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All roads lead to ROMA.

Throughout history Roma have been seen as outcasts from mainstream society. It seems that nothing has changed. We have still not learnt to be tolerant of those whose lifestyles are different to our own.

FOR CENTURIES GYPSIES HAVE been romanticised and reviled. Their traditional lifestyle seems to attract and repel the popular imagination in equal measure -- witness the number of `New Age' travellers or holiday caravaners who seek to imitate their traditional way of life each summer or the popularity of the music of the Gypsy Kings. Compare this with the angst easily whipped up by press reports of `Gypsy scroungers', anti-social travellers or aggressive Gypsy beggars. As outsiders Gypsy relationships with the non-Gypsy world never have been easy, but in the last decade or so, old prejudices and fears have risen to the surface once more.

Nowhere is this more true than in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Since the collapse of the communist bloc, combined with the effects of war and the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, Gypsies have been subjected to increased harassment, discrimination and racially-motivated violence. As a result, and partly encouraged by Czech TV programmes giving glowing accounts about generous welfare programmes in Britain and Canada, successive waves of Roma have left Eastern Europe for the West in the last few years. In general their requests for asylum are rejected on the grounds that they are simply economic migrants.


In the former Eastern Bloc, Gypsies, or Roma as many prefer to be called, were subject to strict assimilation policies but now suffer economic exclusion with more than 60 per cent unemployment in some countries. Worst of all is the case of the Kosovar Roma, where many former miners or taxi drivers were targeted by Serb police as `Albanians' during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. After the crisis, returning Albanians accused the Roma of collaboration with Serb forces. Several thousand Roma, facing an uncertain future, still live in Macedonian camps under police protection.

In the Czech Republic, the alleged victimisation of Roma grabbed the international headlines in 1998 when the town council of Usti nad Labem built a high wall separating a Roma housing estate from its neighbours. The town of Plzen also proposed surrounding a gypsy apartment block with barbed wire. Following pressure from the European Community and central government, the wall was subsequently demolished, although its brief existence underlined local animosities.

Under communism most gypsies had a steady income and a welfare safety net. By turning Roma into wage labour, former communist countries largely succeeded in eliminating what remained of their nomadic past. Now, however, few are able to compete in the employment market, forcing many to turn to petty crime, begging and prostitution, and, as a consequence, reinforcing a negative stereotype.

In the last few years, dozens of Czech Roma have been killed in attacks by skinhead and other racist groups. Many more have been injured. They have become the scapegoats of a rapidly changing society and, though they may have lived in the country for centuries, are seen as outsiders with no place to call home. Indeed, many Czech Roma were denied citizenship of the new republic under the 1993 Citizenship Law. The reaction of some Roma activists, such as Emil Scuka, general secretary of the International Romany Union (IRU), is to assert their rights to be Czech. Others, often the less educated, believe they have no place in the country.

Rejection and discrimination encourages migration, something the European Union is increasingly concerned about. The Union's greatest fear is that large numbers of Roma may move legally to western Europe, increasing tensions there, following the accession of the Czech Republic and other EU candidate states.


Some of the most shocking and well-documented cases of anti-Gypsy prejudice, however, occur within the EC itself, notably in Greece. A recent report by the Minority Rights Group-Greece catalogues repeated cases of police brutality, bureaucratic harassment and poor health care. Since 1996 Greek authorities have evicted Roma from five established settlements including a community of 3,500 tent-dwellers who had been living in the same area near Thessaloniki for 30 years. Nine other settlements have been threatened with eviction and Roma have become persona non grata in many Greek towns.

According the Greek Helsinki Monitor group: "A rather awkwardly parked car owned by a Roma resulted in a municipal council decision of immediate expulsion of 300 Roma from the region on the grounds that Roma increase the criminality rate in the area." Roma have also been evicted from campsites near Athens in preparation for the 2004 Olympic Games.


Enmity against Roma, of course, is nothing new. It reached its most extreme in Nazi Germany when Roma were interned as members of a `criminal underclass' and between a quarter and half a million perished in concentration camps. Their suffering, known among Roma as `The Devouring', or Porajmos, was finally and belatedly recognised by the United Nations in August when the UN's Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called for compensation for Roma victims of Nazi terror and deportation.

The UN announcement coincided with the first distribution of funds by the Swiss Fund for Needy Victims of the Holocaust/Shoa to Gypsy survivors of the holocaust in the Ukraine. Almost 4,000 Ukrainian Gypsies received $400 each. Roma organisations, however, are also demanding an apology from Germany for the holocaust and have set up a fund for a memorial to those who died.


So what does the future hold for one of Europe's largest, most diverse and least understood minorities? With growing tensions and renewed prejudice have come increasing demands for ethnic recognition and an assertion of the Roma's cultural identity. At the end of July the fifth `Congress of the International Romany Union'(IRU), meeting in Prague, called for the Roma to be internationally recognised as a separate nation.

