ECMI Minorities Blog. Less equal than others: National minorities and the overlooked challenge of socio-economic inequalities

Less equal than others: national minorities and the overlooked challenge of socio-economic inequalities
Less equal than others: The minority groups’ ability to effectively participate in social and economic life is comparatively diminished.

Authors: Andreea Cârstocea  and Craig Willis  |

Socio-economic inequalities are part and parcel of people’s everyday life in any society; yet for people who belong to ethnic, linguistic, religious, or cultural communities, these inequalities tend to be markedly greater than for others. As a corollary, these communities’ ability to effectively participate in social and economic life is also comparatively diminished. Quite often, national minority communities face higher hurdles in accessing employment and gaining incomes on a par with those of the majority, and have lower access to adequate healthcare services, housing, education, or public services in general. In recent years, some minority and indigenous communities have in addition borne the brunt of the changes brought about by climate warming. The high impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on some minority communities is indisputable proof of their lower resilience – compared to that of majorities – in the face of disaster, due to their worse health status and lower access to healthcare services, inferior housing conditions, precarious employment, and reduced access to public services.

And yet, a conversation about the socio-economic inequalities facing minority communities, the specific challenges they face, or the ways in which their participation might be improved is largely absent. This holds true for both larger ethnic communities, such as Hungarians in Central and Eastern Europe, but all the more so for smaller minority communities. For instance, one would be hard pressed to find comprehensive, regularly collected, analytical data concerning the housing, healthcare status, or employment situation of the Turkish minority in Romania, the Ukrainian minority in Poland, or the Frisian minority in Germany. A notable exception in this respect is the Roma community, whose socio-economic situation has received a lot of attention both in academic and policy-making circles. This uncommonly high interest should however be placed at the intersection of the objective relative poverty the Roma community is forced to live in, and the extreme othering and securitization this ethnic group is subjected to.

There are at least two explanations for this lack of focus on socio-economic inequalities and the resulting inadequate participation of national minorities in socio-economic life. For one, the international legal instruments for the protection of national minorities have been historically conceived as having a predominant focus on cultural and linguistic rights, and ever since the Minority Treaties of 1919 they have disproportionately focused on political, cultural, and linguistic rights. Nowadays, the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, the most comprehensive legal instrument protecting the rights of national minorities in Europe, covers socio-economic rights in Art. 4 (on equality), as well as in Art.15 (on participation). Interestingly, however, the monitoring carried out by the Advisory Committee over the years appears to focus more strongly on the realisation of civil and political rights of national minorities, with much more limited emphasis on the fulfilment of socio-economic rights. This limited focus on socio-economic rights in international legislation finds its reflection in domestic legislation and policymaking, which, absent international pressures, have a reduced motivation in collecting the necessary data and developing the tools for measuring, monitoring, and correcting socio-economic disparities between majorities and minorities. A second explanation, which is related and to an extent derives from the first, is that the general lack of data makes academic enquiry and policy intervention very difficult. Until quite recently, most of the data collected and the subsequent research concentrated on vertical inequalities (i.e., among individuals and households), in the form of census data, or measurements such as the Gini coefficient. When it comes, however, to assessing horizontal inequalities (i.e., inequalities among culturally defined groups), the information is harder to come by, as frequently the data collected cannot be disaggregated by ethnicity. This usually happens because quite often domestic legislations restrict the collection of data pertaining to ethnicity, or due to a range of privacy concerns, or simply because of a lack of interest in collecting such information. Researchers can – and often do – bypass the lack of direct data by using proxies, such as using regional data (where regions are predominantly inhabited by national minorities) or language (as language use is perceived as a less sensitive type of data to collect), but these are imperfect tools which cannot replace the need for direct data.

In any case,economic horizontal inequality among ethnic groups has been studied more extensively than other dimensions of horizontal inequality. Research shows that ethnic groups often face economic discrimination, in the sense that their members may be systematically limited in accessing economic goods and conditions; as such they might have unequal access to and ownership of assets, employment opportunities, and incomes. The most obvious example of this is the higher unemployment rates faced by many national minorities, observable both where disaggregated data is collected, and also in a proxy form by looking at regional unemployment in areas with a high minority concentration. On top of this, national minorities are disproportionally reliant on the private sector for employment, as well as on informal or illegal work – all of which are often accompanied by precarious conditions, low pay and (in the latter cases) unprotected by labour law. Moreover, issues related to intersectionality are also present, with minority women often facing discrimination on two demographic fronts – much lower employment rates are observed for women in several Roma communities across Europe.

Due to the relative lack of data mentioned above, social horizontal inequality has been less comprehensively researched; we know, however, that minority groups commonly face discriminatory educational policies or barriers to recruitment in the public sector, and that they are often faced with unequal access to healthcare, clean water, sanitation, or adequate housing.

There are many documented examples of the exclusion and discrimination Roma children face in education, whether through segregation, limited access due to poverty, or bullying. Perhaps less researched, but equally importantly, children belonging to other minority groups face teacher shortages, as in the case of Gaeltacht schools in Ireland, or textbook shortages, as in the case of the Turkish minority in North Macedonia, or the Hungarian minority in Croatia). Because many minority communities live in (sometimes remote) rural areas, characterised by weak public transportation coverage, minority pupils face additional hurdles in physically accessing schools. Examples include the many Roma children in Croatia who miss out on pre-school education because transport to the kindergarten from remote settlements is problematic and often impossible to manage by their parents, but also First Nations children in Canada who must travel long distances on difficult road conditions.

Barriers to accessing healthcare for national minorities include issues related to their insurance status, health literacy, communication issues due to linguistic differences, discrimination, and lack of trust. Perhaps one of the most egregious cases of health discrimination against women of minority background is represented by the forced sterilizations of Roma women in the former Czechoslovakia and Czech Republic. A report analysing housing conditions across 15 EU member states found that ethnic minorities live in comparatively poorer housing conditions, being confronted with higher levels of homelessness, subpar quality of housing, impoverished neighbourhoods, and greater vulnerability and insecurity in their housing status. As an example, the case of the Roma communities forced to live on contaminated land in Pata Rât, Romania, has been widely reported. More recently, the impact of climate change has been shown to be disproportionately higher on minority communities, generating further social inequalities. Again, the Roma minority has been shown to experience disproportionately high exposure to floods. For indigenous groups such as the Sámi, changing climate has had a major effect on reindeer herding, on which the livelihoods of many Sámi villages depend. Compounding the impact of climate change, loss of grazing pastures due to the expanding mining industry have also affected the livelihoods of Sámi communities.

It is important to note that sectoral inequalities do not usually exist independently of one another but are usually interlinked. For instance, poor housing conditions have been demonstrably linked to poor mental and physical health, lower levels of educational attainment and lower income levels, together with many other forms of social exclusion. But even beyond these sectoral interlinkages, social inequality may translate into, and is highly associated with economic horizontal inequality. To all these, one needs to add a temporal dimension: research shows that horizontal inequalities tend to endure over decades and in some cases even centuries, leading to the long-term exclusion or discrimination of certain minority groups.

In this brief analysis we have tried to unpack the concept of socio-economic inequality and illustrate some of the many ways in which it can impact national minority communities. Clearly, socio-economic rights hold a central role in the life of national minorities, and deserve equal weight to political, cultural, and linguistic rights. To fulfil this purpose, comprehensive data collection, allowing for more research and improved policymaking, in conjunction with robust monitoring by international bodies, are sine qua non conditions; for the time being, however, as shown above, both fall far short of this aim.

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