(Reuters) - The erection of a concrete wall between a Roma gypsy neighborhood and a main road in northern Romania has led a human rights group to accuse the town of trying to set up a ghetto.
Catalin Chereches, the 32-year-old mayor of Baia Mare, told Reuters Friday the plan was not discriminatory and the wall's height of 1.8 meters (six feet) was designed to prevent traffic accidents.
"It's only aimed at protecting our citizens against car crashes," Chereches said by telephone. "It's made of coated concrete instead of wood to stop people using it to make a fire."
The vast majority of Romania's Roma gypsy population live on the margins of society in abject poverty and pro-democracy organizations say the state does not do enough to prevent discrimination.
"Such initiatives belong to the Nazi era," rights group Center for Legal Resources said in a letter demanding the mayor halt work on the wall and resign.
"The idea to separate a community with severe social problems ... amounts to institutionalized racism."
Romania's Roma gypsy population is about 550,000, according to official estimates. But rights groups put it as high as 2.5 million, making it the largest such community in Europe.
Since Romania joined the European Union in 2007, hundreds of thousands of Roma have flooded European cities, complaining of racism and poverty at home.
France's repatriation of Roma last year prompted one European Union official to recall the Nazis' persecution, overshadowed an EU summit and sparked a row between President Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany's Angela Merkel.
Roma have a long history of being persecuted and during World War Two they were targeted by the Nazis. Although estimates vary, it is thought several hundred thousand died in concentration camps alongside millions of Jews.
(Reporting by Radu Marinas; editing by Robert Woodward)