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Roma face the same prejudices across Eastern Europe October 19, 2010

Posted by Yilan in EU, European Union, Roma.
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Belgrade – The recent French expulsions of illegal Roma immigrants has drawn attention to an ethnic minority which has spread across many borders and faces the same problems and prejudices almost everywhere in Central and Eastern Europe.

There are several million Roma, or Gypsies, in Eastern and Central Europe, but their exact number is elusive, as many remain unregistered or declare themselves differently to minimize prejudice.

Unemployment and illiteracy rates among them are several times higher than that of the majority populations across the region, as few finish even elementary schooling.

Many live in illegal shanty settlements without basic infrastructure or hygiene and limited or no access to health and social care.

Romanian President Tarian Basescu said last week that 1 million Roma had been ‘integrated’ into the nation’s society, describing the rest, including those who illegally settled in France, as ‘nomads.’

It is estimated that there are up to 2 million Roma in Romania, almost four times as many as the official figure of 540,000.

In Bulgaria, they are the third-largest ethnic group, behind Bulgarians and Turks. The 370,000 registered in the 2001 census made up 4.7 per cent of the population.

It was Roma from Bulgaria and Romania, the latest additions to the European Union, who were repatriated this year by France amid much controversy.

Those expelled said they had hoped to escape the utter poverty of their lives in their home countries. Tens of thousands of them live in favela-like settlements, in homes patched together out of mud, cardboard, tin and plastic.

In Slovakia, half of the 400,000-strong Roma population lives in quasi segregation, partly in slums akin to those in the Third World.

In several communities, the majority population has moved to physically separate themselves from the Roma, even going so far as to build walls, such as in the eastern town of Presov.

A similar situation exists in Hungary – most of the 600,000 Roma live in ghettos in the north and north-east and remain unintegrated, with just 1.2 per cent graduating from high school. Work is scarce and that available is mostly poorly paid.

Life expectancy among Hungarian Roma is 15 years shorter than the national average.

The Roma are also vulnerable to violent hate crimes. In Hungary, at least six were killed in a series of attacks, including shootings and petrol-bombing of the victims’ homes, in 2008 and 2009. Four men were eventually held over the killings.

Roma have also faced discrimination and outright hostility in Slovenia, the most developed among the batch of countries which joined the EU in 2004.

In October 2006, the Strojans, a Roma family, were driven from the village of Ambrus by angry residents. Their home, a house and several shacks, were torched and they spent several days hiding in the forest until the authorities relocated them to an empty army barracks.

In Serbia, there are 110,000 registered Roma, but it is estimated that they are nearly eight times as numerous.

In Belgrade

there are at least three large squatter villages, contemptuously referred to as ‘cardboard cities,’ with hundreds of makeshift homes and tons of rubbish surrounding them. An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Roma live there.

According to studies, 60 per cent of Roma children never complete the mandatory eight years of elementary school and a third of men and half of women are illiterate.

Roma who have jobs often work for the communal services, as street cleaners or rubbish collectors. As elsewhere, they, and even their children, are vulnerable to hate attacks by extremists.

In 1997, a Roma child, from a working family with a home in central Belgrade, was beaten to death by a gang of skinheads. A well- known Serbian actor, Dragan Maksimovic, was also fatally beaten in 2001 when a group of extremists mistook him for a Gypsy.

Hate attacks on Roma have been reported in almost every country where they live, from Poland to Italy, the Ukraine to Ireland.


East European Eyes on France’s Roma Policy October 19, 2010

Posted by Yilan in France, Roma.
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After a summer marked by a needless quarrel over how to treat their Roma population, the French seem on course for an autumn of discontent over issues much closer to their pocketbooks: the reform of their state pensions.

For the trade unionists and leftists gearing up to take on President Nicolas Sarkozy and his government over treasured welfare benefits, protests may well drown out the summer storm over the Roma.

For the rest of Europe, the memory may not fade so fast.

Karel Schwarzenberg, at 72 now foreign minister of the Czech Republic for a second time following the surprisingly strong showing of his new TOP09 party in elections last autumn, was musing on his embassy’s magnificent terrace overlooking the Eiffel Tower when he hit what felt like an important point.

