- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 19, 2005


If the European Union has its way, the Roma (also called Gypsies) will eventually emerge from their shantytowns and makeshift camps and shed the shackles of centuries-old dis- crimination.

Although that day may be distant, Europe’s conscience has become aware of the plight of the Continent’s most deprived minority.

To some, they represent the swarthy violinists in dimly lit nightclubs. But across Eastern Europe, misbehaving children often are warned “you’ll be given to the Gypsies” — those beggars and petty thieves who travel from town to town in horse-drawn caravans and live in deep poverty.

In Bulgaria, the average Gypsy without a permanent residence is believed to live on less than $4 a day.

No one knows their exact number, but the Roma population is estimated to be between 12 million and 15 million — historical targets of persecution, hostility and pogroms. An estimated 500,000 of them died in Nazi World War II extermination camps.

Prompted by the European Union and the World Bank, seven Central and East European countries where the Roma form sizeable communities have agreed to work together over the next decade to ease their path to a normal life.

These countries — Hungary, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Serbia-Montenegro — intend to “abolish discrimination and bridge the abyss separating the Roma from the rest of the population.”

The goal is daunting, considering the thousand years during which the Roma lived under “oppression, slavery and persecution,” says Claude Cahn, executive director of the European Roma Rights Center.

Following temporary resettlement that eased their lot somewhat under communism, the collapse of the Soviet Bloc created a situation in which “the Roma bore the brunt of a rise in racism and racist violence,” Mr. Cahn said.


Except for Germany’s atonement for its Nazi atrocities, few countries admit their mistreatment of the Roma.

Many Europeans were surprised when, on Jan. 27, under dense snow falling on the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp complex, Romani Rose, a German Roma, addressed shivering dignitaries and survivors marking the 60th anniversary of the camp’s liberation.

He thanked German President Horst Kohler, who silently attended, for inviting him to speak and honor the 23,000 Roma killed in the Birkenau gas chambers.

Under Nazi Germany’s racial laws, the Roma were considered “subhuman” and what the Nazis called “Zigeunerplage” — the “Gypsy plague” — was part of the mass extermination program aimed mainly at Jews.

Although the Roma were hunted down for extermination in such countries as Romania, Hungary and Slovakia, which fought on the German side, only Germany admitted, in 1991, that it had tried to eliminate the Gypsies.

Permanent migration

Today, increasing numbers of historians analyze the thousand-year history of the Roma after they left the Indian subcontinent for a roaming life in Europe, which treated them as unwanted nomads who should be avoided.

European society, wrote Jean-Marc Turine in the liberal French daily Le Monde, should finally remedy the “evildoing that turned entire families into permanent migrants, haunting our streets, the metro stations in the cities, camping in insalubrious areas without hygiene, often to escape harassment, crime and threats.”

For many years, most Europeans believed the Roma “loved their roaming life,” and preferred their separate existence of unwanted travelers. Such a belief is being gradually dissipated by the few Roma intellectuals who have successfully entered mainstream society.

The assimilation of the Roma is bound to take long, and many observers doubt that the 10- year effort proposed by Central and East European countries will be enough. The lack of accurate statistics on the Roma is because many assimilated Roma are embarrassed to admit their origins.

Gypsies widely shunned

In many European countries, the term “Gypsy” is mostly derogatory. Many people shun the Gypsies, believing that they live mainly from theft. In Hungary, many Roma children who go to school are put in separate classes.

According to figures published by the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe, the largest concentrations of Roma are in Romania (between 1.5 million and 2.5 million), Hungary (600,000 to 800,000), Bulgaria (750,000) and Slovakia (between 350,000 and 500,000).

During their travels, the Roma have reached almost every European country, rarely settling permanently, often because of laws restricting their movement and settlement.

According to some accounts, the Roma were the targets of medieval persecution in Western Europe and were reduced to slavery in Eastern Europe, but their tragedy climaxed with the Nazi conquest of most of Europe in World War II. For example, travel of the Roma was banned in France in April 1940 — before the German conquest.

In October 1940, the German authorities ordered the internment of all Roma in the occupied zone of France. Gradually anti-Roma laws were imposed in all Nazi-occupied countries.

Forced settlements

The postwar Communist regimes in Eastern Europe had no official racial policies, but tried to regiment the Roma and force them into permanent settlements despite the general hostility of local populations. Such policies collapsed when communism disintegrated, but the fate of the Roma apparently worsened.

The halfhearted assimilation policies, one analysis in France concludes, “have destroyed Roma culture, crafts and the way of life, leaving a confused and divided people.”

According to Mr. Cahn of the Roma Rights Center, after the fall of communism in the early 1990s, “a wave of pogroms broke out in Romania, with more than 30 Roma communities subjected to expulsion, arson and killing. Similar episodes took place in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine and the former Yugoslavia.”

Mr. Cahn cited the testimony of “a Romani man in a refugee camp in Debrecen, Hungary,” who said that when Bosnian Serb forces overran eastern Bosnia in April 1992, “the whole Romani community of Zvornik was slaughtered. Our houses were destroyed.”

He claims “when Roma fall victim to racist violence, European criminal-justice systems often fail to provide adequate remedy … Today Roma are subjected to discrimination all over Europe.”

Uneducated, jobless

The main results of the prevailing European attitude toward the Roma are their overwhelming feeling of rejection and isolation, unemployment and lack of education.

A report of the European Commission in Brussels predicts that their communities in various EU member countries are likely to grow “because of the galloping demography.”

On the basis of sketchy statistics, the European Union estimates that when the union expanded to 25 members last May, its Roma population increased by at least half a million. Bulgaria and Romania are expected to join in 2007, and another 2 million to 3 million Roma will be added to Europe’s “largest and poorest minority.”

Writing in the authoritative Le Figaro daily in Paris, Ariel Therdel postulates that “racism toward the Roma is not specific to East European societies, but it is there that it is perhaps most visible.”

Today, the deplorable living conditions of Gypsies constitutes a major headache for the European Union, especially because of the lack of a uniform policy on assimilation of that community.” Though an estimated 80 percent of the Roma in East and Central European countries are said to be unemployed, that figure does not include what is known as “black labor,” informal odd jobs the Roma perform when they can — below standard wages and without social guarantees.

Equally impoverished is their schooling. A study by the United Nations Development Program found that only 37 percent of the Roma completed elementary school, 6 percent finished high school and only one percent attend college.

The Roma have their own language, Romani, and cling to it in a stubbornly defensive way. Although they claim to be a nation, their ambitions are not territorial but focus on the recognition of their social and economic rights.

Today in several countries, they have their specific political parties, lobbies and associations. Nonetheless, the European Commission estimates “massive resources are needed to achieve impact” on the plight of the Roma.

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