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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Marginalisés, les Roma font entendre leurs voix

by Anne Roy, special correspondent, Strasbourg

Europe: Despite their Marginalization, the Roma are Making their Voices Heard

Translated Saturday 25 November 2006, by Patrick Bolland

Discrimination. Meeting at the Council of Europe, the “European Roma and Traveler Forum” (ERTF) has brought to light the dramatic situation of the Roma, particularly in Kosovo.

“In Switzerland, we have the right of passage, but not to stop”. “In Turkey, the people laugh at us as unclean and uneducated. We are often arrested and beaten up, but nobody knows about it, because we are afraid to speak out.” “For the first time in our history, in England, there is a government that listens to us and respects our choice to either remain nomadic, or to become sedentary”. During three days, at a meeting of the plenary assembly, at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, representatives of Roma NGOs from 40 countries gave a progress report on the situation which prevails in each country where they live.

No country of origin to defend them

The idea, underlying the “European Roma and Traveller Forum” (ERTF) when it was created a year ago (1) was to compare the diverse experiences, problems and issues of discrimination suffered - on different scales - by each Rom community, and, especially, to forge unity among the 47 millions Roma who live in Europe, to gain political recognition where they live and within European institutions. Present in all countries of Europe, and everywhere a minority, the Roma do not have a “country of origin”, which could apply pressure on their behalf, to defend their constantly-abused rights.

Systematic harrassment

Everywhere, the stories are similar: hard to find spaces for parking their caravans, exclusion from health care, discrimination in schooling and finding steady work, endemic unemployment, problems in finding lodging for those that have become sedentary, increasingly hard to cross borders, and racism.

Some situations are even more alarming. In Slovakia, for example, several hundred women have been sterilized without their consent when giving birth. At the request of many NGOs, among them Amnesty International, in 2003 the Slovak Office of Human Rights and Minorities lodged a formal complaint.

Another assault against the Roma, at the end of October in Slovenia: 30 had to be placed in a refugee camp after the population of a village where they lived threatened to beat them up, during a meeting that was transmitted on television. In 1993, in a similar event in Romania, 13 of their houses had been burned and 3 people killed.

Again, in most countries of the ex-Soviet Union, the Romas, number 2 to 3 million, were the most exposed to the economic crisis the country was suffering during the “transition”. “Under the communist regime, the Roma were forcefully assimilated, obliged to work, but in the end were part of the welfare state. Now their needs and aspirations have been completely put aside by the government”, explains Costel Vassile of the NGO “Forromenque Federation” and ERTF delegate, who notes a slight improvement in the status of the Roma after Eastern and Central European nations negotiated to become part of the European Community.

For Costel Vassile, the new Europe is the only chance for the Roma to survive. “But it’ll take a long time and it’s going to be hard”, he adds. “Europe is providing the means, but I hope the projects will actually help the Roma”. Another fear: even more unemployment. « There aren’t any jobs, and there’ll be even less – I worry that the Roma will be excluded from any jobs requiring qualifications.

The first victims when crises break out, the Roma, encounter frightening difficulties in conflict zones. The situation in Kosovo is particularly worrying to NGOs. “Everyone knows that there was a war in Kosovo, but nobody knows the situation there today for the Roma”, regrets Bashkim Ibishi, Kosovo ERTF delegate. Nobody knows, for example that they are persecuted by the Albanians who see them as collaborators of the Serbs.

Massive exodus from Kosovo

Bashkim Ibishi is very worried: “Before the war, there were more than 200,000 Roma living in Kosovo, where they were well integrated. They are only 35,000 today. Those who had relatives in the West went there as refugees. Today, in France and Germany, governments want to expel the Roma who came from Kosovo back to their country. But since 1999, little has changed in terms of human rights”. The Roma who were placed in refugee camps inside Kosovo still live in the camps. For some, because they are unable to move elsewhere, for others, because their homes are have been taken over by other people. They face discrimination …. even with the presence of so many international organizations”. Today, the Roma minority of Kosovo is excluded from negotiations on the status of the region, as they had been from the Daytona agreement in Bosnia, they cannot be elected Bosnia And Herzegovina “House Of Peoples” (3) because they are not considered one of the population groups which make up Kosovo.

[Translators’s notes]

(1) The group has set up a web-site. For more information, see www.ertf.org (still under construction in November 2006)

(2) Who are the Roma? The Roma People (singular Rom), often disparagingly referred to as Gypsies or Gipsies, are a diverse ethnic group who live primarily in Southern and Eastern Europe, Western Asia, Latin America, the southern part of the United States and the Middle East. They are believed to have originated mostly from the Punjab and Rajasthan regions of India. They began their migration to Europe and North Africa via the Iranian plateau around 1050. (principal source: Wikipedia)

(3) The House Of Peoples of Bosnia And Herzegovina is one of the two chambers of the Parliamentary Assembly of Bosnia and Herzegovina, with the other chamber being the House of Representatives of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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