“Especially in our part of the world,” he said, referring to Central and Eastern Europe, “we always look at France as a lighthouse of democracy and freedom.”

Many “refugees of our nations found asylum in France,” Mr. Schwarzenberg noted. No names were mentioned, but Milan Kundera, the Czech author who has been in Paris for decades, is a clear example.

So to have the president of France — the highest official of an esteemed European land — single out the Roma as some kind of hostile force was, Mr. Schwarzenberg said, “such a shock, and such a surprise.”

The scion of one of Central Europe’s mightiest landowning families, Mr. Schwarzenberg, who in Communist days supported anti-regime dissidents in his native Prague from his family holdings in Austria, might not seem the natural critic of a conservative French leader with Hungarian roots.

But he has seen the vicissitudes of power, and different fates, on a continent that 20 years after the Cold War still struggles for unity.

When it comes to problems like the Roma, he suggested, the best politics is local. Without sparing criticism of Czech policy — the “mistake,” for instance, of effectively segregating Czech Roma in special schools — he lauded the mayor of Cesky Krumlov, a Baroque jewel in the south of the Czech Republic, where Roma have not been marginalized in ghettoes and take a pride and a part in keeping the town spick and span.

“Let’s be honest,” the mustachioed, bow-tied aristocrat suggested, fussing with and eventually lighting a pipe. “In all our countries, the Roma are badly treated, especially by the police.”

Behind this lies a complex history of Nazi destruction of the Roma, one of Europe’s most ancient cultures, he noted. In Czech lands, almost all indigenous Roma died in Nazi camps, Mr. Schwarzenberg said. Those who settled in and near Czech cities after 1945 were already outsiders, descended from Roma from Romania, Hungary and Slovakia, and lacking the Czech language.

That kind of ethnic fracturing has vastly accelerated, Mr. Schwarzenberg noted, with the more recent migrations into Western Europe. When he studied in West Germany in the 1950s, he said, Italian and then Yugoslav workers were just arriving. There were almost no Turks — now estimated to number about 2.7 million in Germany. Similarly, the suburbs of Paris were French, and not — as in some areas today — North and sub-Saharan African. The Netherlands was home to some Indonesians loyal to Dutch colonial masters, but there was no sizeable immigration.

Europeans need “some time to adapt,” he said, while dismissing, as “a bit tactless,” the ideas of Thilo Sarrazin, the German banker who has created a stir for saying that immigrants, notably Turks, have contributed little or nothing in Germany.

The furor this summer over France’s expulsions of Roma to Romania and Bulgaria — European Union countries whose citizens still have limited rights to free travel in the 27-nation bloc — would pale by comparison to the prospect of full E.U. membership for Turkey, a country of 80 million people.

Mr. Schwarzenberg, conscious, he said, of being “only” foreign minister of a Central European nation of about 10 million people, has quite firm ideas about how Europe should react to Turkey, and what it must get done first.

If Turkey, whose membership is tied up in complex negotiations and is unlikely before 2020, meets all conditions, Mr. Schwarzenberg said, it should join. “A promise must be kept,” he said. If Turkey decides to pursue a more nationalist line but still seeks strong ties, “then let’s find another modus vivendi,” as well as working on “our own prejudices against the Turks.”

But before Turkey, Mr. Schwarzenberg said, let Europe finish other tasks. Noting the creation of a new European diplomatic service, he said, people like the Czechs should ensure they are well represented, thus increasing domestic identification with the European Union.

“We have to show that we are there to do our best and be valuable members of the E.U.,” he said, alluding to the gaffe-prone Czech presidency of 2009.

Next, he noted, all Europeans should work with the Poles and Swedes to emphasize partnerships to the East — Ukraine and Belarus, principally — to overcome lingering division of Europe. In the same vein, the western Balkans — Albania and the remnants of the old Yugoslavia — should join the fold.

If Mr. Schwarzenberg had one frustration, it was that the Czech Republic, ”the heart of Europe,” is still regarded by some Westerners as “the Far East.”

