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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 May, 2003, 09:56 GMT 10:56 UK
Slovakia's beleaguered Gypsies

By Catherine Miller
BBC, Slovakia

When the bell rings at the junior school in the eastern Slovakian village of Zboronovce, the Gypsy, or Roma, children go one way, the whites the other.

"I would like to be there, because they learn better than here," says Kalo, a 15-year-old Roma boy, pointing to the spruce modern building on the other side of the school yard.

Kalo - Roma school pupil
Kalo would prefer to study with the "white" pupils
Like almost all his Roma fellow pupils, he attends classes for the mentally subnormal, housed in a cramped building, in the run-down part of the school.

"The whites think gypsies stink, they tell us we are dirty... we call them names and the whites call the blacks names, everyone hates each other," he says.

Only four of the more than 200 Roma pupils in Zboronovce have passed the psychological assessment that opens the doors to the "normal" school. For most, their hotch-potch patois of Romany and Slovak means they fall foul of the language test. It's a pattern that is repeated across Slovakia.

The headteacher blames their poor performance on "mental and social backwardness" and the poor conditions in the settlement where they live - set half a kilometre down the hill from the village proper.

'Declared will'

When you ring up a company for subcontracting work they say Yes - but when I come to the site and they see I am dark they say No
Roma businessman
Walking home with Kalo from school, the contrast from the village's neat cottages and carefully-tended gardens is stark - children run naked through the settlement's rubbish-strewn streets, or scrape around in the muddy river. Housing is a mixture of socialist-built blocks run to seed with a tacked-on shanty town. Unemployment is 100%.

These are not scenes the European Union wants to see, just a year before Slovakia, along with nine other mainly eastern European countries, becomes a member state. Brussels has been exerting pressure on Bratislava to improve things as it negotiated its way into the union, but the results have been largely theoretical.

Roma children fetch water from the well
Children are often seen naked in the Roma settlement
"Formally, there is a declared will to tackle the issue. Formally, the government has agreed a strategy," says Klara Orgovanova, the government co-ordinator for Roma affairs - a post set up at Brussels' behest.

"But in reality few things have happened, and only slowly... no- one wants to see the long way ahead and no-one wants to do it themselves - everyone wants it to be done by someone else."

The EU has allocated 16.6m euros in the past three years to help the Slovak Roma. But the 1.2m euros set aside for an infrastructure project in Zboronovce have still not made their way onto the ground.

Asylum claims

The village mayor blames the delay on a land dispute which has prevented her purchasing the necessary plot. But local Roma activists say the real reason for the hold-up is that the mayor fears a flagship project could attract more Roma to her doorstep.

Marek encounters rampant discrimination because he is "dark"
Europe's agenda in throwing money the Roma's way is not entirely altruistic. Recent years saw thousands of Roma try, largely unsuccessfully, to claim asylum in EU member states. Brussels knows that once the borders open, many of the half million Slovak Roma will want to head west.

Marek lives in a picture-book village near the High Tatras mountains. There, Roma and whites live side by side and share a similar lifestyle and aspirations. He has applied for asylum in both Spain and Finland and says he cannot run his construction firm because of the rampant discrimination he encounters.

"When you ring up a company for subcontracting work they say Yes. But when I come to the site and they see I am dark they say No".

"I would like to leave because I don't see Slovakia providing the same conditions (as western countries) in the next year or two and I don't see the Slovaks suddenly changing their mentality or their policy towards us after they join the EU".

Ghetto trap

Brussels has no power to change the deep-rooted prejudices of the Slovak population. But once Slovakia joins the European club, Bratislava will be expected to play by the rules on minorities and equal rights.

Marek has the wherewithal to seize the opportunity the EU offers him and make a life elsewhere for his family.

But Kalo and thousands like him, trapped by poverty and isolation in the ghettos and settlements, will be left behind. They can only hope that Brussels will keep the pressure on to send some of the EU's benefits their way.

The names of the village and the Roma people living there have been changed to protect their identities.

Sue Lloyd-Roberts' and Catherine Miller's film on Slovak Roma will be broadcast on Newsnight, Wednesday 14th May at 2230.

UN warns of Roma plight
16 Jan 03  |  Europe
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29 Nov 02  |  Business
Country profile: Slovakia
22 Mar 03  |  Country profiles

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