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Roma communities in Europe have been subjected to centuries of persecution and racism. 'Roma Rights' looks at the hard living conditions but it also examines the richness and energy of Roma culture, especially the music.
The Roma have an exotic image - musicians, actors, artists, - sometimes beggars. Europeans called them ‘Gypsies’ because they thought they came from Egypt. But Romani people have lived in Europe for over a thousand years, and they originally came from India, not Egypt. Roma communities in Europe have been subjected to centuries of persecution and racism. They are one of the most excluded groups in the world. They are denied the chance to work, proper housing, healthcare and their children refused a decent education. A new initiative – the Decade of Roma Inclusion – is being launched on 2nd February in a concerted attempt to help and break the desperate cycle of poverty in which so many Roma live.
On the outskirts of Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, Roma celebrate April the 8th – International Roma Day - this is the day in 1971 when their mother country, India, officially recognised the Roma people, their language, and their flag. It’s also the day they remember their history – their exodus from India a thousand years ago, their travelling, the million plus Roma who died in the Nazi concentration camps.
Since 1989 - in the transition from communism to capitalism – their living conditions in Central and Eastern Europe have deteriorated dramatically. They live, on average, 15 years less than the rest of the population. Those living in rural areas are among the most deprived.
“The President should come and see how we live, we haven’t got enough to eat,” says one Roma woman, hoeing the fields. “We sleep on beds made out of planks, ten eleven children to a room. We’ve got a hoeing job here and we make just enough for food for the evening. We are wretched folk - gypsies.”
There are two million Romani people in Romania – almost one in ten of the population. Many are so isolated from the main population they don’t even take basic steps to become citizens. In one neighbourhood of the Galati province, most Roma are born, live and die without being registered outside their own community. The task of wading through bureaucracy to get them on to the local authority’s books is Viorica Gotu’s full time job.
Says one woman: “If Viorica hadn’t done it we couldn’t have got the registration on our own. The police refused to issue me any papers. They said I have no permanent address and they can’t register me.”
But change ishappening. Roma leaders are starting to bring about change at an international level. 2004 was a milestone. The European Roma and Travellers Forum, representing the major Romani organisations, joined the Council of Europe – and became directly involved in decisions affecting their communities. Rudko Kawczynski, Interim President of European Roma and Travellers Forum, says:
“Well it’s the first time in European history that Roma have been even recognised. Until now we have been treated like a fringe group, like a social phenomenon, a social problem. It’s the first time in history that the European governments have recognised the Roma as a trans-national minority that lives everywhere in the European countries with a common problem - and that something has to be done to improve the living conditions of this group.”
Hungary, where Roman make up 6 per cent of the population, has produced the first Roma Member of the European Parliament, 30-year-old Livia Jaroka. She’s one of the new generation of leaders.
“Now there is a Roma person in the Parliament so there is of course a great push and also because it’s much easier now to locate all the energies of the different civil rights organisations that are working on Roma issues in Europe into this one building - basically in to my office, so that Roma can get their voice heard,” she says.
In 2003, leaders from eight Central and Eastern European countries acknowledged they must recognise Romani people as equal citizens of their countries. They declared a ‘Decade of Roma Inclusion’. But veteran activist, Nicolae Gheorghe, of the OCSE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, says governments need to change their attitude and realise they are the ones responsible for improving conditions.
“The Roma are first of all citizens of the States in which they live, and it’s the obligations of States to deal with that and the support coming from outside is rather to build capacity of the States institutions.”
Stanislaw Stankiewicz, President of the International Romani Union, believes change has to happen not just inside countries, but across borders. “Roma in the globalisation process are at the forefront as a European nation, because we know how to live within other cultures and among other nations. Why? Because we don’t have a problem with religions and cultures… We don’t have a State - we are a trans-national nation. We are something new in the globalisation process. This novel concept should be accepted by politicians.”
The Roma media play an unique role in representing their communities’ views, reflecting their culture, and showing the benefits of being part of non-Roma society. In Bulgaria, TV Roma’s Director, Petar Stefanov, says the media are the eyes and ears of local Romani communities. “Integration is a very long process that has to be made on both sides – from one side the Romani community and from the other, the mainstream society. Both sides have to be prepared to work together. My opinion is that there is a barrier that divides both sides, Bulgarians and Roma living in Bulgaria… So we have to build cultural bridges to cross it so that people can understand each other better.”
Better education is at the heart of the Decade. Many families can’t afford to send their children to school, the uneducated can’t find work, and the cycle continues. Across Eastern and Central Europe, less than one in five Roma children continue their education beyond primary school.
Miglena Taseva is one of the Bulgarian students who attended a six-week course to train as a Roma teaching assistant in national schools. Back in her home town, Lom, Miglena is bringing Romani culture and language into the local classroom as well as helping Roma children get up to speed – making way for better understanding and less discrimination.
The end of Communism meant the end of full employment. “Until 1989 we had no economic problems. Because we had secure jobs we were working of course, and that meant much more full inclusion into the society than at the present time,” says Livia Jaroka. “After 1989, most of the Roma lost their jobs. Today it’s about 11 per cent of Roma male Hungarians who have some sort of job and it’s not always a legal job.”Nicolae Gheorghe says that co-operation between agencies could help. “Where I see the possibilities to have added value is to generate interlinks between these initiatives, between the Roma Forum, between the OSCE Action Plan for Roma and Sinti, the Decade.” And Livia Jaroka says that all Roma have a responsibility. “The Roma have a great responsibility in this as well - showing ourselves, showing we are the same as the majority society and this knowing each other, this partnership that we have to build up again together could only fight the racist and discriminatory fears that people have in their soul.”
The Council of Europe website has a page on the European Roma and Travellers Forum.
The European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) is an international law organisation which monitors the situation of Roma in Europe and provides legal defence to victims of human rights violations.
Patrin is dedicated to Romani (Gypsy) culture and history and to extending awareness of the continuous Roma struggle to achieve and maintain dignity and freedom. It is a learning resource and information centre about Romani culture, social issues, and current events.
Nicolae Gheorghe works for the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the principal OSCE institution responsible for promoting progress in the human dimension, strengthening democratic structures, and advancing human rights.
The Roma National Congress is an autonomous body, established and run by Roma. It has been active in recent years in the domains of human and political rights for Roma, protection and humanitarian aid for refugees, schooling programs and cultural activities, media documentation, historic and linguistic research.
Medienhilfe, a Swiss-based non-government organization, has been working with the Open Society Institute to establish the Rroma Media Networking Project, promoting Roma emancipation and inclusion through Roma media. Among many other Roma media agencies with pages in English are: the Roma Press Agency, based in Slovakia, the Rom News Network, and the Romano Vod'i, based in Prague.
The International Romani Union (IRU) does not yet have a website, but its new President, Stanislaw Stankiewicz, can be contacted by email. Similarly, the Forum Of European Roma Young People (FERYP) does not have a website, but its President, Alexandra Raykova, can be contacted by email.
Extensive links are provided by the Association of Gypsies/Romani International.