Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Poverty and exclusion blight Roma

By Oana Lungescu
BBC European affairs correspondent, Avrig, Romania

The European Commission is set for an unprecedented meeting with Roma (Gypsy) people from all over Europe.

It is a response to the challenge posed by what has become the biggest ethnic minority in the enlarged European Union.

Europe's roughly 10 million Roma remain the poorest of the poor, often migrating abroad in search of work.

The recent murder of an Italian woman sparked off a wave of hostility against the Roma and dozens of expulsions from Italy.

The main suspect is Nicolae Romulus Mailat, a migrant from Avrig, in central Romania.

Crowded shack

His younger brother Gheorghe showed me the family home - a tiny one-room wooden shack, where four people cook, eat and sleep in two beds propped up with bricks. Most of the light comes from the television.

"Bathroom, bedroom, kitchen, it's all here," Gheorghe explains. "We went to Italy to get enough money to build at least another room."

A tall 16-year-old who rarely smiles, Gheorghe has never been to school.

Several other brothers, he tells me, are in mental institutions or foster care, and one drowned while crossing a river on horseback.

Eight months ago, they sold the horse to pay for the bus tickets to Italy.

"It was better in Italy, it was easier to get by," says Gheorghe.

In Romania, he earns less than $10 (£4.90) a day picking corn or potatoes. In Italy he worked on building sites for $60 (£29) or more.

His mother used to collect scrap metal or beg.

After Nicolae's arrest, the family fled Italy.

But when they tried to return several weeks later, the Italian border police would not let them back in.

Italy setback

"They told us we were up to no good and we should stay in our country," Gheorghe complains.

The Mailat family home, if you can call it that, is at the edge of an illegal Roma settlement in Avrig, at the end of a dirt track where the mud comes up to your ankles and dogs gather in packs to keep visitors away.

The mayor, Gheorghe Fraticiu, says there are plans to install electricity and running water.

But until then, people carry water in buckets from the nearby stream, which is overflowing with rubbish.

These miserable living conditions have driven most of Avrig's 800 Roma abroad.

Ilie Linguraru, an elderly man with a bushy moustache, can barely earn a living by making traditional wicker brooms and baskets.

He and his wife had plans to travel to Italy, but now - like everybody around here - he is too scared to go.

One man, he says, has shamed all of Romania.

But not everyone is complaining.

Next door, Viorel Floca and three of his sons have slaughtered a pig in the middle of the road and are busy scrubbing it clean with hot water and a plastic brush, eagerly watched by several grandchildren - some barefoot despite the cold.

They may not look it, but these Roma are not poor.

Here to stay

The men work as shepherds, own quite a few horses and pigs, and Mr Floca would not even consider emigrating.

"I'm not leaving my country," he says proudly.

"Who wants to work, should work here in Romania. Why should I go abroad to steal or pull faces to beg? God has given me strength and health, so I'm staying here in Romania."

Only a short drive away from Avrig's gypsy shantytown is Sibiu, this year's European capital of culture and a thriving city.

As in the whole of Romania, alarm bells are ringing about a growing labour shortage.

One local factory has even hired about 100 metal workers from India.

Some 35-40% of Roma children don't have access to school
Magda Matache
Roma rights spokeswoman

Some employers argue that the Roma are either lazy or lack the right skills, while the Roma claim they are being discriminated against.

What is clear is that despite millions of dollars from the EU and a government integration strategy, change is slow to come.

Magda Matache, executive director for Romani Criss, a Roma human rights group, says at least 40% of the Roma population is unemployed.

"Although a lot of improvements have been made in the education system, the level of illiteracy in the Roma community is still high and 35-40% of Roma children don't have access to school," Ms Matache explains.

"Roma families will not send their children to school because they don't see the importance of it, as after they finish school they won't get a job, they won't get equal treatment."

Romani Criss has started a television campaign to change perceptions.

Now that Romania is in the EU, the advertisements say, the Roma should not remain on the margins.

But even the most optimistic think it will take a generation or more until people like Gheorghe Mailat can feel at home in their own country and the rest of Europe.

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