The Roma community itself, however, is pluralistic and divided with distinctive European groupings including the Manouches of France, the Romnichals in Britain, the Gitanos of Spain and the Sinti of Germany and central Europe. Many Roma are physically identifiable by their dark, swarthy looks, yet assimilation has left some unable to speak Romany and contact with the wider Roma community has been weakened. Few, however, are completely accepted by society at large.

There is also a huge gulf between the small educated elite and ordinary Gypsies. Varied external influences and dispersal across Europe and beyond have led to considerable variations in their culture and organisation.

Historically, Roma have organised themselves on the basis of the extended family with elders taking decisions for the group. National or international organisations have often been dominated by three or four families, while the plethora of Roma groups has limited their political clout.


Leading Roma organisations, however, are striving for greater unity. The long-established IRU is planning a new headquarters in Brussels to better coordinate Roma activities. At their July congress delegates stressed the importance of education by and for the Gypsy community. There is talk of Roma university to research and teach Romani and Roma culture. Elsewhere Roma are seeking better access to existing universities. In Romania, for instance, young Roma of the Romani Criss organisation have persuaded the government to reserve university places for Roma students.

Some recent efforts at encouraging Roma education in countries bent on the notion of assimilation, however, have been badly received. In Greece, a recently initiated three-year programme for educating teachers of Roma children has been criticised for providing books in Greek only when most Greek Roma speak Romani. "Unlike similar education programmes in other European countries," said the Minority Rights Group, "the Greek one seems to undermine the Roma identity of the children."

In the Czech context, however, a report by the British Helsinki Human Rights Group (BHHRG), criticised the idea of implementing exactly the opposite policy; of reintroducing the Romani language to a group among whom it is virtually extinct. The authors of the report denounced "the cult of a separate Roma ethnic and cultural identity on the part of some NGOs and human rights groups [which] ironically seems bent on creating the very kind of apartheid that otherwise is condemned." The BHHRG's rapporteurs did not meet any Gypsies who wished their children to learn Romany rather than Czech and concluded that "the costly efforts to revive a Romany language ... can only tend to isolate the Gypsies further in Czech society."

Education, whether in Romany or the national language, is nevertheless seen as a key issue among Roma leaders. The problems experienced by Gypsies differ from one country to another and may require different policy solutions. Novel approaches to Roma exclusion may have to be attempted to overcome mutual suspicion. Czech political scientist, Alex Tomsky, for instance, has proposed recruitment schemes which draft Roma into government administration and the police force, rather like the positive redressment policies for African Americans in the United States.

The position of the Roma in Europe today may be familiar to European Jews, once themselves caught between the culture of their birth and the national way of life. Unlike the Jews, however, Roma have no new homeland to turn to, no political muscle, and no financial clout. Intellectuals such as Ian Hancock, nevertheless, argue that integration rather than assimilation is the way forward; that Roma can become part of society without surrendering their separate identity. An idealistic vision perhaps and one which, if it is to become reality, will require a great deal of tolerance, work and understanding on both sides.

Who are the Roma?

Non-Gypsies, known as Gorgio or Gadje by Roma, usually identify the Roma by their nomadic traditions and marginal lifestyle rather than as a distinct ethnic group. The majority of Roma however, particularly in east Europe, now lead settled lives. Roma share a common biological and cultural heritage; and many speak, or spoke, a form of Romani, an Indo-European language, or a dialect of the local language with extensive Romani borrowings.

The early history of the Roma is unclear, although comparisons between the Romani language and Indian dialects suggest that they left their homeland in northwest India in a series of migrations, moving westwards through Iran and Asia Minor, sometime before the 9th century. By the 14th century they were well established in the Balkans, which have remained their heartland. The total European population is variously estimated at between eight and 12 million, with around 12,600 families in England and Wales.

After their arrival in Europe, tolerance of the Roma soon turned to antagonism as successive countries passed anti-Gypsy legislation. Despite such suppression Europe's Gypsies fulfilled valuable economic roles in medieval and early-modern societies. They were also hired as soldiers by feudal lords. Their lifestyle influenced national folk culture, particularly popular music, dance and storytelling, in countries as distant as Russia, Spain and Scotland. One Roma legend refers to their descent from the Pharaohs, or Egyptians, a story which probably gave them the name `Gypsies'. Roma live in a world largely closed to outsiders such that there is little socialisation between Roma and Gorgio. According to Ian Hancock, Professor of Romany Studies at the University of Texas, Roma culture is exclusive and retains many Asian, particularly Indian, characteristics. Close contact with non-Gypsies is seen as potentially `polluting', a concept that may derive from their Hindu origins.

Rough justice

Bronislaw Huczko proudly points to a model of a horse-drawn Gypsy caravan. "I paid only three pounds," he says, raising three fingers in case his heavy Polish accent should mask his words. On the wall of this west London council flat, above the model, is a torn black and white photo of a young woman. The photo was taken in Galicia, Southern Poland, in the early 60s. It is of Bronislaw's wife, Zofia, posing in front of the family's wooden caravan -- her home along with 11 other members of the family.

