Thursday, September 30, 2010

Roma in Romania and Bulgaria: despised and stigmatised

Romania and Bulgaria, the two most recent newcomers into the EU, have been accused by Western governments, especially by France, of not doing enough for the integration of their Roma population.

The two countries, while not contesting the size of the problem, have in turn underlined the need for a common EU Roma policy. For the time being, there is no such policy at the European level, and the magnitude of the Roma problem was not foreseen by the European institutions when the decision was taken to take Romania and Bulgaria on-board.

Roma children - the EU underestimated the size of the Roma problem when Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU (Photo: Council of Europe)

One of the obstacles to finding any solution to the Roma problem is the widespread indifference, often bordering on hostility, towards the Roma in Romania and Bulgaria. In both countries, the general attitude is one of collective denial, not just by the public at large, but also within civil society, the press and the political class.

In Romania, few people felt outrage upon hearing that President Traian Basescu had called a female journalist trying to interview him a "stinking Gypsy." A former foreign minister – Adrian Cioroianu - regretted publicly that he was not allowed to send delinquent Gypsies to some remote spot in the Egyptian deserts (a probable allusion to the origin of the word "Gypsy", from "Egyptian"), while the leader of the ultra-nationalist Romania Mare party, Corneliu Vadim Tudor, remarked that if the French sent the Roma back to Romania, then "Romania should send them back to India."

Still, Romania has protested officially at the collective expulsions of Romanian Roma from France, while Bulgaria was the only EU member state whose government not only would not do so, but even tried to justify the expulsions. Prime Minister Boiko Borisov insisted his country had no Roma problem with France because the latter had returned just 41 Bulgarian gypsies and they accepted the measure "voluntarily". Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov said the Bulgarian Roma community was "an incubator generating crime," and so France was right to expel its visiting members.

Mr Borisov's government is blaming the country's Roma problem on its predecessors. "For the past 20 years there has been no Roma integration policies in Bulgaria," Mr Tsvetanov told WAZ.EUobserver.

In Bulgaria, a state TV poll on Tuesday evening showed that 71 percent of the viewers disapproved of the setting up of government programmes for Roma integration and 45 percent approved the Roma expulsions from France, while 51 percent disapproved of them. More than 45 percent of respondents said there should be separate schools for Roma children.

Historically, Bulgaria has a reputation for ethnic tolerance. However, deepening economic problems during the transition have widened the social and cultural divide between the nearly half a million Roma and the Bulgarian majority, creating fertile soil for far right anti-Roma groups like Ataka, a crucial supporter of Mr Borisov's minority government. In Romania, the official figure of the Gypsy population is also half a million, although unofficial estimates put the figure at 2 million or 2.5 million.

In both countries, gypsies are considered to be different, or even "foreign," from other major minorities, like the Turks in Bulgaria, or the Hungarians in Romania. Very often, their assimilation is not really deemed desirable. Even Communism, with its egalitarian ideology, preferred to leave the Gypsies in a time warp. Many escaped collectivisation, and communist Romania remained the only country in Europe where real nomadism was practiced by whole tribes of illiterate gypsies roaming around the country in horse-driven chariots.

Politicians from different camps claim European financial aid has vanished in Roma slums with no visible result. Romanian and Bulgarian officials cannot say how much exactly has been spent on Roma and to what effect. In Bulgaria, Prime Minister Borisov has insisted that no more integration funds would be channelled through NGOs, but that EU aid for Roma would from now on be allocated straight to governments.

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