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 Thursday, 16 January, 2003, 20:39 GMT
UN warns of Roma plight
Gypsy family
UN says European Roma face discrimination

A United Nations report has warned that Roma, or gypsies, in central and eastern Europe endure living conditions closer to those in sub-Saharan Africa than to Europe.

Gypsy children
One in six said they were constantly starving, while one in three Roma children failed to complete elementary school

The report, by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), calls on five countries in the region to do more to tackle poverty and discrimination among the Roma community.

The countries - Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania - are all scheduled to join the European Union.

The Roma are the biggest ethnic minority in central and eastern Europe, estimated at about five million people. They are also the poorest of the poor.

Starvation

The UNDP report says that living conditions for most Roma are closer to countries like Zimbabwe or Botswana.

More than half of those questioned in the survey said they went hungry at least a few days every year.

One in six said they were constantly starving, while one in three Roma children failed to complete elementary school.

But, despite low levels of education and discrimination by employers, the report disputes the staggering rates of unemployment often quoted in the media.

It has been reported that 20% of Roma were formally employed, while another 20% worked in the shadow economy.

But in some countries, up to 70% of Roma households live on state welfare.

Distrust

As Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia prepare to join the EU next year, and Romania and Bulgaria in 2007, many in Europe see this impoverished but fast-growing population as a potential source of crime and illegal immigration.

The report calls for free textbooks and hot meals in schools for Roma children, positive discrimination in local government and more incentives to seek jobs.

The EU has already spent almost $70m to improve the plight of the Roma.

But many of them remain unaware of any aid programme, distrust even their own leaders and refuse to carry national ID cards.

It is also unclear how many Roma actually live in central and eastern Europe, since, according to the report, half of them routinely claim to be part of another ethnic group.

See also:

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