He conceded that parts of Eastern Europe bear scars of what he called the continent’s “prolonged civil war” between World War I in 1914 and the collapse of Communism in 1989. Yet 20 years after the Velvet Revolution, he said, his country is a fairly prosperous, fairly normal democracy.

How close to the dreams he nurtured from Vienna when his friend Vaclav Havel was still a dissident playwright pursued by the Communists? “Seldom,” he said, “the dreams you have are fulfilled completely.” And consolation, he smiled with perhaps a nod to his surroundings, is “only in a good bottle of wine.”

France Expels Gypsies, a Q&A on a Mysterious People October 11, 2010

Posted by Yilan in France, Human rights abuses.
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France began expelling the first of 700 Roma people as part of a controversial crackdown on illegal encampments around the country announced by French President Nicolas Sarkozy on July 31. 

Two flights with 87 Roma, or Gypsies, aboard left airports in Paris and Lyon today bound for Bucharest, with more expected to be flown to the Romanian capital next week. The French government paid each Roma $390 to leave and about $75 for each child.

Romanian Roma people coming from France are pictured as they arrive at the Baneasa airport in Bucharest 

Roma people coming from France are pictured as they arrive at the Baneasa Airport in Bucharest, Romania, on Thursday.

The expulsion policy, which has been criticized even by members of Sarkozy’s own conservative political party, was created after a July 17 riot by Roma at a police station in the village of Saint-Aignan.

The Roma being deported from France are legal residents of Romania and Bulgaria. Roma who are French nationals haven’t been targeted in the expulsions.

Roma, known more commonly as Gypsies, trace their roots back to India. Today, they live primarily in Eastern and Central Europe, with other communities in North and South America and Australia. Most — even the storefront fortunetellers in New York City and Orange County, Calif. — still speak the Romani language.

The French Interior Ministry says that Gypsy camps are “sources of illegal trafficking, of profoundly shocking living standards, of exploitation of children for begging, of prostitution and crime.”

Humanitarian rights groups, however, maintain that the initiative smacks of xenophobia, and some politicians have compared it to the roundup of Jews during World War II. As European Union citizens, however, the Roma are theoretically free to return to France for up to three months.

AOL News spoke to Yaron Matras, an expert on the Roma and a linguistics professor at the University of Manchester in England, where he coordinates the Romani Project.

Where are the Roma from?

From what we’ve been able to find out, the Roma probably came from central India and moved to northern India around the fifth century. The Romani language is one of the Indo-Aryan languages, like Hindi or ancient Sanskrit. We think the Roma people moved westward around the 10th century and into what is now Turkey. From the late 14th century on, they moved into Europe.

Why is everyone so vague about the origins of the Roma and why they left India?

First of all, there are absolutely no historical records. Nobody really knows. People have come up with all sorts of theories and wild speculation. There’s no evidence of a catastrophic event causing them to leave. They were part of an economically specialized caste; some of them, for example, were metal workers and continued that trade for centuries.

Do you mean they were part of a lower caste in India?

Well, there’s a generation of [Roma] activists that don’t want to talk about that now, as if that’s an insult to their ancestors. There’s a fashion among activists to say the Roma were upper-caste, proud warriors who were taken as slaves and forced to come to Europe. There’s no evidence to support that. There’s no written attestation.

Many people think the word “Roma” means Romanian, especially as the French are expelling many Roma back to Romania.

“Rom” comes from the caste name “Dom” in the Indian languages. The country of Romania has nothing to do with the Roma or the word “Romani,” which is an adjective for them. It’s a complete coincidence. There is a large population of Roma who live in Romania, but they are all over the Balkans, in Bulgaria and Slovakia and Turkey as well.

Roma are said to have been persecuted for centuries; they also have a reputation for being petty criminals and con artists. Did one lead to the other?

The Roma have a long history of persecution, of living in poverty, being marginalized, and have a high rate of illiteracy. There’s been a lot of social prejudice and isolation. It’s a vicious cycle than can lead to self-despair and a boycotting of mainstream culture. But you’re seeing the Roma who are out there begging; you aren’t seeing the ones working in offices and other good jobs. There are thousands of those too.

