12 May 2005 Edition

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Roma and Travellers face discrimination across Europe - Damning Council of Europe report cites government inaction

On 4 May, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, Alvaro Gil-Robles, published his preliminary report on the human rights situation of the Roma and Travellers of Europe. The report is damning of the treatment that Travellers and Roma receive all over Europe, and Ireland is reprimanded for the discriminatory treatment of the Traveller Community.

The report also shows how government inaction to clamp down on racist violence against Roma communities has forced many Roma individuals from some Central and Eastern European countries to seek asylum in other countries.

The European Roma Rights Centre reports that on 18 March 2003 the General Commissioner for Refugees in Belgium granted asylum to the family of a Roma woman from Slovakia who had been beaten to death by skinheads in August 2000. Following her death and the sentencing of the perpetrators, the family members had been the target of threats and assaults by other skinheads.

Violent attacks

Similar increasing situations of violence have been reported in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, including reports of excessive action by the police against the Roma community. Despite all this, when Roma try to find security and safety in other European countries, they find that several European countries, particularly member states of the European Union, have introduced measures limiting access to asylum procedures justifying them with the need to end the perceived abuse of the asylum system by those who are not in need of international protection. Experience has shown that these measures — such as the concepts of safe countries and manifestly unfounded claims — carry a risk of denying genuine asylum-seekers their right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution.

Roma and Travellers — who number eight to ten million people over Europe and make up up to 5% of the population of some Eastern European countries are still suffering from discrimination and victimisation patterns all over Europe. They are not recognised by the majority society as a fully-fledged European people. In Ireland, Justice Minister Michael McDowell refuses to recognise Travellers as an ethnic group as a way to deny them further rights and protections associated with this denomination.

History of oppression

Roma people have suffered throughout their history in Europe from rejection and persecution, culminating in the Nazi attempt to exterminate them — estimates of the number of Roma victims of the Holocaust vary between 250,000 and one-and-a-half million people.

As a result of centuries of rejection, many Roma and Traveller Communities today live in very difficult conditions, often on the fringe of society in the countries where they live, and their participation in public life is very limited. It is also very difficult for them to ensure that their contribution to European culture is fully acknowledged.

Dire living conditions

In 1993, the European Council decided to put the Roma and Traveller issue at the heart of three of the Council's top priorities: and in 1995, the Committee of Ministers set up a Specialist Group on Roma, Gypsy and Traveller issues.

To produce this report, Gil Robles travelled throughout Europe and witnessed the dire conditions Roma have to suffer in the hands of their governments. In Bulgaria, he visited Faculteta, a Roma/Gypsy district in Sofia, "where many people lived in makeshift dwellings fabricated from recycled materials such as cardboard and pieces of wood and without drinking water, electricity or sanitary fittings. Living under such conditions was particularly dire in the winter time, with temperatures falling well below zero".

In Budapest's District VIII, Hungary, he found that many Roma/Gypsy families were "homeless or lived in run-down and unsanitary housing with practically no amenities, but according to various sources, this was not even the city's most dilapidated".

In Romania, in the Bucharest district of Ferentari mainly inhabited by Roma, "heating and hot-water supplies had been cut off in a number of apartments, which had forced the inhabitants to rig up dangerous electrical connections. The apartment blocks were in a deplorable condition, with sizable families often occupying only one or two rooms. There was no waste management system in place, which constituted a serious public health problem".

In Slovakia, this situation seems to be endemic, as when in September 2003, a team from the Commissioner's Office visited a Roma settlement near Sborov in the eastern part of the country, where people lived mainly in shacks made of recycled materials with no access to basic infrastructure such as running water, electricity or transportation. The inhabitants confirmed that people have been living there for more than a hundred years. Similar conditions were noted in Greece. It is noticeable that all these countries are member states or candidates for membership of the EU.

This problem is compounded by the reluctance of local authorities to improve the living conditions of the Roma. Even if a housing strategy with the necessary funds was in place to improve the living conditions in Roma settlements, the local authorities at times failed to apply for such funds, or even refused funds offered by the state.

Ireland cited

This is also the situation in Ireland, where local authorities are responsible for providing proper halting facilities to Travellers, which many have not done, but the same councillors and council officials are quick to call for evictions of Travellers when they camp "illegally" on public grounds. Such reluctance was often explained by pressure and resistance from the local population against the settlement of Roma and/or Travellers in their neighbourhoods.

