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Roma in Central and Eastern Europe

The presence of Roma from Central and Eastern European countries in Member States of the European Union shows the inadequacy of examining the situation of Roma in the EU in isolation from the wider European context.  Furthermore, the new wave of Roma migration from Central and Eastern European countries has provoked debate and discussion on the plight of Roma asylum-seekers.  Against this background and in the context of the enlargement of the EU it is important therefore to focus on the circumstances of Roma in Central and Eastern European countries.  This brief overview does not pretend to present a comprehensive picture of Roma and does not focus on the many positive developments in terms of self-organisation, cultural developments or other achievements.  The focus is on the discrimination and racism in line with the purpose of this report.

There are an estimated eight to ten million Roma/Gypsies/Travellers living in Europe with substantial populations in Albania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Turkey.  In the EU the largest Roma/Gypsy/Traveller populations are in Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Greece and the United Kingdom.  A Council of Europe report points out that this population differs from other minority ethnic groups in that they do not have a common homeland and that they are one of the few groups who have never resorted to armed struggle and violence to promote their cause.  “Yet the history of the Gypsies is one of discrimination, exclusion and persecution of which they have almost always been the victims, wherever they have found themselves.  During the Second World War they were used by the Nazis for their racist biological experiments, before being exterminated in concentration camps; between 300,000 and 600,000 are believed to have perished in this way” (Council of Europe, European Committee on Migration, The Situation of Gypsies (Roma and Sinti) in Europe, Strasbourg, 1995).

According to Rom activist Rudko Kawczynski:  “The main problems confronting the Roma is racism.  Poverty, lack of education, unemployment, and cultural deprivation are the results of society’s hostility toward the Roma.  As such they are symptoms and not the core of the problem.”  (Roma Rights Newsletter, Spring 1997)

The International Romani Union issued a statement calling for the protection of Roma/Sinti:  

“In Ex-Yugoslavia and Romania, for example, the Roma are faced with pogroms and slaughter by nationalistic chauvinistic parties or paramilitary units, and pogroms against Roma have also been reported in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Ukrania as well as in Germany.”  (International Romani Union, Berlin, 1992).

In Central and Eastern Europe under the various communist governments, policies in relation to Roma were characterised by assimilation and forced settlement.  Initially the tendency was to focus on their status as an economically underprivileged group but this tendency was replaced by more repressive measures outlawing nomadism and attempts to wipe out traditional Roma culture.  In Bulgaria, for instance, there was a policy to “Bulgarianise” Roma, i.e. to eliminate Roma identity and culture.  Roma in Bulgaria, comprising about 6% of the total population, have a long history of persecution, expulsion, and forced sedentarism.  The consequences of these policies are still evident in the ghetto-like conditions of many Roma, the lack of basic facilities and services, difficulties in accessing education and health care and widespread social exclusion.  Reports by Helsinki Watch, for instance, claim that there is widespread discrimination, including allegations against the police and media as well as attacks against Roma by right-wing skinheads.  Efforts to promote Roma rights are led by a minority of Rom intellectuals, the Confederation of Roma and a national lobby, the United Roma Federation.

The social exclusion of Roma is also evident in Albania, where there are over 90,000 Roma.  Many live in very poor circumstances, are unemployed, or work in dead-end, low-pay jobs.  In the Czech Republic, Roma constitute about 2% of the population (i.e. approximately 250,000).  Again, they have a long history of policies and laws restricting their way of life.  Nomadism was forbidden; the Romani language was suppressed. There are reports of sterilisation being rewarded by payments in the context of poverty.  In recent years, right-wing skinheads are also reported to have led attacks against Roma.  President Havel in 1995 attended the unveiling of a memorial to Czech Roma interned in Nazi camps but has been criticised for his silence on contemporary manifestation of racism towards Roma.  Miroslav Sladek, leader of the extremist Association for the Republic of Czechoslovakia called on all city mayors to expel Roma from the territories for the their widespread

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