Roma Face the Same Prejudices across Eastern EuropeViews on BG | September 26, 2010, Sunday // 15:19| views
Romanian gypsies sit next to their luggage shortly after arriving from France at the international airport in Bucharest, Romania, 26 August 2010. Photo by EPA/BGNES
By Boris Babic
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.