Friday, February 21, 2014

Romanian Roma face prejudice -- from the president on down

By Isabelle Wesselingh (AFP)

Bucharest — Like many teenagers, Cristi gets extra help outside school in favourite subjects. But unlike most, the Bucharest boy panics at the thought of his tutor leaving the room, even for a moment.

"When I go to my neighbour to take extra English lessons, I am afraid to be left alone because you know that people say Roma steal," said the 13-year-old, an ordinary boy who likes English, mathematics and, of course, football.

"Me, I don't, but I am afraid that something will disappear and I would be falsely accused."

Like Cristi, many Romanian Roma struggle daily against "prejudiced and heavily stereotypical rhetoric" used by politicians, the media and society in general, the head of the country's anti-discrimination council, Csaba Asztalos, told AFP.

A rise in anti-Roma attitudes elsewhere in Europe has underscored the problem.

And in Romania -- where Roma were treated as slaves until 1856 -- looking down at the minority starts right at the top.

In an unprecedented move last week, the state anti-discrimination council slapped President Traian Basescu with a $180 (131-euro) fine for anti-Roma remarks, after giving him two earlier warnings .

Basescu had publicly alleged, during a 2010 visit to Slovenia, that Roma do not want to work and that "many nomadic Roma traditionally live from what they steal."

Roma rights group Romani Criss praised the sanction but warned that Basescu was not an isolated case.

"Many other politicians, including Prime Minister Victor Ponta and former Prime Minister Calin Tariceanu, promote racism by describing Roma as offenders and anti-social," it said.

- 'I do not feel protected' -

"I do not recognise myself at all in the way politicians describe us," complained Loredana Dumitru, a 24-year-old Roma journalist working for a national TV channel.

"I do not feel protected in a country where many people in the street despise me because of my ethnic background and where politicians, who are supposed to guarantee my security in society, are doing the same," she told AFP.

Romania has the largest Roma minority in Europe, estimated at about two million people by rights groups. On Thursday, many will mark the abolition of Roma slavery 158 years ago.

But the vast majority do not declare themselves as ethnic Roma for fear of discrimination. Only 620,000 Roma openly stated their ethnicity in the 2011 official census.

Romania is the European Union's second poorest member state and its Roma are among the poorest of the poor, with 35 percent of Roma children living below the poverty line.

High-profile members of the community have spoken out about the trauma of discrimination, including Alina Serban, a London-based actress and playwright.

"From a grandmother telling her grandchild, 'If you do not behave I will give you to the gypsies', to politicians using stereotypes about Roma, all of them affected me and gave me complexes," she said.

Asztalos of the anti-discrimination watchdog likewise stressed the "devastating effects the negative rhetoric has on Roma children".

Like Cristi, many "live in constant fear of the widespread prejudice against their minority," he said.

Some Roma have gone into politics themselves to fight for change, such as 30-year-old Petre Florin Manole, a history graduate who joined the Social Democratic party, the largest in Romania's parliament.

With a group of colleagues, he started a league to foster better understanding but readily concedes they have a long way to go.

Romanian "politicians in theory should be an example," he told AFP, "but we should not forget they come from this very society where the majority is prejudiced against the Roma."

The challenge is how to affect change.

For Manole, EU integration and action by the anti-discrimination council is helping raise awareness among politicians.

Asztalos, meanwhile, also looks to the grass roots.

"Society should address economic and social problems rather than link everything to ethnicity," he said.

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