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Last Updated: Friday, 14 May, 2004, 17:26 GMT 18:26 UK
EU regrets envoy's Roma comment
By Oana Lungescu
BBC correspondent in Brussels

The European Commission has said it regretted comments by its representative in Slovakia, who suggested that Roma (Gypsy) children should be taken away from their families during the week and put into boarding schools to ensure their education.

But the commission did not indicate that the ambassador, Eric Van der Linden, would be removed from office, despite calls for his resignation from European campaigners for Roma rights.

Roma child in Slovakia
Many Roma are unemployed as a result of poor education
The EU has been spending considerable amounts of money to improve the lot of millions of Roma Gypsies in central and eastern Europe, many of whom are unemployed as a result of poor education.

As Slovakia and nine other countries joined the EU on 1 May, ambassador Eric Van der Linden gave an interview to Dutch television where he described poor education as the root cause of poverty for the Roma community.

"It may sound simplistic, but we may have to, I'll say it in quotation marks, force Roma children to stay in a kind of boarding schools from Monday morning until Friday afternoon, where they will continuously be subjected to a system of values that is dominant in our society," he said.

Mr Van der Linden suggested that Roma parents may agree to send their children away if they got financial incentives. He had made similar comments in a BBC interview earlier this year.

It is believed that Roma represent up to 10% of Slovakia's 5.5 million people. In some parts of the country, unemployment among the Roma is 100%.

The European Union has funded many housing and educational projects for the community and there is no suggestion that Mr Van den Linden's views have in any way influenced that policy.

'Ridiculous'

But the European Roma Information Office (ERIO) has complained about Mr Van den Linden's latest comments.

Reijo Kemppinen, the chief spokesman for the commission, described the comments as regrettable, but indicated that the ambassador would not face any serious reprimand.

If you go to school, the other children make fun of you because you stink. Of course you stink, you don't have running water at home and you live on a garbage dump. You always stink
Valeriu Nicolae
Roma rights spokesman
"We have agreed that he will no longer give interviews on this topic and our line is well known," he said.

"We work together with the Roma community and the national authorities to improve the living conditions for Roma children and their families.

"Our policy has nothing to do and will never have anything to do with forcing anyone, either the children or their parents, to leave their homes to go to boarding schools.

"That was an unfortunate choice of words in an interview that otherwise was quite good and talked about the important things that we are engaged in in this respect."

A spokesman for ERIO, Valeriu Nicolae, told the BBC the European Commission's reaction was "totally ridiculous".

"If that were to happen with any other European nation, it would cause a huge diplomatic scandal," he said.

No easy solution

But he admitted the European Commission had probably done more than any other institution to improve the plight of Roma in Europe and to ensure the respect of their rights.

I asked Mr Nicolae what his solution was to the lack of education for Roma children, recently identified by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as one of the biggest obstacles facing the community.

He agreed there was no easy way out, explaining the difficulties in his Romanian hometown, Craiova, in the south of the country.

"There are lots of people living on the garbage dump. For those guys, it's very hard to go to school. Why? If you go to school, the other children make fun of you because you stink," the Roma rights spokesman said.

"Of course you stink, you don't have running water at home and you live on a garbage dump. You always stink.

"Second, when you go to school, everybody thinks you're a thief. So as long as this poverty - and the UNDP report you were quoting says that that over 80% of Roma live under the poverty line - that it is the minority with the worst situation in Europe when we talk about poverty.

"The UNDP also says that one out of six of Roma faces regular starvation. As long as this is not solved, it's very hard to have this paternalistic talk."

Anti-Roma sentiment is by no means restricted to eastern Europe, as the recent media campaigns in the British press against Slovak Gypsies have shown.

The expansion of the EU may lead to a rise in racist sentiment, but it may also concentrate minds on looking for more imaginative solutions for what will soon be the EU's biggest ethnic minority.




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