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Friday, 4 October, 2002, 12:15 GMT 13:15 UK
Romania closes door on gypsies
Gypsy family
Gypsies say border guards routinely insult them

Romanian gypsies say it has become almost impossible to leave their own country in the last few weeks because of discrimination by officials on the border.

Romania is near the end of the long queue of countries waiting to join the European Union, but since January Romanian citizens have not needed visas to travel to the Schengen group of countries - a recognition of the progress the country has made.

However, the new freedom has made the government rather nervous about exactly who it lets out, and the gypsy minority - who often travel abroad in search of work - are regarded as a liability.

In Romania, they live in grinding poverty.

Insults

In the village of Dioszeg in Romania's Bihor county, for example, barefoot gypsy children, protected from a cold northerly wind by little more than rags, collect water from a tap, to take home to their families.


At the border the guard insulted us as gypsies, which is very upsetting - we are human beings, and we have feelings too

Jakab, a gypsy
When they asked for pipes to be laid to bring running water to each house, the gypsies say, a local official taunted them that they should drink from the polluted stream that runs through the settlement instead.

A young man, Jakab, smartly dressed in corduroy trousers and jacket, tried to cross the border - legally, with a passport, and the right amount of money to show.

He was turned back, he says, because of his dark skin - he is unmistakably a gypsy.

"I want to earn my bread honestly with the work of my own two hands. As that isn't possible here, sadly I went to work in Hungary," he says.

"At the border the guard insulted us as gypsies, which is very upsetting - we are human beings, we are also flesh and blood and we have feelings too."

Turned back

In the village street everyone tells the same story, of being turned back from the border.

French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy
Sarkozy: Gypsy beggars are unwanted in France
Since January, all Romanian citizens have to show a minimum of $500 for those going to western Europe, and $250 for non EU countries.

Some admit they didn't have enough money. But most say they had all their documents in order - and that they were turned back, just because they were gypsies.

Jakab says that at Bors, the nearest big border crossing, he was told: "Go back to your whoring mother" and his passport thrown on the ground in front of him.

But the deputy commander of the border guard for the three counties of north-west Romania, Lucian Prechici, firmly refutes all allegations of racial discrimination.

"We do not discriminate against anyone on the basis of religious or ethnic background or political preferences. All Romanian citizens are equal before the law," he says.

"If anyone wants to complain they can, but we have not received any complaints."

Extreme example

Many gypsies I spoke to, up and down the border, said that although the new regulations came into force in January, it only became physically impossible to cross the border three weeks ago.


Romania is the most extreme example of a... country attempting to please western European governments by keeping Romanians at home

Claude Cahn, European Roma Rights Centre
That coincides with the visit to Romania of the French Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy.

He came to demand that the Romanian authorities do more to prevent what the French media call gypsy beggars and thieves from reaching France.

But the Romanian Government's efforts to satisfy the French have caused alarm elsewhere.

"Romania looks like the most extreme example of a European Union candidate country attempting to please western European governments by adopting policies that try to keep Romanians at home, and stop them from leaving the country, and again, in particular to keep Romany Romanians at home," says Claude Cahn of the European Roma Rights Centre in Budapest.

Misery

A minibus-driver in Oradea, one of the biggest cities in North-west Romania, who crosses the border to Hungary every night, says he won't even let gypsies on his bus anymore.

There is no point, he says - the border guards are not letting any gypsies across.

Poor agricultural workers in this region earn the equivalent of $60 dollars a month.

For the last decade, they have been able to supplement that by working in Hungary. That opportunity no longer exists.

See also:

23 Jul 02 | Europe
11 Oct 01 | Europe
08 Mar 02 | Country profiles
09 Mar 01 | Media reports
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