The Huczko's came to London in 1995 after their home in Poland was petrol-bombed by skinheads. Last year Reuters reported that 71 per cent of Poles professed a dislike of Roma. There are roughly 30,000 Roma living in Poland.

Several hundred Polish Roma are currently seeking asylum in the UK, all with similar stories of deeply embedded ethnic discrimination in Polish education, employment and politics. In the last ten years the situation has worsened as Poland has become a major transit point on the illegal `Gypsy' migration route from Romania to Germany. The plight of the Polish Roma was overshadowed by the arrival of much larger numbers of Czech and Slovak Roma asylum seekers in Dover, in June 1998.

Minority rights organisations are concerned that Poland, now on the fast track to EU membership, has made no provision for Roma within its future plans. In short, they accuse the authorities of being involved in a millennium spring clean -- applying a fresh lick of paint to Poland's' international image and sweeping the Roma issue under the carpet.

Zofia's account of persecution is brutal and shocking, but it is only when she talks about the government that a note of anger enters her voice. "Why don't they protect us? Why don't they investigate our problems? Why don't they imprison the people who attack us?"

In the UK, Roma from central and Eastern Europe have their initial applications for asylum refused point-blank. They are defined as being `economic migrants'. In January 1999, Mike O'Brien MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, neatly summed-up the government's line towards Roma: "The asylum system is for the persecuted, not the poor ..."

The Huczko's have appealed against the Home Office's decision and are awaiting a final verdict. There is a strong likelihood that the Huczko's, their daughters, sons-in-law, and their grandchildren will all be sent back to Poland. "I am scared to go back," says Zofia, "I have had enough of this hidden life in Poland. I would rather die than be deported."

The Home Office maintains that anti-Roma sentiment in Poland is not institutionalised, but is held by a few individuals. Zofia, who is 48, was born in Galicia. She scoffs at the Home Office's claims. "When I was 13 there was a change in the government -- they started to force us to settle. At first we were harassed by the police, who tried to drive us away from our homes in the forest. They said we might set fire to it. What a joke -- a Gypsy setting fire to the forest. The forest fed us -- we knew exactly how to look after it. It was just an excuse to move us on."

It was during this period that the `special' schools were introduced. Still functioning today, these schools were originally set up for Polish children with learning disabilities. However, they soon comprised, for the most part, Roma children who were denied access to mainstream education. Subsequently many Roma refused to send their children to school. The outcome of this educational vacuum is low-paid, menial work. It has also created difficulties in furthering their cause effectively -- be it in the courts or through bureaucratic channels.

Zofia's family were lucky. Her father fought in the Polish army and had been issued identity papers which most Roma lacked, and in the mid-60s he was allotted a small plot of land in a village, not far from Gdansk. He was a successful horse-trader and the family became quite well off. Locals started to resent their wealth, and threats, burglary and physical intimidation led the family to sell the farm.

"It was a stigma to be a Roma" says Zofia, "People spat at us in the street and called us `Gypo'. The police would raid our flats. I was at the police station three or four times a week. They would strip search us and take our fingerprints. We had this feeling that we were not allowed to communicate with people. Everyone was constantly showing us that they hated and rejected us."

Zofia married Bronislaw and moved to Slupsk, a large industrial town in northwest of Poland. One night, in the late 70s, a large group of people broke into Zofia's apartment while Bronislaw was away. Terrified, she threw herself from the first floor apartment window, breaking her spine in two places. Ten years later a group of skinheads armed with chains and baseball bats broke into the flat and left her with a broken leg and concussion. The police made no inquiries into either incident.

The Huczko's were finally forced to leave Slupsk in 1995 after their home was firebombed. Ania, Zofia's daughter remembers, "There were two police cars, and people were begging for protection. The police just said: "We can't do anything for you anymore, you've got to go."

The family went to stay with a cousin in central Poland but found the situation to be no different. That same year Bronislaw and his family left their country for the UK. On arrival they were immediately categorised as being economic, and not political immigrants.

Under the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, an asylum seeker must have left their country owing to a `well founded fear of persecution for reasons of race or religion', and be unable to rely on the authorities for protection.

Bronislaw's efforts to lay evidence before the Home Office have been fruitless. He says in an exasperated tone: "I don't know what documents they want. We are showing pictures, life stories, newspaper articles, and it is still not enough. Must we come with our children dead and mutilated to prove what is happening to us?"

You can contact the Romany Support Group at: PO Box 23610, London E7 0XB
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Title Annotation:Gypsies in Eastern Europe
Author:Hellier, Chris; Walsh, Chris
Geographic Code:4E0EE
Date:Dec 1, 2000
Previous Article:Friends in high places.
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