How does the persecution of the Roma compare to that of the Jews?

To an extent, they’ve been persecuted more than the Jews. Jews had more urban integration. The Roma never had a cohesive body. They’ve never had a territory or a tradition of literacy, which is what the Jews had. Often they were allowed to work in Europe only in certain trades and on the condition they not mix with the local population. The Roma in Romania and Bulgaria were the first to lose their jobs after the fall of communism.

Movies like “King of the Gypsies” present the Roma as having their own courts and an intricate social structure that involve scamming people.

There are no kings or queens. No Gypsy believes in gypsy kings. That’s for show. Some Gypsy communities have conflict resolution strategies that some of them call courts. Roma are often specialized in particular trades and services and have adopted survival strategies which outsiders often regard with suspicion.

Is there hope for the Roma?

There is a growing movement of young Romani intellectuals and activists who are working toward self-empowerment and social integration as well as fighting discrimination and prejudice against the Roma. They are promoting Romani media training and cultural projects that are increasingly gaining the respect of governments.

Stop this state persecution of Roma October 11, 2010

Posted by Yilan in France, Human rights abuses, Roma.
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France’s deportation of Roma is nothing short of state-sponsored racism. When will the international community stand up for us?

Roma women and children Roma women and children in a Lyon camp who stand to be expelled under Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposals. Photograph: Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty ImagesWhat era are we living in? The sad answer is that we are living – once again, it would seem – at a time when France is harassing and expelling its Romany population in the name of law and order. Last week, the French government began the roundup of more than 700 Romany immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania, and ordered special flights chartered to send them back to their home countries. The deportations will begin on Thursday. Over the past month, the French government began dismantling Romany camps; at present, more than 50 camps all over France have been destroyed by the state. 

At the same time, France has announced two other policies directed at Roma, Travellers and other immigrants: the criminalisation of entire families rather than just individuals and the stripping of citizenship from immigrants with criminal convictions.

These measures are part of a wider law-and-order push by President Nicolas Sarkozy following a weekend of rioting in two cities in July. In a poor suburb of Grenoble, southeast France, young people torched cars and fired on police following an incident in which a suspect in a casino robbery was shot dead. In Saint-Aignan, in central France, police shot dead a 22-year-old Romany man for failing to stop at a roadblock. Roma armed with hatchets and iron bars felled trees and traffic lights, torched cars and attacked a bakery and a police station.

This is the first time France has seen protests by Roma youth taking the form of violent disturbances; the current rioting was similar in substance, though smaller in scale, to the immigrant-led 2005 riots that broke out across France’s suburbs. Rather than sympathy for the families who lost their sons, or an apology for the police killings, the protests and riots were met with immediate state violence, expulsion and criminalisation.

The Sarkozy government’s attacks on Roma are nothing more than cynical politics, state-sponsored racism and xenophobia aimed primarily at Roma citizens and, by extension, all immigrants. They have arisen as window-dressing on the unfolding corruption scandal surrounding Sarkozy.

This happened despite the fact that the young Romany killed was French and those expelled were citizens of EU member states, who have a right to enter France without passports, staying if they find employment within three months. One wonders how closely paperwork was checked with regard to residency and employment as the camps were being dismantled and EU citizens expelled on chartered flights.

France is not alone in its attack against its own Romany citizens and those of other EU member states. Leaders all over Europe have found it expedient to attack Roma as recessions have hit, political scandals have loomed or other kinds of threats to state power have emerged. Indeed, Sarkozy seems to have been taking lessons from his conservative counterpart in Italy, Silvio Berlusconi whose government has increasingly focused on Roma as targets of state violence and everyday xenophobia. Similar things are happening in places ranging from Slovakia to Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey.

As a US Romany woman, I have been appalled to observe what has been happening to my people throughout Europe. I am shocked that the international community has not been more active in speaking out and taking action against this state-sponsored violence. When it comes to Roma, when will nation-states be held accountable? How long will we have to witness the spread of what can only be called proto-fascist violence against Roma without condemning those responsible?

