Roma in Turkey suffer from lack of work, hunger, and extreme poverty, study shows

According to a new study by the Social Democracy Foundation (SODEV), the Istanbul Planning Agency (IPA), and the Zero Discrimination Foundation, Roma in Turkey suffer from shocking levels of poverty in Turkey. The average household income is 1,426 TL per month - official minimum wage for 2022 is 4250 TL before taxes.

Menekşe Tokyay / DUVAR

The estimated 2.5 million to 5 million Roma people living in Turkey suffer from extreme levels of poverty and are, for the most part, deeply in debt, a new study by the Social Democracy Foundation (SODEV), Istanbul Planning Agency (IPA), and the Zero Discrimination Foundation shows. Average Roma household income - 1426 TL - is one-third of the official minimum wage.

This is the first study to be carried out on the needs, struggles, and demands of the Roma community in Turkey since the Covid-19 pandemic.

77.5% of those interviewed for the survey had struggles with unemployment. For those working, most Roma people interviewed worked as cleaners, in waste collection, or as municipal personnel. Others worked selling water, flowers, or begging on the street.

The top pick, or “dream profession,” for most Roma is to be a civil servant.

The majority of the population is also housing insecure. 57.5% of the population live in rented properties, many of which are below standard living conditions. 83.2% of those interviewed said their houses were heated with woodstoves, rather than with radiators or central heating. This can lead to a host of health problems.

80% of the Roma people interviewed have debt. With low-wage jobs, lack of insurance, and a lack of job security, 71.5% do not think that they will ever be able to retire. On average, the number of people who said they were “happy” was 38%, while 39% said they were satisfied with their lives. 

Zero Discrimination Association President Elmas Arus, herself raised in a Roma community, says that Roma living conditions put the community’s life expectancy 32 years behind that of Turkey. The average life expectancy for a Roma person in the country is 68.5 years, while in the country overall it is 78.6 years. This was the average life expectancy for Turkey in 1990.

“The issue of social exclusion comes at a huge cost. When you marginalize a Roman citizen, you not only hurt him at that moment, but you also shorten his life expectancy by condemning him to more hunger and poverty,” SODEV President Ertan Aksoy said.

Despite these struggles, however, the community seems to maintain faith in the state. Aksoy said that this can be observed over the choice of “civil servant” as a career over a doctor, or lawyer. Arus noted a moment in an interview with a member of a Roma community in Artvin that illustrated this point.

“In an interview we did in Artvin, one of the participants said 'when you put your back on the state, your back will not fall'. Their approach to this issue is more or less along this line of thought,” she said. 

According to Arus, nutrition is the problem that plagues the community most distinctly. Most Roma people in Turkey eat primarily carbohydrates - pasta, potatoes, and bread. Most said they didn’t even eat meat once a year. This problem is most acute in young children aged zero to 5 - over half of this age group experiences severe nutritional or starvation issues. 

Despite this, as well as a lack of internet connection and squalid living conditions, 77% of Roma people continue to send their children to school. However, school dropouts are also common, highlighting the economic strain education can pose - school is expensive, and children are needed to contribute to household income. Only 8.5% of Roma children make it to high school.

The majority of Roma people - 65% - do not receive aid from the government. Those that do primarily receive in the form of coal to heat their homes. 

The struggles experienced by the Roma people in Turkey have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the survey, 55.7% of people lost almost all of their income during the pandemic. One-fifth of respondents have no monthly income and receive no help from the government, while one in ten has no income and receives some support. 

Despite low health literacy in the community, according to Arus, over four-fifths of the community are vaccinated. This is largely due to confidence in the state, while those who are unvaccinated largely cite their fear of the coronavirus vaccine as the reason for their lack of immunization. 

One surprising outcome of the survey was the number of people in the Roma community who say they experienced discrimination was only 40%. Roma have long been discriminated against in Turkey and throughout Europe. However, Arus fears that this might just be the result of a lowering of the threshold for what is considered “discrimination.” 

“They have internalized the discrimination they experience so much that they normalize the discrimination they experience,” she said.

According to Arus and the other authors of the report, more needs to be done to ensure that Roma have access to education and opportunity in Turkey. 

“In order for both education and employment policies to have an impact on the living standards of the Roma, we need to develop policies that prevent social exclusion, as well as social engineering that will explain to all segments of society the cost of excluding these people,” she said.

As it stands, Roma in Turkey are “hopeless,” Arus said.

“There is a state of boredom, hopelessness, fatigue, acceptance. They are tired of giving hope and being disappointed. People feel very lonely. There is no room left for them to rejoice,” Arus said.

(English version by Erin O'Brien)