By Claudia Ciobanu
BUCHAREST, May 16 (IPS) - A Roma ghetto in Ponticelli neighbourhood of Naples, Italy, was burnt down May 14 by locals angry over a reported attempt by a Roma young woman to kidnap a baby. The incident shows that, when it comes to living together with the 10 million Roma, Europeans today have no better answer than the "Gypsy hunts" of the Middle Ages.
The attempted kidnap in Naples is merely the last in a string of publicised crimes committed in Italy by Roma, usually from Romania. In the most notorious case, Romanian Nicolae Mailat raped and killed Italian teacher Giovanna Reggiani Oct. 30, 2007, on the outskirts of Rome.
Italian human rights organisation Opera Nomadi has calculated that of the 160,000 Roma living in Italy, roughly 60,000 come from Romania. Most of them inhabit improvised camps on the outskirts of towns or next to rivers. The Roma are a community that is believed to have migrated to Europe from India since the 14th century.
According to a survey commissioned this year by the Romanian Agency for Governmental Strategies, over 60 percent of Italians believe that criminality rates in their country have increased because of Romanians. Italians further said they considered Roma "the most difficult to tolerate."
Close to one million Romanians currently work in Italy. Romanians are said to be responsible for most of the illegalities committed by foreigners there. There is no clear indication that criminality rates for Roma from Romania are higher than for their non-Roma compatriots.
Anti-Roma and anti-Romanian feeling has been growing in Italy since last fall, reaching a boiling point with the attempted kidnap in Naples. Several shanty towns inhabited by Roma across the country have been burnt down over the past week. The Italian authorities are currently raiding Roma camps, rounding up "illegal immigrants" and issuing expulsion decrees.
While Italy's rejection of Roma is in the limelight these days, "voluntary repatriations" of Roma from France to Romania have been taking place for months without much public discussion. The French government pays for the flights back home and gives 300 euros to each person agreeing to return to Romania.
At the beginning of April, trains leaving from Bucharest to various towns in the country were full of Roma families returning from France. One of the women told IPS that the money would be spent on Easter celebrations and that her family would try to return to Western Europe. On the trains, the Roma slept in the corridors, while non-Roma inside the sitting compartments guarded the doors carefully. This reporter was not let into a compartment until those inside were confident she is not Roma.
Non-Roma Romanians are keen to be differentiated from the Roma. They claim they do honest work in the West and should not be demonised because of the criminal acts committed by Roma.
But allegations that Roma commit more crimes than non-Roma are unfounded. A 2008 study commissioned by the National Agency for Roma in Bucharest ('Come Closer. Inclusion and Exclusion of Roma in Present-Day Romanian Society) quotes chief police officer Stefan Campean from the General Police Inspectorate as saying that in spite of the public perception, Roma do not commit more crimes than non-Roma in Romania. Besides, most of the offences by Roma are petty crime, often involving food thefts.
While Western European countries are pushing Roma eastwards, back to their places of origin, in countries like Romania and Bulgaria, where Roma have lived for seven centuries, they are usually excluded from regular residential areas, schools and jobs.
About 2.5 million Roma live in Romania, and close to another million in neighbouring Bulgaria, out of a total of six million all over Central and Eastern Europe.
In Zapaden Park, a neighbourhood in the Western part of Bulgarian capital Sofia, the areas inhabited by Roma begin right where the city ends along with the paved roads. To visit Roma dwellings, one has to walk a muddy path, and fields scattered with trash on both sides. The garbage collecting truck makes its way along the same route, seemingly just cruising around because at no point do the workers stop to pick up the dirt.
There are no waste collecting points anyway, so the people in the area are forced to dump their rubbish in the street. This is the classic picture of Roma urban areas in Bulgaria and Romania, spatially segregated from the non-Roma neighbourhoods, and often lacking basic facilities.
In Romania, according to the 2008 study 'Come Closer', 60 percent of the Roma interviewed declared that someone in their family had gone to bed hungry in the past month. Over 50 percent of Roma children do not have a winter coat and another 50 percent live in a household that cannot afford shoes for all members.
The same study shows that only 17 percent of Roma households have access to gas and just 14 percent have water pipes in the house. Some 40 percent of the Roma interviewed do not have any documents for the land their shelters are situated on.
According to the Institute for Quality of Life Research in Bucharest, 47 percent of employable Roma in Romania had jobs in 2007, a significant improvement over previous years. However, write the authors of 'Come Closer', "Roma are generally informally employed, on a daily basis, mostly in unqualified occupations which require hard physical work, but which are stigmatised as temporary, inferior occupations."
Only 9 percent of the Roma interviewed for the 'Come Closer' study had completed high school, and another 2 percent held university degrees.
In some regions, as many as 10 percent of the Roma do not hold valid identity documents, Andreea Socaciu from the local Association for Community Partnership told IPS. This situation leads to difficulties in accessing education, jobs and social welfare.
Socaciu, who is involved in a programme helping Roma get official papers, says "there are areas where we are back in the Middle Ages. Entire families live in 20 square metre spaces, in one room, with no facilities. Children are forced to drop out of school, so the labour force of the future is jeopardised."
A national strategy for documenting Roma and facilitating their access to information about health, education and jobs was put forward in 2005, says Socaciu, adding that what her organisation does is merely "the starting point." Other measures taken by Romanian authorities include reserving places in higher education for Roma students and providing "health mediators" for Roma communities.
Progress is slow, however, and the authors of 'Come Closer' say that working abroad remains "the main strategy for emancipation" for Roma. Of those interviewed, 74 percent declared they plan to go abroad for work, half of them saying they will do this within a year, an indication of the seriousness of their intentions.
"Those who come to Italy for work don't do it because this is a beautiful country, they do it because of poverty at home," says Najo Adzovic, the informal leader of a Roma camp on the outskirts of Rome. "Conditions must be created for them to return to their country with dignity. They need a work place above all. Perhaps Italian businessmen, who make good money in Romania, could offer work places to Roma." (END/2008)