The initial riot in response to the killing of the young Romany a few weeks ago was followed on Sunday by a planned protest by Romany groups that blocked a major highway in Bordeaux, in protest of the deportations and targeting of the Gypsies, Roma and Travellers by the state. At this moment, international solidarity and protest against Europe’s targeting of Romany citizens is crucial.

We need to act in concert: the UN, the European Union, the UK government, the US, human rights and other activist organisations, and all parts of the Romany diaspora must work to make sure that the state-sponsored violence is stopped. Romany people should be granted the full rights of citizens to political participation, education, healthcare, freedom of movement, freedom against violence, dignity and respect.

France, the Bulgarian Roma and the Failure of Europe October 11, 2010

Posted by Yilan in France.
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Bulgaria: France, the Bulgarian Roma and the Failure of Europe

The recently announced and already implemented measures of French President Nicolas Sarkozy to dismantle the illegal settlements of Bulgarian and Romanian Roma around the country, and to extradite their inhabitants back to their home countries has stirred much controversy in France and across Europe.

And rightfully so. “Controversial” is probably the most innocent word to describe this endeavor, which is supposed to rid the good people of France from the presence of the most downtrodden citizens of the most dirtbag EU member states.

The fact of the matter, however, is that while the critics of the Roma removal do have their points when they call it a violation of the rights of citizens of the European Union, all that criticism is still barking up the wrong tree…

Certainly, the move of the French president and government – and of the authorities in Denmark who have undertaken similar, though smaller-scale measures – are justified to a great extent.

Because, unfortunately, it is true that the Roma squatters in their countries might pose “threats to the security” of the French and Danish citizens. They might be involved in theft, pickpocketing, prostitution, and other criminal activities, and they are certainly building makeshift homes on land that is not their property, without any permission – which in itself is clearly illegal.

This whole issue and the ensuing public debate might actually have a positive effect as this might finally focus Europe’s attention on the condition of the Roma, and make it more comprehensible.

Because, again – unfortunately, it is true – that the Roma population in Bulgaria, Romania, and the rest of Eastern and Western Europe generally has lower education and employment rates, and higher crime rates coupled with higher birth rates that perpetuate the outcast situation of this group by expanding its numbers.

Now that the Roma squatters have settled on the doorsteps of the residents of the nice French and Danish suburbs, and are being evicted demonstratively, perhaps people everywhere will finally pay attention to their plight, what can be done to tackle these issues, and who is really to blame for the situation of the Roma.

Whose fault is that situation, really? Everybody’s. It is the fault of the Roma communities themselves – for most of them have failed to education and take up decent jobs, to change their mentality, and to stop living in the 18th century. For heaven’s sakes, some of them still literally buy their wives (there are that kinds of “marketplaces” in Bulgaria!), and some cut off two of the five fingers on the hands of young girls in order to train them as smooth pickpockets.

It is the fault of the societies of the Eastern European nations with sizable Roma minorities that have failed to figure out the right way to integrate Roma by breaking rather than perpetuating the vicious cycle of their isolation, encapsulation and ghettoization, and to stop the discrimination against them. For heaven’s sakes, the word “gypsy” is often used as an insult in Bulgaria.

Then, as if the fact that these two groups of actors are not meeting one another halfway was not enough, there has been generous involvement of the “international community”, i.e. Western politicians, activists, intellectuals, and even powerful benefactors such as George Soros.

These various nice people always appear to know best what should be done with the Roma. This is why they would provide funds for some ill-advised programs that will sink into the pockets of corrupt officials and community leaders.

Simultaneously, the international community well-wishers and good-doers will generate the outrage of the local societies by criticizing them devastatingly for breaking the rights of the minorities without really understanding the multi-layer and multilateral nature of the problem.

Needless to say, initiatives of the sort of the much celebrated “Decade of the Roma Inclusion” have been a total failure not just because their funds hardly ever trickled down to the actual regular Roma people who need them but because many of the measures they envision hardly make any sense.

And now that the Roma problem has reached the doorsteps of the “international community” in Paris and Copenhagen, some of the most developed Western democratic societies are taking measures that are a lot worse that many of the measures taken by the authorities in Bulgaria and Romania.

