are Roma



by Vilma Fiokla Kiurė

Back in 2017, I tried to acquaint the outside world, in Defending History, with some  issues concerning the “Roma Integration Program” that was initiated by the Lithuanian Government and Vilnius Municipality in 2016. I noted that the main goal of the program was to raze the Roma settlement in Kirtimai to the ground and remove the Roma that used to live there, resettling them in scattered different places through Vilnius County.

Several years have passed. We can see how this Program has impacted Roma living conditions.

“Around half of the inmates in Lithuania’s only women’s prison are Roma women—while there are only a bit more than two thousand Roma in Lithuania, less than one percent of Lithuania’s estimated population of 2,795,000 for 2021.”

The Roma told me that only multi-child families got the promised social housing, whereas others were offered rent compensations. The compensations are meager, so many Roma were forced to move out of the capital and its region, where the rent is nowadays expensive. I myself left Vilnius a long time ago because of high rent and now I see the results of this Roma Integration Program in the periphery. I live not far from Troškūnai, so I can see how the local Roma community is growing in this little town. This is happening exactly because, as mentioned, people are running away from the expensive capital city and settling down where it is cheaper to live. Quite a few Roma families here have farms, they keep fowl and other domestic animals and tend to their gardens. In short, they are trying everything possible to survive.

An old street in Troškūnai

This summer, I met two Roma women begging outside the “Norfa” supermarket in Anykščiai, the central town of this county in northeastern Lithuania.   They were both pregnant. “Are you from Troškūnai?“ I asked. They said they were and told me a little about their situation: how hard it is to live on benefits and how unpleasant it is to beg. I did not even bother asking them about their chances of getting a job, because I know this issue all too well. This summer was extremely hot, so it broke my heart to see how hard it is for them to beg standing in the sun by the shop. They were in the last months of pregnancy, so I was worried about their health. Thankfully, the security workers were humane and allowed them to sit down in between the automatic doors; they even put up a chair there. This surprised me pleasantly, since people in smaller towns are rarely supportive of Roma, even if the Roma in question are little children or pregnant women.  Many security guards lack compassion  and tend to chase away the begging poor from the supermarkets’ outdoor perimteter.

Looking at these impoverished women, I was thinking about all the money that has “trickled down” to Roma integration during the years of independent Lithuania. Had all this same money just been divided up directly among the Roma, they would have bought a couple of supermarkets themselves.

Around half of the inmates in Lithuania’s only women’s prison are Roma women—while there are only a bit more than 2 thousand Roma in Lithuania, less than once percent of Lithuania’s estimated population of 2,795,000 fow 2021. Percentage of incarceration among Roma men is not as high, but there are many of them incarcerated anyway. And if they are not in prisons, they are begging by the shops. That’s the way it is.

When Roma settle in small, xenophobic towns, the real estate prices in the neighborhood plummet. When they are low enough, the cheap housing is bought by other Roma and so called “islets” of Roma start forming, which for some reason appear dangerous to locals. Therefore, empty houses are often bought by local inhabitants: not because they want to live there, but only so that “Roma would not buy them.” Such people would rather see houses abandoned than inhabited by Roma. And it does not matter if Roma families live normal lives and their homesteads do not look worse than those of Lithuanians. This is an approximate picture of interethnic relations and integration results out in  the periphery.

“And not only businesses—NGOs and state institutions are very hesitant to employ even the leading members of the Roma community.”

If we do not mention drugs, that is. “They deal amphetamine,” a local Troškūnai activist told me, and I did not believe her. What drugs could there be in the Lithuanian countryside, I thought to myself, who would buy them? Until I learned from local drunks that, surprisingly, there is a demand for synthetic drugs in villages, too. Locations change, homes change, but the issues stay the same. Problems of Roma employment are abandoned and the people are left to vegetate, to either survive on microscopic benefits or earn some illegal, criminal cash, since businesses or farmers generally refuse to employ Roma. And not only businesses—NGOs and state institutions are very hesitant to employ even the leading members of Roma community. I remember a case when public schools needed teachers’ assistants to work with Roma children. Not one Roma woman got the job, despite the fact that they were active in NGOs and cooperated in establishing such positions.

At the moment, another stage of the multi-million Roma Integration Program is underway. The Deputy Mayor of Vilnius is glad to announce the

“concerted effort of the municipality achieved great results in the past several years: the Vilnius Roma Tabor is no more! From now on, we will pay even more attention to various integration programs and, especially, to education.”

I sincerely hope the municipality will be successful, the money will not be diverted to some side projects with jobs forr pals, and Roma lives will improve at least a little. I pray to see the day when the word “integration” in Lithuania is not an empty term to describe a lavishly financed project with a success rate of four to five percent.

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