In its Opinion on Ireland, the Advisory Committee for the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) has expressed serious concern about the accommodation situation of Travellers and the slow progress in meeting targets for providing additional accommodation, including halting sites, as well as the standard of accommodation at the disposal of Travellers.

Barriers to improvement

The ECRI also noted that "one of the main barriers to improvement of the situation as regards accommodation is reported to be the unwillingness of local authorities to provide accommodation and resistance and hostility among local communities to planned developments, often resulting in injunctions and court cases".

Living in run-down settlements isolated from the rest of the population does not only jeopardise the right to adequate standards of living and the right to health care, but it also negatively affects the realisation of a number of other rights. For instance, the lack of transport facilities often means that children cannot attend schools and adults find it difficult to access employment outside settlements. Moreover, living in a segregated settlement significantly diminishes the possibility of taking part in economic, social and political activities of society.

By way of example, last year it was reported that children living in the Spata Roma community in Greece were unable to attend school for three years because the distance from the municipality made it impossible for the Roma children to reach school due to lack of transportation.

Another grave concern is segregation in education, which, in one form or another, is a common feature in many Council of Europe member states. In some countries, there are segregated schools in segregated settlements; in others, special classes for Roma children in ordinary schools or a clear over-representation of Roma children in classes for children with special needs.

In almost all the countries Gil Robles visited, Roma children were faced with these problems in one way or another. In Hungary, about 70% of the pupils in "C" classes — which received children from underprivileged backgrounds and the academic level of which was lower than in regular classes — were said to be Roma children, who will be following a simplified curriculum without experienced teachers in poor facilities.

In Slovakia, 80% of Roma children were placed in specialised institutions and only 3% got as far as secondary school, while only 8% enrolled in secondary technical school.

In the Czech Republic, young members of the Roma/Gypsy community were drastically over-represented in "special" schools and classes for children with a slight mental disability.

Signs of hope

However, there is hope. In Croatia the government has initiated a two-year programme to prepare all Roma children for schools, under which children were taught various skills in the Croatian language.

In Bulgaria, the Ministry of Education and Science issued in 2002 an instruction for the integration of minority pupils, while preserving their ethnic identity with the aim of overcoming problems violating the principle of equal access to quality education and fostering the successful socialisation of young people from different ethnic minority communities.

In Hungary, an amendment in 2003 to the Law on Education introduced a ban on segregation in schooling. The European Roma Rights Centre has reported on an initiative in Hungary, where schools must integrate at least 10 percent of disadvantaged pupils from segregated classes every year or risk losing eligibility for special grants.

"It is of paramount importance that schools assume their responsibilities in promoting tolerance and respect for others. Hostility towards any group of children at school must not go unattended, and special emphasis must be placed upon teachers," advises Roble's report.

No Roma need apply

The high unemployment rates affecting many Roma and Traveller communities is associated with a range of factors, including the impact of economic transition in European countries. In central and eastern Europe, Roma were often the first to be laid off from state-owned enterprises at the outset of restructuring. In most European countries, the disappearance of traditional Roma and Traveller occupations, as well as residential segregation, have resulted in social exclusion. In addition, unequal access to education puts many Roma at a serious disadvantage in the labour market, indicating long-term impacts of discrimination in education.

In Romania in 2002, Gil Robles learned that the local newspapers published job advertisements stating that 'no Roma need apply'. In Slovenia, a Roma woman told him that "when attempting to look for work through a municipal employment office, she was turned away, since 'no employment for the Roma would be available'".

Health disparities

In many countries, health indicators such as life expectancy, child mortality, rate of infection and chronic diseases among Roma/Traveller communities indicate drastic differences compared with the health statistics for the majority populations. For instance in Bulgaria, infant mortality rate for Roma children was 240 per 1,000, compared to the national average of 40, while in Romania, the total rate of infant mortality by 1,000 live births was 28.8 for ethnic Romanians and 80 for ethnic Roma

According to Gil Robles: "When visiting Romania, some Roma families informed me that hospitals had refused to treat their sick children, who had only been admitted to the emergency department when their condition had significantly deteriorated. Most of these irregularities appeared to be due to the fact that Roma did not have the identity documents required for access to health care."

In addition to this type of bureaucratic obstacle, discriminatory attitudes of health care professionals appear to be a common cause for non-access to health services. A recent report on Roma women's access to health care indicated several instances where Roma patients had been refused medical care or treatment. It was also reported that health officials frequently tell Roma calling for emergency health services to call the police instead.

The situation is even worse when it comes to gender discrimination, with allegations of forced or coerced sterilisations of Roma women and girls in some member states.

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