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European Roma Living Conditions Akin To Africa's Worst

by Sanjay Suri

Little Attention Given to Persecution of Gypsies
(IPS) LONDON -- Up to five million Roma people live in conditions "closer to those of sub-Saharan Africa than to Europe," says a study by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

The survey on the Roma -- a word used loosely to describe people some of whom migrated to Europe from what is now north-west India and Pakistan between 1000 and 2000 years ago -- shows that one out of every two Roma in the countries surveyed, goes hungry at least a few days every year. One out of six is "constantly starving."

The survey covers the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania, all of them in line for EU (European Union) membership. These five countries are estimated to have a population of four to five million Roma. The usual estimate for the Roma population for all of Europe is around eight million.

"When we speak of sub-Saharan conditions, in some respects it is a metaphor but in some aspects it is very real," lead author of the UNDP report Andrey Ivanov told IPS. The human development index used for the report 'Avoiding the Dependency Trap' looks at income, education levels and health status, Ivanov said.

"Health in Roma communities sharply deteriorated in the last decade," the report says. Infant mortality was found on average to be "frighteningly high" at three times higher than the national average. In Romania the average life expectancy among the Roma is between 63 and 64 years, compared to the national average of close to 70.

This is the first quantitative report on Roma in the five countries, based on 5.034 individual questionnaires. It shows that only 20 percent of Roma are formally employed, with unemployment ranging from 64 per cent in Slovakia to 24 percent in Romania. In all the countries but the Czech Republic, more than half the family income is spent on food purchases. The Roma per capita GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is estimated to be a third of the national average.

The report says that a third of Roma failed to complete primary education, and more than two-thirds did not complete secondary education. In all five countries Roma children outnumbered others in schools for the mentally retarded. If these trends continue, the Roma could become unemployable in 10 to 15 years, the report says.

The study says more Roma children should be brought into pre-school education and taught the majority language. It suggests free or subsidized text books and hot meals to attract Roma children to school.

The report also proposes a 'United Roma College Fund' to improve access to higher education. It contains a string of recommendations also to improve health and employment. Whether these recommendations will lead to results is another matter.

"I am not particularly optimistic about individual countries engaging in efforts suggested by the UNDP," Eben Friedman, research associate with the European Center for Minority Issues told IPS.

"Such recommendations have been made before in the context of single countries," he said. "Resources would certainly be a limiting factor, but there is also a simple lack of will."

Macedonia with its limited resources has gone further than the other countries in addressing the problem, Friedman said. But the five countries covered in the report will have to face up to the problem because "the success of the integration of some of these countries into the EU will depend on the successful integration of Roma within these countries," he said.

The Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia are due to join the EU in 2004, and Bulgaria and Romania in 2007.

"If efforts are not made now, there could be a movement from the new member states into other countries after 2004," Friedman said. "That would probably increase hostility against the Roma, and lead to a backlash against the new member countries."

But few are looking at any early breakthrough. "We have to be realistic," said Ivanov. "We cannot expect major changes in the short term. What we need is a new conceptual framework which is not just about increased funds but how these funds are utilized."

The report says the human rights of the Roma will depend on their human development. "Development has been missing from Roma policies so far," Ivanov said. "Their human rights cannot be fulfilled unless there is a legal framework supported by measures on employment, health and education."

The survey finds that almost eight out of ten Roma consider "respect for human rights" to mean "finding a job" and living free from hunger.

The survey shows that 61 percent of Roma voted in the last general elections, but that 86 percent think their interests are not well represented at the national level, and 76 percent think that they are not well represented at the local community level.

"In a European Union respectful of differences, the Roma should find their place as equal partners that contribute to Europe's extraordinary mosaic of cultures," says Kalman Miszel, UNDP director for Europe who supervised the survey.

Investments made so far have not contributed to a real improvement of the Roma situation, the report says. The survey shows that 79 percent of Roma are not aware of any Roma aid programs, and 91 percent cannot name an NGO (non-governmental organization) they can trust.

The report says that at present 70 percent of Roma live primarily off the state. This makes them "active regarding benefits, limited regarding contributions," the report says. "This asymmetry can further promote exclusion and ethnic intolerance."

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Albion Monitor January 14, 2004 (

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