Because if an illegally-built Roma ghetto is demolished in Sofia, millions of bogus and hypocritical human rights advocates will rise in order to deal severe blows of criticism in the European media on the Bulgarian authorities. But now it is developed Western democracies that are doing that. If Bulgaria and Romania are screwed up and unable to rectify the Roma problem, who don’t the governments and people of France and Denmark set an example for them and show how it should be done?

Of course they won’t. Because it is not easy, it is a complex issue and, what is more, there is a genuine lack of concern and will to do any of that. So just get these people the hell out of here, deport them back to their dirtbag homelands in the East where they will continue to live in misery, crime and destitution. One cannot help but shiver as this is remotely reminiscent of the Nazi policy to send certain racial and ethnic groups to certain encampments in the East.

Of course, this is the worst approach possible. First, because it is unjust and hypocritical. Second, because the Roma squatters will eventually come back, in the same condition, and there will be more of them. Third, because the total failure to even consider some kind of a decent solution will literally exacerbate the problems of the Eastern European societies with respect to the failed integration of the Roma. Fourth, because if the Bulgarian and Romanian Roma can be deported 1 000 miles away, what are the Western European states and societies going to do about the similar kinds of outcast communities that they have grown on their own soil?

What about the second and third generation Europeans of African, Arab, Turkish, etc descent, whose parents and grandparents came from former colonies and Third World nations, to do menial labor, only to see most of their children and grandchildren fail to integrate and literally live as immigrants in the countries where they were born? How long before the next riot of unemployed, undereducated youth in the suburbs of Paris or the next suicide terrorist plot carried out by young radicalized European-born Muslims? Where will these people be deported?

But, quite frankly, the whole Roma issue in France and Denmark is not really about the Roma. It is about the failed project that the EU is increasingly turning into. Because the Roma problem is an EU-wide problem. Just as the energy dependence on Russia, unemployment, the global lagging behind in research and development of the EU economy, the global warming, terrorism, the war in Afghanistan, the demographic crisis… to name but a few.

How many Europeans – scholars, diplomats, or regular citizens – have ever wondered why many of the top American geopolitical and international relations “realist” thinkers tend to disregard the EU as a global actor and a power player, and why? Interestingly, in his best-selling recent book “The Next 100 Years”, the founder and director of Stratfor, a private intelligence company, George Friedman devotes about four paragraphs to the EU, and talks about Japan, Turkey, and Poland as rising future powers.

Sure, even the stray dogs in Sofia can see that the EU is a new kind of entity, the European Commission can fine Microsoft and write threatening letters to member countries, blah, blah, blah. But is the EU turning into what it should be turning into in order to serve the best interests of its citizens?

Not really. And the handling of the Roma issue in France is just one good example of a bad situation. Instead of progressing in terms of becoming more cohesive in order to meet the myriad of new challenges, the EU is now regressing progressively as those in the East are often too weak and too corrupt to care, and those in the West are often too complacent; and then everybody thinks they will be better off if they cheat – by cooking financial data in Greece, by blockading the Lisbon Treaty, by demolishing Roma camps.

Thus, instead of becoming more united and of speaking with one voice – the lesson that the founding fathers of the EU sought to implement into this new entity in order to ensure the better future of the Europeans – the EU states, nations, societies, and individuals are exacerbating their own collective action problems.

Tearing down shantytowns and deporting people is not the kind of leadership required to face the challenges before the EU in the globalized world. Such attitudes won’t help keep the EU on the map. This was the entire point of the Eastern Enlargement, and it did make a lot of sense. However, now that certain difficulties have presented themselves, the easiest thing is not to act to solve the problems as adults but to act as children instead – to disregard, put off, or “deport” a certain problem just because it is a hard one.

A cheap escape here and there might seem beneficial in the short run but it is bound to have disastrous ramifications. For good or for bad, the people from the North Atlantic to the Black Sea are all in this together – from the residents of the Buckingham Palace to the Roma in Stolipinovo, the gypsy quarter in Plovdiv. Too bad for Europe this realization is proving increasingly elusive.