Monday, April 12, 2010

Europe's Roma say woes deepen amid economic crisis


CORDOBA, Spain — For many of Europe's estimated 12 million Gypsies, daily life is getting even worse and tens of thousands of children face shocking discrimination by authorities who shunt them off into schools for the mentally disabled, activists said Friday.

At a two-day conference in Spain on the plight of Gypsies, also called Roma, EU officials pledged in a final statement to keep working to integrate Roma and make sure aid funds reach them effectively.

The conference took place during a week when 17 people were detained in Romania on suspicion of trafficking nearly 170 Roma children to Britain for begging and stealing, and an anti-Gypsy party in Hungary was poised to make major gains in elections Sunday.

One of the participants in the Spain conference, Violeta Naydenova, knows all about the challenges children face.

Growing up in a Gypsy settlement with open sewers in Bulgaria, Naydenova was supposed to go to a segregated school for Roma children.

But because of her daughter's fair skin, Naydenova's mother managed to sneak her and her brother into a regular Bulgarian school as a possible ticket out of the grinding poverty and discrimination affecting Europe's largest ethnic minority.

In the end, Naydenova's story is one of triumph: she went on to earn a journalism degree and work for a foundation run by philanthropist George Soros, helping young Roma.

Naydenova, however, is one of the lucky ones because many activists say the situation for Gypsies is getting worse. The reasons, they say, include inertia and institutionalized racism against these nomadic, generally dark-skinned people who trace their roots to India and are often associated with petty crime and begging.

Romania's foreign minister, for instance, made comments in February suggesting that criminality among Gypsies was a biological trait, although he later backtracked.

Europe's economic crisis is another problem for Roma. "They were never really improving but with the economic crisis coming around, socio-economic conditions are really worse," said David Mark, a 27-year-old Roma who works for the Roma Civil Alliance of Romania.

Roma can no longer travel as much to wealthy countries of western Europe like Italy and Spain because hard economic times there mean less work. Those who already tried their luck are being forced to return home because of what Mark called a "not very welcoming environment."

"Basically they left because of social exclusion and they are coming back because of social exclusion," he said.

Anti-Roma violence has been a serious and even increasing problem since 2008 in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Italy, according to the European Roma Rights Centre, based in Budapest. It reports 45 violent attacks and nine fatalities in Hungary in that same span.

And despite a series of ruling from the European Court of Human Rights since 2007, school segregation of Roma children is systemic in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, the group said.

As a child, Naydenova did not know Roma from Rome — her parents did not explain their ethnicity, and studiously avoided speaking to her in the Roma language so as to keep her from picking up the accent when spoke Bulgarian.

"Nobody told me what is Gypsy, what is Roma, why do we live separated from the others, what is wrong," said Naydenova, a vivacious and eloquent woman of 28.

She remembers vividly her first day of university classes in Budapest, joining classmates for coffee after their first lecture.

"The first subject that they started to speak was stinky Gypsies, how stinky they are, how bad they are, stealing, beggars, all these things," Naydenova said. "I thought they recognized me. I just wanted really the earth to swallow me."

For two more years, she hid her Roma identity from colleagues and teachers while studying her roots and finally embracing them. "My self-confidence grew. My pride as a Roma grew," she said.

The Roma conference was held in Cordoba in the southern Andalusia region, which is home to about half of Spain's 600,000 Gypsies. Most of Europe's Roma live in the east and the Balkans.

It brought together officials from the European Commission, EU governments and NGOs in a 16th-century palace with blooming orange trees giving off a sweet scent in the central courtyard.

But Katalin Barsony, a Hungarian Roma who works for an NGO called the Romedia Foundation, complained the speakers list at the conference illustrated another problem facing Roma: acute discrimination against women. Of 52 speakers who addressed the forum, only five were Roma women.

She said she is worried right-wing parties, which she said have baited fears of Roma, will do well in legislative elections due to be held Sunday in Hungary, and that across Europe politicians are making Gypsies pay for economic woes.

"They need to find scapegoats, and Roma are easily scapegoated," said Barsony, whose father is Jewish. "I have this beautiful double identity which allows me to understand the problems and history of Roma in an objective way, I hope."

Mark, of Romania, said the EU has provided funding and a framework for helping the Roma, but that as central governments are reluctant to act, perhaps the Roma themselves should exert more pressure at the local level.

"Roma also need to push," he said, "rather than just choose this way of 'OK, let's go away. Let's migrate. Let's find a better life somewhere else."

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